Brazil's Racial Revolution

By Margolis, Mac | Newsweek International, November 3, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Brazil's Racial Revolution


Margolis, Mac, Newsweek International


One day, some years ago, Brazilian Bishop Dom Jose Maria Pires sat down to lunch and a pile of unread mail. One letter, from black seminarians, caught his eye. It asked Pires to speak about the plight of blacks in the Roman Catholic Church. Racism was still a tender subject, and affirmative action practically unheard of. Pires, Brazil's ranking black clergyman, was delighted. "How nice that our brothers are taking up the question of race," he said out loud. "But Dom Jose," his housekeeper protested, "you aren't black--you're a bishop!" she blurted out.

Pires is retired now, but still enjoys telling the story, which is quintessentially Brazilian. With 46 percent of its 175 million people tracing their ancestry to Africa, Brazil is often labeled the largest black nation after Nigeria. But Brazilians have been loath to see themselves that way. After half a millennium of mingling by Europeans, Africans, Indians and Asians, this New World nation sports a hundred faces and more colors than Crayola. Brazilians use scores of terms to describe their color, from cinnamon to cafe au lait. True, racial prejudice was rife and occasionally violent in the past. But because discrimination never became law--and because fame or fortune (or a bishop's mantle) could lighten the burden of color--Brazilians talked themselves into believing they had achieved "racial democracy." This was no empty slogan--it went to the heart of what makes Brazil Brazil. Now, thanks to the new politics of race, Latin America's most culturally diversified society may be changing in ways few had ever imagined.

After years of stale debate, and legislative nonstarters, affirmative action has finally come of age in Brazil. Though the initiative started before him, the new left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office promising to pay Brazil's huge "social debt" to the dispossessed. Last month he created a racial-equality committee; earlier he'd ordered three ministries to recruit blacks to fill at least 20 percent of senior posts. So Paulo upped Brasilia's ante, holding 30 percent of city jobs for blacks and pardos, as Brazilians call many lighter-toned nonwhites. Congress is now weighing a racial- equality statute that would boost racial preferences nationwide. There is even a clause that would require TV stations to hire blacks for soap operas and commercials.

Most importantly, perhaps, Brazil is beginning to integrate its public universities. The giant state university of Rio (also known as Uerj) is leading the way. It has blocked off 40 percent of the 2003 freshman class for blacks, and 50 percent for public-school students. But the policy--a clumsy scheme, thrown together on orders from the populist legislature--provoked a backlash. Some 300 white students filed reverse-discrimination suits. Worse, many white applicants claimed to be black. "Everyone supports affirmative action, but this was ridiculous," says Catholic University law professor Manoel Messias Peixinho, who represented dozens of plaintiffs. Uerj has since halved its quotas for blacks --and public schoolers, but educators remain undaunted. "The school has gained diversity," university rector Nilcea Freire told NEWSWEEK. "We are a laboratory for all of Brazil."

To many Brazilians, the experiment is long overdue. While some 80 million Brazilians call themselves negro or pardo (black or brown), precious few find their way to the commanding heights of business, civil service or academia. Blacks and browns abound only in bottom-tier jobs such as construction and garbage collection. Brazil's National Congress, one of the largest in the democratic world, is as white as winter.

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