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Brazil’s Federal Universities Approach Racial Quota Implementation Deadline

Would a broad admission application process lead to a more democratic higher education system?

In 2016, Brazil’s prestigious federal universities will be required to confirm that fifty percent of their incoming students come from public schools. Furthermore, slots for self-identifying Black, mixed-race and Indigenous students must correspond to the proportion of the local population.

Implemented in accordance with Brazil’s Lei de Cotas (Law of Social Quotas), these measures seek to ensure that Brazil’s public universities reflect the country’s diverse population. The implementation of these measures represents a big leap, but Brazil still faces many hurdles to making its higher education system more democratic.

More than half of the population in Brazil identified in the census as Black or mixed race, yet only 10 percent of this group made it to the university. In response to these high educational gaps, Brazil’s congress voted in 2012 for a plan to implement the Lei de Cotas.

Challenges in Higher Education

The residual effects of slavery are acute in Brazil, a country where roughly 4 million African people arrived through enslavement, compared to the estimated 400,000 Africans who arrived in the US.

While the US suffered from Jim Crow laws and one-drop rules, Brazil’s aim of branqueamento (whitening) and its push for imaginary “racial democracy” has yielded a different form of racism.

Black Brazilians were first denied elementary and secondary education in 1837 by a discriminatory clause in the Brazilian constitution. Years later, when universities opened their doors, Black students were invited for night classes only, yet only a few universities in the entire country offered night classes. Free and accessible education didn’t exist until 1980s, and free universities since then have overwhelmingly served the wealthy. Recently, under governmental programs like PROUNI (University for All) students from low-income backgrounds have received scholarships to pursue higher education, yet public school teacher Foguinho argues that “Brazil has two problems, an economic and racial one, and as such, should be treated separately.” The two-tier problem comes at the forefront of theLei de Cotas, a push for affirmative action policies contesting a racial democracy myth and fostering debate in Brazil.

Brazil’s current push to increase the diversity of its schools is both similar to and different from the affirmative action initiatives introduced in the US under President John F. Kennedy in 1961. In the past 10 years, however, establishing a race-conscious position or preferential treatment in higher education has become strongly contested throughout the US. In 2003, in the landmark case Grutter v. Bollinger, the supreme court ruled that universities are allowed to consider race in the college admission process, provided that they are not factored too mechanically. Most recently in 2013, a year after Lei de Cotas passed in Brazil, the US Supreme Court case Fisher v University of Texas put the constitutionality of using race in university admission process back on the docket for national debate. Ensuring that no preferential treatment or race conscious admission process constitutes a quota system, unconstitutional under Regent of the University of California v. Bakke, the case recently underwent a hearing on December 9.

As the fight over affirmative action continues in the US, racial justice advocates in Brazil should also revisit and consider additional factors in the case for racial quotas and how they are set to unfold as they fast approach their deadline.

Case for Quotas

Federal universities in Brazil are considered high quality education, and better yet, they are free of cost. To ensure admission, many families send their children to private primary or secondary schools. The curriculum in private schools prepares students to achieve high test scores on the “vestibular,” the standardized exam students take, which is historically the only factor considered for university admission. For low-income families, sending their children to private schools, which are ranked higher than public schools, is overwhelmingly outside their economic reach.

While quotas target students currently enrolled in public schools, they also specify racial background; this delineation, scholars and activist argue is crucial given that poverty and blackness are inherently not the same. The Federal University of Uberlandia (UFU) adopted social quotas in 2007, following suit after many federal universities across the country implemented a variation of quotas admission systems. Within socioeconomic-based quotas, many students benefited. However, university admission under policies concerning low family income “continued to benefit overwhelmingly white students” and that was the primary reason why “we called for racial quotas,” states Dr. Guimes Rodrigues Filho, chemistry professor and advisor of Nucleo de Estudos Afro-Brasileiros, (NEAB) at UFU.

According to IBGE study in 2005, blacks and pardos made up 49.5% of people living in poverty. This shows the great income gaps, yet no direct correlation is made between being black and poor, argued the statement issued by PRO-CIDADANIA at UFU.

