Brazil’s Institutional Racism: Skull Measuring for Affirmative Action Benefits

OK When it suits the left, otherwise Nazi and shit.

OK When it suits the left, otherwise Nazi and shit.

Brazil’s New Problem With Blackness

As the proudly mixed-race country grapples with its legacy of slavery, affirmative-action race tribunals are measuring skull shape and nose width to determine who counts as disadvantaged.

Cleuci de Oliveira for Foreign Policy

4/2017

PELOTAS, Brazil – Late last year Fernando received news he had dreaded for months: he and 23 of his classmates had been kicked out of college. The expulsion became national news in Brazil. Fernando and his classmates may not have been publicly named (“Fernando,” in fact, is a pseudonym), but they were roundly vilified as a group. The headline run by weekly magazine CartaCapital — “White Students Expelled from University for Defrauding Affirmative Action System” — makes it clear why.

But the headline clashes with how Fernando sees himself. He identifies as pardo, or brown: a mixed-race person with black ancestry. His family has struggled with discrimination ever since his white grandfather married his black grandmother, he told me. “My grandfather was accused of soiling the family blood,” he said, and was subsequently cut out of an inheritance. So when he applied to a prestigious medical program at the Federal University of Pelotas, in the southern tip of Brazil, he took advantage of recent legislation that set aside places for black, brown, and indigenous students across the country’s public institutions.

While affirmative action policies were introduced to U.S. universities in the 1970s, Brazil didn’t begin experimenting with the concept until 2001, in part because affirmative action collided head-on with a defining feature of Brazilian identity. For much of the twentieth century, intellectual and political leaders promoted the idea that Brazil was a “racial democracy,” whose history favorably contrasted with the state-enforced segregation and violence of Jim Crow America and apartheid South Africa. “Racial democracy,” a term popularized by anthropologists in the 1940s, has long been a source of pride among Brazilians.

As the country’s black activist groups have argued for decades, it is also a myth. Brazil’s horrific history of slavery — 5.5 million Africans were forcibly transported to Brazil, in comparison with the just under 500,000 brought to America — and its present-day legacy demanded legal recognition, they said. And almost two decades ago, these activists started to get their way in the form of race-based quotas at universities.

For Brazil’s black activists, however, the breach of the country’s unofficial color-blindness has also been accompanied by suspicion over race fraud: people taking advantage of affirmative action policies never meant for them in the first place.

“These spots are for people who are phenotypically black,” Mailson Santiago, a history major at the Federal University of Pelotas and a member of the student activist group Setorial Negro, told me. “It’s not for people with black grandmothers.”

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