In Other Words

Playing Brazil’s Race Card

Veja, No. 1897, March 23, 2005, São Paulo After reading news reports from Brazil these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country’s only problem is corruption. Headlines center on an alleged cash-for-votes scheme in the Brazilian Congress. The scandal widened this past summer when a congressman admitted that top aides to President ...

Veja, No. 1897, March 23, 2005, São Paulo

After reading news reports from Brazil these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country’s only problem is corruption. Headlines center on an alleged cash-for-votes scheme in the Brazilian Congress. The scandal widened this past summer when a congressman admitted that top aides to President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva knew that the ruling party was offering millions of dollars in bribes to legislators. But, as bad as the scandal may be for Brazilian politics, Latin America’s largest country also suffers from other pervasive social problems, such as poverty, crime, and environmental degradation. One major social issue that has plagued the country for more than 500 years was not addressed until relatively recently: racial inequality.

Blacks, who constitute nearly half the population, are disproportionately represented among the poor and lag far behind whites in income, education, and living standards. The state’s denial of racism ended in the late 1990s, when President Fernando Henrique Cardoso publicly denounced discrimination. And Lula’s left-leaning administration has expanded on Cardoso’s policies, creating among other measures a state secretariat to promote racial equality and making Afro-Brazilian history compulsory in public schools.

The government’s most controversial initiative, however, is a proposal to impose admissions quotas for blacks and public school students in federal universities. Critics wonder whether the bill — which would broaden quota experiments currently under way in several states — will only inflame racism in a country that has never known segregation and where racial boundaries have long been blurred.

Among the bill’s detractors is the popular magazine Veja. With 1.2 million in circulation, Veja is the world’s fourth-largest newsweekly after Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. In its March 23, 2005, edition, the powerful media outlet criticized the government for suppressing one of its own Ministry of Education studies on higher education.

The government’s study, according to Veja, revealed that the number of blacks in universities corresponded to their presence in society at large. These results undermined official policy, which supports admissions quotas for blacks in federal universities on the assumption that they are underrepresented in the schools. Instead of using the findings to promote serious public discussion, Education Minister Tarso Genro cancelled a press conference and mounted "an effort to disqualify a study that [the ministry itself] had funded," wrote Veja.

It is not the first time the government’s own research has appeared to counter its policy objectives. Lula previously identified the elimination of hunger as the country’s primary challenge, only to be confronted by a study from the official statistics agency revealing that 40 percent of Brazilians are overweight. Rather than revisiting its approach, his government instead decreed that all studies be cleared by the president’s office prior to publication.

Exposing a government’s efforts to restrict information is well within the media’s job description. Unfortunately, the Veja article exemplifies the misinformation and short-sightedness that have characterized the Brazilian debate on racial quotas. For example, Veja claims that, according to the government study, negros (blacks) make up 6 percent of university students — the same share of the overall Brazilian population. In fact, the 6 percent government figure refers to those identifying themselves as preto (darkest-skinned), who represent only a small number of the total negro population of pretos and pardos (mixed-race). Together, these two "black" groups make up 45 percent of the citizenry, according to the 2000 census. By rejecting the racial nomenclature used by government agencies, serious researchers, and most of the media, Veja minimizes the size of the black population and muddles the debate about quotas.

Worse, quibbling over statistics obscures the biggest obstacles to educational access for blacks: the poor quality of public secondary education and the enormous demand for university admission that far exceeds the number of available slots. The government claims quotas are a temporary measure until the public school system is improved. But many, including some members of the Afro-Brazilian movement, worry that the policy only distracts from the more costly and risky undertaking of overhauling secondary education.

Brazilian observers, including Veja, are right to raise questions about racial quotas. But rather than sniping about research, they should focus on deeper issues of discrimination and social inequality. The quota proposal has actually benefited the country by jump-starting a much-needed debate about such issues. The task now is for the press — and the government — to keep this debate on track.

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