Thaiana Rodrigues, the daughter of an esthetician in Rio de Janeiro, tried to get into college three times. But having spent most of her childhood in poor public schools—her anatomy teacher in seventh grade never showed up to class so she simply never learned the subject—Ms. Rodrigues was unable to pass the entrance exam.
It was not until her fourth try, when she applied as a quota recipient based on her race and socioeconomic status, that she won a spot at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), a public university that pioneered a quota system for public school students.
Now, many more marginalized Brazilians may be able to reap the same benefit. A system that was an experiment at scores of universities like UERJ over the past decade has become law: public federal universities must reserve half of their spots for underprivileged students hailing from public schools, disproportionately attended by minorities.
The law, signed in August and set to be completely implemented within four years, will have the widest impact on Afro-Brazilians, who make up more than half of the nation’s population.
“Without the law, many black students could not get into the system,” says Rodrigues, who is Afro-Brazilian.
With its new law, Brazil has gone the furthest in the Americas in attempting race-based equality. Not only is the law a state-mandated program, it also attempts to open up the traditional bastions of the elite to all. Quotas are strictly prohibited in the United States, but they have been implemented for race, ethnicity, and gender from the Americas to Europe, from legislatures to corporate boardrooms. But Brazil’s move does not just secure certain spots for minorities: It moves to reflect the racial and socioeconomic reality of the country, and it could ultimately have a major impact on Afro-Latino movements across the Americas.
The Afro-Latino movement has made strides in the region in the past two decades. In Brazil, a black judge, Joaquim Barbosa, was recently appointed as president of the country’s supreme court. Ecuador and Bolivia codified the rights of minorities in recent constitutions. Peru appointed its first Afro-Peruvian to a ministerial position in 2011, though she has since stepped down.
In Colombia, which has the second-highest percentage of Afro-Latinos behind Brazil, Afro-Colombians are guaranteed two seats in Congress.
But many consider Brazil’s quota law for public universities a game changer because it opens up the bastions of social opportunity to previously excluded populations, says Christopher Sabatini, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly (AQ).
In Brazil, and throughout most of Latin America, public universities, which are free, are among the best in the country. But they are often filled with middle- and upper-class families who could afford tuition at private elementary and secondary schools that prepare their children for college. Meanwhile, those from public high schools usually have to attend private, often inferior, universities.
The new Law of Social Quotas in Brazil, which received near unanimous support from lawmakers, came after an earlier supreme court decision in April that upheld quotas at the University of Brasília. The new law is still controversial.
The law mandates that half of those admitted into the nation’s federal universities come from public schools and, among those, the spots will reflect the racial makeup of each state.
Affirmative action has long been resisted in Latin America, which considered it an import of the US, where it was first tried. After abolishing slavery, Latin America never implemented the segregation policies of its neighbor to the north, and has intermixed racially and ethnically far more than has the US. But fuzzy definitions of race don’t preclude racism.
“The main problem is this idea that this is a mestizo country where mixed-blood people are the majority, and mixing bloods gave us democracy,” says Jaime Arocha, an anthropologist and expert on Afro-Colombians.
“This is the founding myth in most Latin America countries. [Many believe] that our systems are not as segregationist as those in the north,” Mr. Arocha says. “But if you go to a national university in Colombia, the amount of professors of African descent is not more than 2 percent. In terms of students, we do not have more than 5 percent. [Universities] should reflect the demographic profiles of the country.” (Some 10 percent of Colombia’s population is of African descent.)
The quotas now in place in Brazil are controversial in countries like Colombia. Last year, when the nation was debating issuing certificates to prove ethnic and racial descent—arguably a huge practical problem given the mixing of races—columnist Hector Abad wrote in the daily El Spectador that doling out a “black certificate” would be lambasted as overt racism if the same certificates proving “Aryan” descent were distributed.
Fifty-one percent of Brazilians identify as black or mixed, according to the 2010 Brazilian Census. It was considered a landmark because prior to that Brazilians tended to self-identify as white.