Wednesday, April 04, 2012

NY Times Roundtable on Affirmative Action in Brazil

The favela of Vidigal, in Rio de Janeiro
These days I'm trying to limit hyperlinks to the New York Times, which has now limited non-subscribers to only 10 monthly views (come on, NY Times!). If anyone had questions whether it was a newspaper geared towards people of means and their supporters, this pretty much answers it. (And I hope to post a short review of Chris Lehmann's nonfiction survey Rich People Things, which indicts the Times, very soon.) There are some simple ways around this, but I'm not going to post them, and not everyone will easily figure them out, so....

Anyways, the Times recently dedicated one of its roundtable discussions ostensibly to the topics of race (a constant tripwire for its writers, who seem incapable of mentioning the word "racism") and identity (and identification) in Brazil, titling it "Brazil's Racial Identity Challenge," though it focused on affirmative action in Brazilian universities, which is only one of the many race-related issues Brazil and most societies in the Americas, including the United States, face, an insight I would have thought would be clear as crystal given the recent Trayvon Martin murder and the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision, just the other day, to authorize strip searches of all admittees to prisons' general populations, a ruling that derived from a case originally arising out of an African-American man, Albert Florence, who police arrested and strip-searched in New Jersey because of racial profiling.

The roundtable featured 8 social scientists, authors and artists, 4 of them Brazilian, and two of them (at least) Afro-Brazilians. Unsurprisingly they didn't agree on all points, and the commentary was far too brief to address the complexity of topic of affirmative action, but all of them offered insightful comments. The comparisons to the US, particularly by the Brazilians, I thought, were especially worth thinking about.

Here are snippets from four of the commentators:

Melissa Nobles, MIT professor of political science and author of Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics
However, the [affirmative action university] quotas are working, although not without complications. Some whites have claimed to be black in order to gain entry, but these cases are relatively few. Of much greater importance is the fact that Brazil’s public universities now have sizable black, brown and poor student populations. And as some affirmative action supporters point out, the police seem to have little trouble determining who is black.
Antonio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães, Professor of Sociology at the University of São Paulo
Symbolically those policies are important in showing that being black (preto or pardo) in Brazil today is no longer a source of shame but rather one of pride. Descent from Africa is openly assumed and socially recognized. The policies also demonstrate that publicly financed universities must care for the quality of the education they offer without degrading the fairness of their admission when it becomes biased by class, race or color.
Marcelo Paixão, Professor of Economics and Sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
Brazil could use U.S.-style affirmative action as a good practice to increase social conditions of the Afrodescendant population and other minority groups. But the U.S. and Brazil have different histories. We can't simply adopt the U.S. approach. Instead we need to understand how Americans fight against racism and disseminate racial diversity in different areas of social life.

Yvonne Maggie, a professor in the department of cultural anthropology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro; author of Guerra de Orixá and Medo do Feitiço; co-editor of Raça Como Retórica; and blogger at A Vida Como Ela Parece Ser (Life As It Seems to Be).
A Brazilian system based on group identities similar to American affirmative action would have to render separate that which is conjoined. For this to come about we would first have to establish potentially harmful policies delimiting distinct "racial" identities. This is precisely what has been happening in the last 10 years in Brazil since the first law was passed to create racial quotas for access to university. Since then, public school programs have sought to strengthen identities through courses that attempt to establish who is "black" and who is not, and, in many cases, courts have adjudicated on whether people who self-proclaim to be "black," as defined by law, are speaking the truth or lying.
I'm curious to know what Brazilians think about this discussion, so if any Brazilian readers come across this blogpost, please do post some thoughts, but thoughts from any readers are welcome.

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