Without specification and clear goals of racial quotas, Brazilians would continue to be blind to racism, promoting remarks like “I am not a racist, but against racial quotas,” argues Dr. Helvécio Damis de Oliveira Cunha, law professor and coordinator of affirmative actions at UFU. These remarks are examples of what is often described as “Brazilian cordialism,” a term proposed by Sergio Buarque. Cordial racism occurs when individuals to claim they are non-racist while simultaneously opposing structural actions aimed at combating racism.

For Brazil, passing what some would argue the most radical law in education is still far from achieving its goals. Timely law implementation will require additional campus support, follow-up and other initiatives.

Faculty Training

In university settings, students spend an important part of their formation in direct class instruction. This valuable time and interpersonal contact with faculty is instrumental to student success. With implementation of quotas, some major challenges universities will have to assess involve collaborative faculty and students’ collegial relationships. During an interview, Pollyana Fabrini, master student of social sciences, and cotista (student admitted under the quota system) shared a friend’s confrontation with a faculty. The student, also cotista, asked a question during class. Not answering his question, the faculty asked if he was a cotista, and after the student responded positively, the faculty mockingly said he would proceed at a slower pace so that the cotista could keep up. Pointing out and shaming cotista students is evidence of faculty prejudice.

“Faculty members continue to believe that black students lack aptitude to learn, overwhelmingly perform below their counterparts, and that the presence of cotistas lower academic rigor,” Pollyana said. In response to incidents like these, Brazil needs to invest in faculty training and recognize that in fact many cotistas perform up to par or above their classmates, argues professor Guimes. Evident in cotistas discriminatory experiences, faculty training, awareness, and support should accompany any legislation that seeks reform higher education in Brazil.

Student Recruitment and Retention

During the month of October, UFU hosted Vem para UFU Come to UFU, an outreach event, inviting students to visit the main campus. Professor Helvecio suggests initial steps for closing educational attainment gaps call for universities to not only host events like Vem para UFU, but to take the university to communities out in the periphery. Many students don’t know about Lei de Cotas, so more intensive recruitment efforts are necessary. Outreach is utterly important to the goals of diversifying higher education and at providing information to black communities who were historically denied access to universities, as outlined in the Constitution, Law 1, Article 3 of 1837.

On the other hand, the number of diverse students entering the universities is growing, and as a result, universities should concentrate on retention efforts. Few programs or initiatives target cotistas retention, argues professor Helvecio. Faculty and staff should provide support to incoming students, ignoring cotistas is setting them up to fail. Retention and faculty support is paramount to student success. Renato Augusto, master student, currently compiling data of cotistas academic performance at UFU, shared his colleague’s experience. The student posed a question during class, the faculty asked if he was a cotista and when the student responded positively, the faculty ignored his question and made it clear he was not going respond to his inquiry. Paired with faculty training, staff and university officials must work together to provide student academic support. Retention efforts can be implemented by providing tutoring groups, office hours to help ease academic transition and encourage students to push themselves academically.

NEAB, comprised of black student leaders, currently works together to put pressure on the university, and actively creates spaces that raise awareness and provide student support, states Pollyana. However, while student run programs like NEAB, are important, university staff and faculty should create targeted community outreach efforts and diverse retention programs to promote all students success.

A Comprehensive Admission Process

The current admission system in Brazil takes into account scores on the vestibular test, public school enrollment, and now the applicants’ race. However, one test score on a vestibular does not account for student’s academic potential, determination, and leadership.

In Brazil, “racial quotas at the university level are a good a thing,” says Romes Jorge Silva, a UFU alumni and now lawyer. “It is only controversial because of the race component, but perhaps we should adopt a more comprehensive admission system, like the US.”

For Brazilian students, the US admission process is difficult to navigate; due to its multiple requirements, however for perspective students like Romes, the system is an asset because it considers multiple factors.

What would a more elaborate admission process look like in Brazil? Would a broad admission application process, one that considers a test score on a vestibular, race, involvement, and community engagement lead to a more democratic higher education system?

Higher education is at the forefront of national discourse. While the US is waiting to revisit its race-based admission systems, Brazil will fully implement Lei de Cotas by January 2016. If Brazilian universities continue to revamp their infrastructure to recruit and retain their new diverse incoming students, and continue to improve the admission process, they will be far ahead in promoting a more diverse and democratic higher education.

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