Brazil’s Quota Foes Conveniently Forget US Affirmative Action’s 40-Year Success

A march in favor of racial quotas in São Paulo, Brazil

Late last month, in the same week when the Federal University of Rio Grande
do Sul (UFRGS) voted to adopt racial quotas (43 to 25 votes), the U.S. Supreme
Court, by one vote, decided to eliminate race as an admissions criterion in
public schools. Here in Brazil, that news made the headlines, presented as
evidence that “quotas” are losing ground in the U.S.

In opinion pieces, the news was seen as a sign that affirmative action in the U.S. was “equivocated,” a “failure,” and, thus, shouldn’t be adopted here. There seems to be an implicit desire to dismiss the UFRGS decision: if affirmative action wasn’t good for the U.S., it can’t be good for us.


Such conclusion, which echoes each time another Brazilian university adopts quotas (50 have done so to date), occupies more and more space in the media, to the point of almost turning into a truism. However, it’s an erroneous conclusion, based on myths for decades spread by the opponents of the U.S. affirmative action program. Here are some of those myths:


Myth: Quotas are the main affirmative action policy in the U.S.


Fact: Unlike India, Malaysia, and Nigeria, the U.S. has never instituted a quota program. The debate over quotas started in 1969, when George Schultz, Nixon’s secretary of labor, proposed the Philadelphia Plan, which stipulated that blacks be hired in accordance to their proportion of the population. The plan did not specify quotas, which were then and are still regarded as unconstitutional, but rather “goals and timetables.”


Myth: The U.S. affirmative action program was a failure.


Fact: Repeating that thought ad nauseam does not make it true. By stimulating admission to higher education, affirmative action has created conditions for the establishment of a solid black middle class. For example, in 1998, 7% of the executives, managers, and administrators were black, almost twice their proportion in 1950. In 2003, nearly 27% of blacks held those occupations.


Myth: Blacks were the greatest beneficiaries of the U.S. affirmative action program.


Fact: White women were the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action. A study has shown that the policies opened to them professions theretofore occupied mainly by white men, so that, by the 1980s, white women “constituted almost half the population of the professions.” Currently, White women earn more than blacks, regardless of sex.


Myth: Affirmative action is reverse discrimination against white men.


Fact: That idea propagated in the Reagan years and picked up strength in the administrations of Bush father and son. Yet, despite the gains by women and minorities, white men still earn the highest wages and to occupy the highest prestige jobs.


From that angle, it is hard to maintain the failure thesis. The vociferous Brazilian critics of the U.S. program conveniently ignore the successes of the 40-plus years of affirmative action policies.


While those policies have not eliminated racism in the U.S., at least they have created conditions for the accumulation of wealth not only during one’s lifetime, but also from parents to children and beyond. In a class society, it makes sense to try to include minorities in order to avoid that even more resentment brew among them.


When the policies were instituted in 1964, the U.S. enjoyed great economic prosperity; therefore, people were more open to sharing the proverbial pie. The demise of the policies has more to do with the current conservative wave that predominates in the country and with the decrease in wealth due to the war expenses than with the “failure” of the program.


Perhaps this is the crux of the matter: underneath the negation of Brazilian racism and the insistence in the “failure” of affirmative action in other countries lie the fear of sharing with darker-skinned Brazilians the economic, political, and social power so comfortably guarded by so few along our history.


Apparently, however, that is harder to admit in a country so worried about the “cordial” image it so strongly strives to maintain in the eyes of the world.


Vânia Penha-Lopes, a native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University. She is an associate professor of sociology at Bloomfield College, in New Jersey. Penha-Lopes is also a columnist at Afropress, a Brazilian online publication.

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