The film “Brazil in Black and White,” aired on PBS in 2007, discusses Brazil’s experiment with the race-based quota to education, a program inspired by U.S. style affirmative action. The race-based quota serves to guarantee 20% of freshmen admissions into the University of Brasilia to Black students. In Brazil, blacks often live in impoverished conditions, making up 66% of the nation’s poor population. Although they make up 54% of the total Brazilian population [1], only 2% hold college degrees, compared to 10% of whites and more than 25% of Asians [2]. Federal Universities in Brazil, although public and free, have been “monopolized” by the wealthy elite (mostly whites), who have the necessary means to obtain a high-quality education prior to applying to the public universities competitive entrance exams. The Brazilian racial-quota program aims to reduce the racial discrepancy in college admissions and graduation rates by increasing Blacks’—the disadvantaged population—chances of attaining a free higher education and eventually accessing to better jobs.

If the race-based quota program is successful, federal legislature (if passed) will implement it at a national level to all public, federal universities in Brazil. According to the PBS video, some of the main concerns dealing with the racial quota legislature in Brazil includes problems that could potentially arise from creating the concept of race in an otherwise non-racialized society [1], the subjectivity of the “blackness” or the “whiteness” of Brazilians, whether the program will lead to “U.S. style racism” [1], the failure of the program to attack the true reason why so many blacks are not obtaining college degrees when compared to whites—their economic status.

Although affirmative action in the United States aims at providing racial minorities with equal education and employment opportunities, the program is much more controversial in Brazil, a country which the racial boundaries of its population are not as well defined. Brazil consists of a racially mixed and diverse population–Brazilians come in all hair, skin, and eye colors, and sometimes these do not quite “match” one another. According to the introduction to the video located on the PBS website, national surveys in Brazil indicate ‘over 130 different categories of skin color, including “cinnamon,” “coffee with milk,” and “toasted.’ Race and racism in Brazil, although existent and present institutionally, are socially transparent. I was born and grew up in Brazil until 1999, and can tell from experience that one does not look at a person and say “let me guess, you’re Irish” or “you have an Italian nose, are you Italian?” These racial and ethnic details are not as prevalent in Brazil as in the United States– they are not discussed as soon as one makes a new friend.  One of the problems arising from the racial-quota is that individuals are being asked to define themselves dichotomously as either black or white, when reality is much more complicated. By having individuals define themselves racially, the race-based quota if implemented at a national level, would eventually “create race” by dividing Brazilians into two different groups of people with different rights [1]. This could place one group against the other [1] and could lead to surfaced forms of racism.

With respect to the subjectivity of the blackness or whiteness of the college applicants, unlike U.S. affirmative action where the individual indicates his or her own race, in the Brazilian program the student has to be “judged” as either black or white. Students line up and pose for a photograph which is later evaluated by “a secret committee” [1]. Students that are considered sufficiently “black” qualify for the status quota whereas those who are “not black enough” do not. The problem with this subjective test is evident: a student whose father is Afro-Brazilian and whose mother is white may not look sufficiently black to this “secret committee” and may therefore not qualify for the quota even though she truly is Afro-Brazilian. Variables such as the environment in which the pictures are taken and the lighting can easily alter how a person looks in a photograph. Also, whether or not the person uses hair straightening or hair dying products, and even the individual’s facial features can also have an impact the secret committee’s perception of the student’s race.

The subjective evaluation of photographs only opens the doors to even more racism. Because the criteria to the evaluation of the photographs is not well defined (for example, are some shades of brown more or less black than others when combined with facial features, hair and eye color?), judges are at their own discretion to pick and choose which participants qualify under the quota. If the committee is poorly selected, racial biases in the admissions may be increased rather than reduced. The PBS video did not address who exactly would make up such a “secret committee.” An example of the subjectivity problem was provided in the video in the case example of twin brothers who applied to the University of Brasilia under the racial quota, and one brother was considered black whereas the other was not [1].  The brothers were nearly identical, and stated that they are often confused with one another due to their high resemblance.

While Affirmative action in the United States has assisted the disadvantaged minorities in obtaining equal opportunities at school and work, is has also lead to racism, which is something Brazilian scholars and legislatives fear. Racism that occurs in the U.S as a result of affirmative action often comes in the the form of stigma against the populations benefitting from the program. Beneficiaries of affirmative action may be stigmatized against in the sense that they might be viewed by others as less qualified, or less worthy of the job or education program. According to Stephanie Stahlberg,

 A number of studies show that people rate others lower and as less qualified for a job or graduate school when they learned the person benefitted [sic] from affirmative action. Madeline Heilman, professor of Psychology at New York University, has also found that the lower the opinion men held about a coworker, the more they regarded affirmative action as the reason why the coworker was hired. [2]

In the PBS video, one of the students was applying to the University under the racial quota even though she had blonde hair and was not viewed by others as “black.” She mentioned that she had never thought of herself as either black or white, but was going to try to “pass as black” since admission standards would be lowered and entrance into the university would be easier. If dark skinned students can choose whether or not to apply as part of the quota, and the quota is associated with lowered standards and easier entrance, then the abilities of the black students would be questioned, regardless of whether they were admitted under the quota or the general pool of applicants.

Another student in the video felt offended by the quota and decided to apply for admission under the general pool, even though she had dark skin, curly hair and would probably qualify to apply under the racial quota. In spite the fact that  she grew up in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, attended a public high school and did not have formal training for the entrance exam, she stated that she would like to know that she was accepted into the university because she truly belongs there, not because the standards were lowered due to her race. It is this difference in thinking that would lead to discrimination against black students in Brazil. If many hold this view, students in Brazil may become racist of black students and assume that all of them applied under the racial quota because they were not sufficiently qualified to apply under general admission standards.

