Two recent articles in The Economist have covered the issue of race in Brazil and South Africa. That’s two of the BRICS countries possibly hindered by something that their governments have taken very little action to remedy thus far. But how to address historical asymmetries in a political arena?
In emerging economies like South Africa and Brazil, where race was largely ignored until a few decades ago, people are still trying to decide if there’s even an issue at all.
In Brazil, differences in skin tone merit a rather large spectrum. Race in Brazil is so nuanced, for example, that one census allowed people to identify their own race—which resulted in 134 categories. Unfortunately, this spectrum has also contributed to the notion that race issues do not exist because race cannot be as concretely identified as in other countries where racial mixing was less frequent.
But affirmative action initiatives in Brazil have met with some resistance. Brazil, which largely considers itself a racial democracy (courtesy of Gilberto Freyre), is still plagued by race issues that are tied to socioeconomic implications. People who do not believe that there is a race issue blame the economic disparities on class instead of race. The fact is that in Brazil, the two are intricately linked.
Affirmative action supporters implemented quota programs in universities to reserve places for people otherwise unable to attend based on socioeconomic status. But these spots were also reserved for black Brazilians. The universities then had to confront the complicated task of determining exactly who was—and wasn’t—black by Brazilian standards. Part of the process included getting one’s picture taken for the application, whereby a panel of judges would then decide if you qualified. Well, a few cases showed the inconsistencies within this process, making it even more controversial.
Results from Brazil’s 2010 census, however, report that 50.7 percent of Brazilians identify as black or mixed race, as compared to 44.7 percent at the last census. Despite increases in black and mixed race identification, the economic inequalities are still dramatic:
The 2010 census – a massive operation which involved about 190,000 census takers visiting 58m homes – found that in major cities white inhabitants were earning about 2.4 times more than their black counterparts. In Salvador, a former slave port with one of Brazil’s largest black populations, the findings were even worse: whites earned 3.2 times more than blacks.
These disparities translate directly into who is able to attend university, which, without quotas, is an overwhelmingly white majority.