Brazil’s New Problem With Blackness
As the proudly mixed-race country grapples with its legacy of slavery, affirmative-action race tribunals are measuring skull shape and nose width to determine who counts as disadvantaged.
To tackle inequality in higher education, the federal government passed the Law of Social Quotas in 2012. The law earmarks half of all admissions spots across the country’s federally funded institutions to public high school graduates, regardless of their race. (Public universities, unlike high schools, are more prestigious in Brazil than private ones.) Of those reserved spots, half go to students whose families earn less than 1.5 minimum wage, or about $443 a month. A percentage of the spaces in both categories then gets set aside for black, brown and indigenous students, in proportion to the ratio of white to non-white residents in each given state.
The government gave schools four years, until 2016, to fully comply with the law. The problem is that the law merely asked that candidates report their own race. To many students and professors I spoke with, the only thing that seems to have risen in popular undergraduate programs like law and medicine are the number of white-looking students who gained entry by claiming to be black.
“It’s visible to the naked eye,” said Luana Padilha, a black medical student who enrolled via affirmative action. “By my count, at least 12 of my classmates should have accessed the program through racial quotas. But I look around and can’t recognize any of these people.”
“If you look at a photograph of the incoming medical class of 2015, only one of the students looks black,” said Georgina Lima, a professor and head of UFPel’s Center for Affirmative Action and Diversity. “And he’s not even Brazilian. He’s from Africa.”
The Ethnicity Evaluation Committee, of which Lima is a member, was installed to address this loophole. It interviewed prospective students for the first time ahead of the second semester of 2016. “We saw the most incredible situations unfold,” said Rogerio Reis, an anthropology professor and head of the committee. “People would shave their heads, wear beanies, get a tan. Just a series of strategies to turn themselves black.” Fabio Goncalves, a lawyer and committee member, was about to put one prospective student down as black, when one of his female colleagues, “who knows more about this kind of thing than I do,” told him to note the difference in skin tone between the student’s face and body. The student “had darkened her features with make-up!” he told me, in utter bewilderment.
For as long as black activists have demanded affirmative action, they have also stressed the need for monitoring strategies. “Brazil is the country of frauds,” said Helio Santos, president of the Brazilian Diversity Institute and a leading figure in the black rights movement. “Civil rights efforts that don’t come with any oversight are a joke.” But the recent implementation of verification panels across several schools has raised troubling questions about who gets to define race in a country where people don’t fall neatly into black and white categories.
“My father is black. My official documents say I’m white. I have firsthand experience with miscegenation. This issue is not so clear-cut,” said Kelvin Rodrigues, a second semester medical student at UFPel who is critical of the evaluation committee, even if he supports expelling those who commit blatant racial fraud. Rodrigues looks black, but as someone who graduated from a private high school, he was never eligible for affirmative action spots in the first place.
“If the law stipulates that an applicant’s race should be self-reported, then what right does anyone have to tell that person that they’re lying?” said Luiz Paulo Ferreira, another second-semester medical student. He told me that he considers himself pardo and enrolled in the medical program through the racial quotas, but that he was not one of the 27 students who were investigated.
“How can members of the committee feel particularly qualified to make these judgment calls?” said Ferreira. “And based on what criteria?”
Eleven experts comprised the panel, among them UFPel administrators, anthropologists, and leaders in the wider black community of Pelotas. They received strict guidelines from the Public Prosecutors Office: “Phenotypical characteristics are what should be taken into account,” read the instructions. “Arguments concerning the race of one’s ancestors are therefore irrelevant.”
The official criteria mirrored the way the issue has played out in the public sector as well. In 2014, the federal government approved a law that set aside 20 percent of public sector jobs to people of color. In Aug. 2016, after it had become clear that the law left room for fraud, the government ordered all departments to install verification committees. But it failed to provide the agencies with any guidance.
The Department of Education in Para, Brazil’s blackest state, attempted to fulfill the decree with a checklist, which leaked to the press. Among the criteria to be scored: Is the job candidate’s nose short, wide and flat? How thick are their lips? Are their gums sufficiently purple? What about their lower jaw? Does it protrude forward? Candidates were to be awarded points per item, like “hair type” and “skull shape.” In response to the leaked test, one college professor from the state wrote on Facebook, “We’re going back to the slave trade. During job interviews they’re gonna stick their hands in our mouth to inspect our teeth.”
But black activists say such measures are unavoidable. “A person who does not look phenotypically black is not the one getting killed by police every 23 minutes,” said Santos, the law student and Coletivo Negrada member. “So long as this is how racism manifests itself here, we need to ensure that the people taking up admission spots in universities are the ones with these characteristics.”
The expulsion of the UFPel medical students at the tail-end of 2016, while a major victory for the black activist movement, has not settled the debate around quotas, race frauds, and panels. Seven of the 24 expelled students challenged the university’s decision, and in February, a court gave them permission to go back to class. UFPel has vowed to appeal the ruling. The evaluation committee, meanwhile, has since interviewed candidates for the race quota slots in the first term of 2017. It has also announced a second investigation beyond the medical school, into the more than one thousand students across UFPel that enrolled via affirmative action since the law first went into effect.
The topic has also galvanized conservative politicians, who have enjoyed renewed political power since the impeachment of Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, brought an end to 13 years of leftist Workers’ Party rule. Fernando Holiday, a black libertarian activist who spearheaded mass protests against Rousseff, won a council seat during October’s midterm elections on a campaign platform to repeal race quota measures. The far-right Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who has long expressed vehement opposition to affirmative action laws, has steadily risen in the polls for the 2018 presidential election.
For the time being, individual students will be obliged to navigate the country’s evolving racial codes on their own. Fernando, now expelled from UFPel, remembers his interview with the evaluation committee lasting eight minutes. The panelists started by asking him about when he first recognized himself as pardo. Then, to his surprise, they asked how involved he was with the black activist movement.
“I shouldn’t have to be an activist to be considered black,” said Fernando. Although the Law of Social Quotas is extended to mixed-race candidates, he left the interview feeling like he was being singled out for having light skin. “None of the interviewers were pardo. There was no one there that could identify with me.”