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Brazil: Afro-Brazilian Claims to Affirmative Action Denied

Affirmative action, one of the most controversial issues dragging on in the Brazilian congress for most of the first decade of the 21st century, was left out of the Racial Equality Statute passed last June 16th by the senate. The policy, which would implement a mandatory temporary quota system for Afro-Brazilians in universities, jobs and political parties, was rejected together with incentive measures for private companies adopting the system [pt]. According to pro affirmative action groups, the decision to exclude the policy neglects the historical processes leading to the state of socio-racial inequality existent in Brazil today. On the other side of the coin are opponents of affirmative action who speak of reverse discrimination and incitement to racial tensions.

The day before the vote in congress, No Race blog [PT], which presents itself as both anti-racist and against race public policies, published Senator Demóstenes Torres’ justification of his opposition to affirmative action. The Senator, a member of the DEM [PT] (Democrats party) an opposition party to President Lula’s PT, explains that race does not exist and justifies why he removed from the text – but not from the title “Racial Equality Statute” – the terms “race”, “racial” and “ethno-racial”.

O genoma humano é composto de 20 mil genes. As diferenças mais aparentes (cor da pele, textura dos cabelos, formato do nariz) são determinadas por um conjunto de genes insignificantemente pequeno se comparado a todos os genes humanos.

The human genome is composed of 20.000 genes. The most apparent differences (skin color, hair texture, nose shape) are determined by an insignificant small group of genes when compared to all human genes.

Quilombola, Flickr, Galeria de Gabriela Amorim, CC Licensed

Such views disregard the political and historical processes that once used race and scientific racism as an argument for exploitation and colonization. In fact it appears that the issue is older than just the last seven years and wider than the congress. Controvérsia blog [PT] tells an alternative history to the happy ending that abolition often represents in the minds of Brazilians and describes how the Afro-Brazilian struggle for integration and reparations was far stronger than what is generally thought.

O final do século XIX e o início do XX foram marcados por uma batalha pela memória das lutas populares abolicionistas e pelas demandas de integração e cidadania.
Em várias regiões do país surgiram associações, entidades e clubes formados por libertos e pela população negra em geral, pertencentes tanto aos setores literários quanto aos meios operários ou recreativos. O principal apelo organizativo era reunir-se para tratar de assuntos do interesse dos “homens de cor” ou das “classes de cor”. Nessa época, surgiu um vocabulário político próprio dos negros, por meio do qual avaliavam sua inserção na sociedade, suas demandas, seus comportamentos, suas estratégias, suas formas de atuação e suas denúncias e protestos contra a ordem social vigente.

The late 19th century and early 20th century were marked by a memory battle of the popular abolitionist struggles and the demands of integration and citizenship.
Associations, entities and clubs formed by freed slaves and the black population in general, appeared in various regions around the country, both as part of the literary sector and of labour and entertainment circles. The main organizing call were the meetings to discuss matters important to “man of color” or to “classes of color”. At that time, a new black political vocabulary was born, through which they evaluated their integration in society, their demands, their behaviors, their strategies, their actions, their complaints and protests against the established social order.

In Blog da Preta, Jaqueline Lima Santos [PT] also expresses her anger at the state’s neglect of its historical responsibility to respond to the old claims of black Brazilians:

O acordo que possibilitou a aprovação do Estatuto (e que será usado como bandeira no processo eleitoral tanto pelo PT quanto pelo DEM), simplesmente enterrou as reivindicações históricas do povo negro, uma vez que o texto aprovado excluiu as cotas para negros nas universidades, nos partidos e nos serviços públicos; excluiu a garantia do direito a titulação das terras quilombolas; excluiu a defesa e o direito a liberdade de prática das religiões de matriz africanas e não fez referência a necessidade de atenção do Estado ao genocídio cometido pelas polícias que vitimam a juventude negra.

The agreement that allowed the approval of the Statute (and which will be used as a flag in PT’s and DEM’s [PT] electoral process), simply buried the historical demands of the black people, since the approved text excluded the quotas for blacks in the universities, political parties and public services; excluded granting land rights to quilombola communities ; excluded the defense and the right of freedom to practice African derived religions and it didn’t mention the need for the state to focus on the genocide committed by police victimizing black youth.

Galeria de Canhotagem, Flickr, CC Licensed

According to the Movimento Cisne Negro [Black Swan Movement, pt], the refusal of the government to concede right of disputed land to Quilombola people is mitigated by the recognition of the state that Quilombola communities must have a differentiated treatment by the public power. For them there are positive points in the Statute that must be defended, among which the implementation of black history in elementary education and the recognition of the contribution of black Brazilians.