Affirmative action may also have negative psychological influences on the disadvantaged beneficiary’s self-esteem and ability to successfully compete with the advantaged majority. Individuals who themselves feel less worthy of their newly acquired job or college admission may feel that they are less competent or capable of success, which can also influence how hard they will try to succeed, whether they will perceive failures as being caused by internal or external forces, and how far they will be willing to endure their failures prior to giving up. With a lower self-esteem and inferior skills, students may face many challenges that might throw them off course and reduce their chances of success.

Although affirmative action in the United States has provided disadvantaged minorities with otherwise unattainable opportunities, it is not perfect, and one of its major problems is that although it provides an individual with an opportunity, it does not equip the individual with the knowledge and skill necessary to succeed. U.S. style affirmative action in Brazil is not likely to succeed as in the United States due to the differences in Brazil’s education system, starting with elementary education. Brazil consists of public and private elementary schools, high schools, and universities. Public elementary and high schools often provide the least quality education, whereas public universities provide the highest quality education.

In order to get into the public, federal university, students have to take an entrance exam (formally called “vestibular”). Regardless of whether one attended a public or private high school, the entrance exam is exactly the same—exams only vary by area of study. Because the federal (public) universities provide the best quality education in the nation free of charge, the admissions process is very competitive. The reason why many Brazilian universities have consisted of mainly white students and why only 2% of Brazil’s black population hold college degrees is not so much due to racism itself but rather because blacks make 66% of Brazil’s poor, spend most of their lives attending less favorable public schools and are therefore simply not prepared for the entrance exams. While middle and higher class students can obtain a higher quality education from early childhood and can afford to attend pre-entrance exam courses to better prepare them for the Vestibular, poor students, regardless of race, do not hold such luxuries. Students who could not afford to attend private elementary and high schools or pre-entrance exam training end up taking and failing the entrance exams year after year, until they either get in or give up.

A racially based affirmative action program in Brazil would simply not remedy the problem with higher education, which is economic status, not race. In the United States, we have remedial courses for students who are accepted into college but who are not yet prepared for college level courses. In Brazil there is no such thing as a remedial course. Either you are college material and you get in, or you are not. Lowering the admissions standards is not a good solution to the problem of having low acceptance and graduation rates of blacks because it does not deal with these students’ ability to succeed once admitted. Drop-out rates for students under the quota may be high if the students who were not prepared for college level work begin to do poorly in their courses.

If race-based affirmative action isn’t the solution to Brazil’s discrepancy in the admission rates of black and white students, then how exactly can the problem be fixed? At first I thought that a class-based affirmative action would be better than a race-based program. Scholars in the U.S. have been proposing a shift from race based affirmative action to class based affirmative action [3]. If Brazil wants to mirror the U.S. affirmative action as a solution to its own problems, then it should also consider America’s trials and errors. Brazil might as well “skip a few steps in the ladder” and go straight into class based affirmative action. A class based affirmative action would not only solve the racial discrepancies in the institutions but it would also benefit poor whites, whose chances of getting into college would be reduced under the race-based quota. A class based affirmative action would kill two birds with one stone – it would benefit the truly disadvantaged population (the poor) and it would increase the percentage of black students that are accepted into the university without racializing the society.

Although a class based affirmative action program sounds appealing, it would still not prepare the students for college level courses. Although the program would guarantee the student’s entrance into the school, these students would still face many academic challenges because of Brazil’s lack of remedial courses. Since the low rates of blacks who get into and graduate colleges in Brazil is often a result of their failure to pass the entrance exams, it seems obvious that better preparation would resolve the problem. An alternative  that would be able to improve poor students’ scores on the exam while simultaneously and indirectly addressing the racism issue would be to provide poor students with the opportunity for a better education prior to college. The true solution would be to improve Brazil’s public education system, but this is too large of a problem for a quick fix. A much simpler revision to the affirmative action program  however, would be to provide students who meet a specific family income criteria and are currently enrolled or have attended public schools to be able to attend high quality entrance exam preparation courses free of charge. Perhaps even the combination of class-based affirmative action and free entrance exam prep courses could provide Brazil’ poor (again 66% of which are blacks) with the knowledge and skills necessary to not only get in but to also finish college.


[1] Stephan, A. (Producer & Director).(2007n). Brazil in Black and White [Wide angle]. United States: Thirteen/WNET New York and Robert Stone Productions.

[2] Stahlberg, S. G. (2010, August). Racial inequality and affirmative action in education in Brazil. Stanford Progressive.

[3] Goldsmith, N. (2010). Class-Based Affirmative Action: Creating a New Model of Diversity in Higher Education. Journal of Law and Policy, 34, 313-345.


About Amanda B.

I'm a senior at Hunter College, City University of New York, majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology. Topics that concern me the most include the overall well-being of children with developmental disabilities, issues concerning women and minority rights, and the misconceptions and discrepancies of the media and its influence in our society. Some quotes that motivate me: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter" -MLK "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function" - F. Scott Fitzgerald “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind." - Ghandi

One response

  1. jholguin20 says:

    I believe that affirmative action in Brazil is a good thing for Brazilians and also people all over the world. I believe that everyone should be able to receive education no matter what race or ethnicity they are. In my eyes affirmative action should be based on a class system because people who receive affirmative action benefits sometimes are more privileged than others and may not necessarily need it compared to others. If it was based on a class system I feel that more people would end up attending college.