Race, Politics and Education in Brasil

In the new Brazilian movie, “Que Horas ela Volta?” Regina Casé plays a North-Eastern kitchen maid for a rich woman in São Paulo. The narrative is based on the tension created when her employer discovers that her maid’s daughter has been accepted to a prestigious public university. Although neither Casé nor her daughter are black in the movie, it has struck a chord with a lot of Brazilians. Since the PT party took power in Brazil in 2003, the number of poor students in universities has increased dramatically, due to programs such as Ação Affirmativa, a Brazilian version of affirmative action that created quotas in public universities for graduates of public grammar and high schools.

Rosana Heringer, sociologist and professor at Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro, is one of Brasil’s leading authorities on affirmative action. Together with Wayne State University Professor Ollie Johnson, she recently edited the book “Race, Politics and Education in Brazil: affirmative action in higher education”,  published by Palgrave Macmillan and available at I caught up with her recently to find out her take on the relationship between affirmative action and the current political context in Brazil.

When did the first affirmative action programs start in Brazil?

The first affirmative action programs for black people in higher education started in 2002, at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ),  Northern Rio de Janeiro State University (UENF) and Bahia State University (UNEB). The number of programs increased yearly, reaching over 100 universities by 2012, when a federal law made it mandatory in all federal higher education institutions.

The main impact of these programs has been to increase of the number of black students in public universities [by 400% since 2002], which are tuition free and very competitive to enter in Brazil. Until the end of the 1990’s, there were very few black students in these institutions, especially in the most prestigious careers like Medicine and Law. This has changed significantly during the last decade.

As someone who has studied this issue for decades, both in the US and Brazil, what are some of the most relevant similarities and differences between Affirmative Action programs in the US and in Brazil?

The main difference is that in US the quotas were adopted only as a consequence of law suits in specific cases. In Brazil, the quotas were adopted to promote social justice on a short term basis, especially in relation to access to higher education. Affirmative action programs in US were adopted in many cases with the justification of promoting diversity, while in Brazil the main justification is to fight inequality and promote social inclusion.

Why do you think there was so much resistance against affirmative action in the Brazilian media? I was especially surprised to see Globo’s Journalism director Ali Kamel write an entire book  against quotas, called “We are not racists”.

The resistance came mainly from sectors from Brazilian elite who were used to having almost all places in public tuition free universities for them. Another group who resisted was the national private high schools association, who make a lot of profit preparing wealthy students for university entrance exams. The quota system directly affected their business. Quotas were also opposed by Brazilian intellectuals, including journalists, who believe in the theory of Brazil as a “racial democracy”, which was developed in the 1930’s. For this group, any kind of policy based on race would reinforce racism and “racialize” Brazilian society. This is a hot political and theoretical debate which addresses issues about national identity, Brazilian culture and other broader subjects. As Jennifer  Hochschild, a former teacher I had in the US, used to say, affirmative action easily becomes a “cultural war”.

During the past year hundreds of thousands of middle class and wealthy Brazilian whites have taken to the streets calling for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, despite the fact that she hasn’t been implicated in any corruption scandal. Do you believe that this has anything to do with the loss of privileges such as easy access to public universities caused by affirmative action policies?

I agree with this analysis. The broader access to public higher education by people from lower economic background has happened not only through quotas, but also through other federal programs developed since President Lula’s government that have continued during the Dilma Rouseff administration: a scholarship program for low income students to attend private universities called PROUNI (University for All); more investments in public universities creating more evening courses and student support programs; and the creation of 18 new federal universities between 2003 and 2014 located specially in the less developed areas of the country. These actions have been seen by middle class and elites as threat to their historical privilege.

Brazil is a country that still has serious problems with both racial and economic inequality. What, in your opinion, should be done to improve this scenario?

This is not an easy question to answer, of course.  There are many actions to be taken. The tax system in Brazil has to be reformed to raise taxes paid by wealthier people and reduce those paid by the poorest. This has to do with the increase of direct taxes (over income and assets) and the reduction of indirect taxes (over consumption).  A broader education reform is needed. Some advances have been made but it is necessary to redirect public investments to improve education quality (including infrastructure and teacher’s training and salaries) in the poorest and most disadvantaged areas of the country, mainly in the outskirts of metropolitan areas. There are many other actions that could be taken but these would be my priorities.

Is there anything else you would like to say about Affirmative Action and the current sociopolitical context in Brazil?

It is important to recognize that affirmative action programs will not solve the problems of racism and inequality in Brazil. These programs can open what we call “avenues of opportunity” to black students that might be unable to reach the universities if they didn’t have this chance. It is important to continue to assess the results of these programs in order to improve them in the coming years. Currently we are facing difficulties regarding the poor and black students who enter the universities but don’t have enough support for housing, transportation, food, and books. This as an important challenge we have to deal with so that the students benefited by affirmative action can be successful.

By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.