O primeiro mérito do Estatuto da Igualdade Racial é derrotar definitivamente o mito da democracia racial entranhado nas instituições públicas brasileiras e iniciar sua construção na prática. Através dele, o Estado reconhece que a desigualdade social pesa negativamente sobre a população negra, reconhece que o racismo é um elemento construtor de desigualdade e reconhece a necessidade de implantar políticas públicas para superar as desigualdades sociais, educacionais e econômicas no seio do povo brasileiro. Num país que sempre negou suas imperfeições, se recusou a mudar, naturalizou o fosso social que separa pobres e ricos, negros e brancos, uma lei que estabelece resgate de direitos demonstra grande evolução civilizatória.

The first merit of the Racial Equality Statute is to definitely defeat the myth of racial democracy ingrained in Brazilian public institutions and to begin its practical construction. Through it, the state recognizes that social inequality weights negatively upon the black population, recognizes that racism is building material for inequality and recognizes the need to implement public policies to overcome social, educational and economic inequalities in the mist of Brazilian society. In a country that always denied its imperfections, refused to change, became de-sensitized to the social gap separating the poor and the rich, the black and the white, a law that establishes rescue of rights shows a great civilizing evolution.

Others, who positioned themselves against affirmative action, believe its problem is being based on racial criteria, rather than on social condition. It is the case of Vandeler Ferreira [PT], a blogger and lawyer from Rio de Janeiro:

Me perdoem aqueles que defendem as denominadas “políticas afirmativas” por questões raciais que, ao meu ver, nada tem de afirmativas, exatamente porque ferem o tratamento igualitário, constitucionalmente previsto. Repito, as cotas nas universidades gratuitas deveriam ser por nível social para àqueles menos favorecidos. Aliás, o que temos que buscar é o acesso ao ensino, em qualquer nível, até mesmo pós-universitário, para todos, sem exceção, de forma universal e gratuita. Pela enorme carga tributária brasileira, seria o mínimo de devolução do Estado para o cidadão.

Forgive me those who defend the so-called “affirmitive policies” for racial matters which, the way I see it, have nothing affirmative about them, precisely because they hurt the equal treatment stated in the constitution. I repeat, quotas in free universities should be given according to social condition for the least privileged. Besides, what we need to work for is access to education, in any level, even post-graduation, for all, without exception, universally and freely. For all the taxes we pay, it would be the minimum return expected from the state to the citizen.

The Statute without the demanded points still has to pass by President Lula. But even if it is sanctioned, Afro-Brazilian movements promise to continue their struggle now that, finally, their historical grievances have been officially recognized.

2 comments

  • Luis Henrique

    Affirmative actions in Brazil are also the result of international commitments made by the brazilian government, following recommendations of the Durban Conference (2001). This is not a local public policy, exclusive of this country. It is implemented locally but recommended globally. I am not aware of the procedures taken by other countries, though. Additional information about the Durban Conference can be found in two texts [pt]: Fundação Cultural Palmares (http://www.palmares.gov.br/003/00301009.jsp?ttCD_CHAVE=115) and an article by diplomat Lindgren Alves (http://www.scielo .br / scielo.php? pid = S0034-73292002000200009 & script = sci_arttext) that evaluates the history of the Conference and the difficulties of producing a consensus. In the mass media, rarely do I see any reference to the origins of this debate. Although the idea wasn´t born in Durban, I imagine the Conference and its results were – in the UN scope – the most comprehensive discussion undertaken by the global community regarding “Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.”

  • In 1820, Brazil had 3 million “black” people (mostly slaves) and 300,000 “whites”. Of course many of the “whites” had also some Indian ancestry and a small influence of African ancestry. Today Brazilians have self-classified themselves (in the census) as 48% “pardos” (brown), 42% “brancos” (“white”), 8% negros and 2% other. The African-origin religions don’t seem to experience any de-facto impediments (other those caused by the influence of the Chrisitan opposition) and are functioning publicly across much of Brazil (and Uruguay). Presidente Francisco Hernando Cardoso – a “white” has mentioned some of his African ancestry. Simon Bolivar had some African ancestry. Today probably the majority of all the 500 million Latin Americans – brown, white, black – have some degree of Indian ancestry: During the colonial era, very few European women came to the Americas – but mosly men from Europe and Africa. There was never the “apartheid/segregation” which came with the Anglos to the USA and Canada. The 48% of “pardos” in Brazil have probably ancestry from all three races. In Brazil it would be impossible to determine who would belong to the “African-Brazilian” category – while in the USA, the old “one drop of black blood rule” segregates ALL Americans with some African ancestry into the “African-American” category.

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