The fierce debate about racial quotas in Brazil comes to Los Angeles with the visit of two leading thinkers in the efforts to diversify Brazilian universities. Ms. Matilde Ribeiro, former minister of racial equality under the Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva Administration, and Carlos Medeiros, journalist and scholar, will visited the University of California, Los Angeles, as Distinguished Fellows of the Global Affirmative Action Praxis Project (GAAPP). Both spoke on the theme, “Race and Racisms in Another America: Is Affirmative Action a Dangerous Import or An Antidote to the Myth of Racial Democracy in Brazil?”
Prior to her ministerial appointment, Ms. Ribeiro was coordinator for the Secretariat for Women’s Rights of the Municipality of Santo Andre (SP) during 1998-2001. Working under the Mayor of Santo Andre, Ms. Ribeiro developed government policies that integrated gender and race issues. She has also been a long-time activist in the Black and Feminist Movement since 1980, with numerous articles published on race and gender, environment and state politics.
Affirmative action is a relatively new concept in Brazil, where Afro-Brazilians make up a very small percentage of university students and professionals. Nearly 50% of Brazil’s 180 million citizens are of African descent, making it the largest black population outside of Africa yet it is rare to find them in the highest levels of government, business, law, and education. For example, at the University of Sao Paulo, (“USP”) widely regarded to be the “Harvard” of Brazil, there are only 3 black professors among 1000 while only 1.4% of its students are black. Similar disparities are evident in income, unemployment and life expectancy. For some black activists, these differences paint a picture of racial stratification that counters the self-image of Brazil as a “racial democracy.”
For others, the sometimes staggering statistics quoted by black activists are simply the consequences of class rather than race. For them, solutions lie not in ‘racializing’ inequality but in finding other solutions, including increasing the quality of primary schools. Many universities, however, have embarked upon a more direct course, implementing affirmative action programs to increase the opportunities for Afro-Brazilians to seek higher education. About 50 public universities have adopted such programs, leading to the matriculation of scores of first-generation college students.
Not surprisingly, the creation of these programs has prompted an intense debate throughout Brazilian society. Medeiros and Ribeiro, both active participants in this debate, shared their perspectives on these policies and respond to some of the central concerns raised by opponents throughout their week-long stay. UCLA Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, formerly the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Brazil, along with the African American Policy Forum and the Global Affirmative Action Praxis Project were all delighted to welcome Ms. Ribeiro and Mr. Medeiros to UCLA Law School and to the broader community. Prof Crenshaw highlighted the significance of this visit by noting:
As we in the United States are unfortunately, moving away from affirmative action, our neighbors are embarking on an important social justice intervention. We don’t want to simply be ships passing in the night, so this was an excellent opportunity for us to learn from each other’s experiences. We hope that their visitations will mark the beginning of a long and fruitful exchange.
Ribeiro’s and Mederios’ stay in the Unites State were filled with many events dedicated to promoting racial and gender equality. They attended the Annual Thurgood Marshall Dinner, sat as a panelists during the GAAPP UCLA law students’ presentations and provided a rousing lecture on “Race and Racisms in Another America.” In addition, they also met with many other UCLA faculty, officials, and staff to discuss the possibility of creating a program allowing for the exchanges of students between Brazil and the United States. Their contributions as panelists and speakers gave the UCLA community a deeper understanding of Affirmative Action and the role it plays in different societies throughout the world.