Dominion of New York


May 2, 2012

Brazil’s Supreme Court Approves Racial Quotas in Higher Ed

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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ate last month, Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a historic ruling about affirmative action, deciding unanimously that racial quotas established by public universities are constitutional.  The April 26 Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) ruling was decided by 10 justices — one black and nine white —  who boldly defended the use of affirmative action to repair the damage black and indigenous Brazilians have suffered due to slavery and racial discrimination.

“The construction of a fair and sympathetic society requires the whole community to repair past damages perpetrated by our ancestors,”

 The ruling rejected the claim of a student who said he was discriminated against when the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul rejected him in favor of black students with lower entrance exam scores. The ruling also rejected the claim of Brazilian Senator Demosthenes Torres who argued that racial quotas at the University of Brasilia violate the principle of equality.

The University of Brasilia reserves 20% of its admissions for black students. Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul reserves 30% of its admissions for those who studied in the public school system, with half of that number being reserved for black applicants. The court’s ruling will allow all Brazilian universities to continue their efforts to mitigate the impact of discrimination against Brazil’s racial minorities.

“It’s not enough not to discriminate,” said Justice Ricardo Lewandowski. “It is necessary to facilitate. The stance should be, above all, affirmative. It is necessary that this is the position taken by our legislators. Neutrality has shown itself in these years, (to be) a great failure.”

Justice Luis Fux said race can and should be a political criterion of analysis for entry into a university, as in many democratic countries. “The construction of a fair and sympathetic society requires the whole community to repair past damages perpetrated by our ancestors,”  Fux said.

Justice Rosa Weber said that the quota system aims to ensure blacks more opportunities to access higher education and thus balance social opportunities. “If blacks do not make it to the university, they do not share equal footing with whites,” she said, adding that when blacks become visible in the highest stratus in society, “no compensatory policy will be necessary.”

Justice Cármen Lúcia said compensatory policies allow everyone to feel equal. “Affirmative actions are not the best options. The best option is to have a society in which everyone is free to be what they want. This is a step, a process, a necessity in a society where it has not happened naturally.”

Justice Joaquim Barbosa, the court’s one black justice, said that affirmative action policies aim to neutralize the harmful effects of racial discrimination, of gender, age and origin. Barbosa also said he knows those who benefit from historical discrimination against minorities dislike affirmative action. “It is natural that affirmative action suffer an influx of conflicting forces … from those who benefit from the historical discrimination suffered by minority groups,” he said.

College education is rare among Brazil’s 191 million residents. Only 10 percent of the population age 25 to 64 has a college degree, compared to 39 percent of that cohort in the U.S. Degrees are even rarer for blacks. While they comprised fifty-one percent of Brazil’s 2010 population, they made up only only 13 percent of Brazil’s college students, according to the Ministry of Education. These educational and economic disparities stem in part from the poor education black Brazilians receive in the public school system. Sixty-nine percent of illiterate Brazilians are black. These educational disparities help perpetuate large racial disparities in income. According to the country’s 2010 census, in major cities, whites were earning about 2.4 times more than their black counterparts, the Guardian reports.

With 97 million blacks, Brazil has the largest black population in the Western hemisphere and the second largest black population in the world, second only to Nigeria, whose total population is 158 million. The decision stands in stark contrast to rulings by U.S. courts, which have consistently rejected the use of racial quotes in college admissions and gradually dismantled affirmative action.

Just as in America, opponents of affirmative action in Brazil argue that quotas based on race are a form of reverse discrimination. But proponents counter that Brazil already had an informal system of quotas prior to affirmative action. Those quotas required whites to be the primary beneficiaries of all social, political and economic opportunities. Among Brazil’s federally elected public officials, the vast majority are white, reports Black Women of Brazil. In 2007, 467 of 513 (89.6%) deputies were white, while 76 of 81 senators (93.8%) were white.

The quotes in this article come from Black Women of Brazil.

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


Official portrait from his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.