Sala de aula com diversidade. Crédito: Neon Brand/Unsplash

The role of affirmative action regarding diversity in institution

Setting forth policies that ensure diversity in access to education, policy, and the job market is the government’s responsibility. Here’s how affirmative action improves inclusion

"In Brazilian universities, only 2% of the students are black". This is the opening sentence of the song "Capítulo 4, Versículo 3", by the rap group Racionais MC's. The number refers to the index conferred by IBGE. This is track number two in the album "Sobrevivendo no Inferno" (Surviving in Hell - Cosa Nostra, 1997), released a year before one of the most famous complaints of structural racial discrimination in Brazilian universities. Later on, it became a symbol of the fight of the black movement to implement legislation of affirmative actions in the country.

In 1998, Arivaldo Lima Alves, a distinguished student, graduated in social communication in the Federal University of Bahia and holder of a Master's degree in communication and culture, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, was not approved in the PhD course on “Social Organization and Kinship" from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Brasília (UNB). He was the first student to fail the exam within 20 years of existence of the course (except for cases of huge absence).  Ari was the only black student of the department.

Integrantes dos Racionais MCs no Capão Redondo. Crédito: Arquivo/Racionais MCs
Integrantes dos Racionais MC's (Edi Rock, Mano Brown, KL Jay e Ice Blue) no Capão Redondo. Crédito: Arquivo/Racionais MCs

This occurrence became famous as "the Ari Case” and started the first program of racial affirmative action beneficiaries in federal universities in Brazil. Arivaldo’s research advisor, PhD Professor José Jorge de Carvalho, was outraged with the situation and, in the following year, presented to UNB the project of affirmative action to students of low income and to the black, brown and native Brazilian minorities (known as PPI, which stands for pretos, pardos and indígenas in Portuguese). In June 2003, the ethnic and racial affirmative action beneficiaries’ system was approved by UNB, from the initiative of the Academic Council of the institution.  

"It was an excruciating experience that marked my personal, academic and professional trajectory. From that moment on, I redefined my personal and academic insertion project. This need for redefining projects brought me some discomfort. From another perspective, I would say that not only me, but also those who supported me emerged victoriously", said Arivaldo in an interview with Agência Brasil, a Brazilian news agency, in 2009. "Despite all the pain and difficulties I had, it was something crucial. I started to understand what’s the intellectual trajectory of a black person in Brazil, got a new perspective of the establishment of the Public Brazilian University, and understood how science, such as anthropology, could help me understand my reality better, my condition as a researcher, and as a citizen".

Learn more:
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Diversity and inclusion in the workplace: a worthy challenge
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Beneficiaries enhance diversity in Brazilian universities

Before UNB, the first Higher Education institution to adopt social affirmative action was the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), in 2002, according to the State Law 4151/2003.  However, it was only in August 2012 that President Dilma Rousseff, of PT (Worker's Party), approved Law No. 12.711/2012, the main normative milestone of affirmative action policy in Brazil. The "Affirmative Action Law" states that every higher education institution linked to the Ministry of Education and federal high school technical institutions must keep, at least, 50% of the vacancies to socioeconomic and racial affirmative action beneficiaries. Still, regarding higher education, this law is effective for all 68 Federal universities of the country and the Federal System of Professional, Scientific and Technological Education comprising 659 units.

According to the criterion set by the Affirmative Action Law, every candidate that has completely attended public high school is eligible; out of this total, half of the vacancies are destined to students with a per capita family income equal or below to 1.5 minimum wage (nowadays, BRL 1,497). The racial-ethnic value varies from state to state. The law determines that the percentage value of vacancies for PPIs must be equal to the percentage of black, brown, and indigenous native population of that federation unit, according to the last demographic census of IBGE.

The state of Rio de Janeiro, for example, has 51.8% of PPI population. In other words, more than half of the affirmative actions are destined to candidates that fulfill this requirement. The criterion to determine racial-ethnic is the self-declaration, as it occurs in the Census; the income proof, on the other hand, requires the presentation of documents, following the criterion requested by the university.

Affirmative action beneficiaries in higher education

According to the National Household Sample Survey (PNAD), published by IBGE in 2017, the general Brazilian population is composed by 55.4% of black people (According to the institute classification, it comprehends black and brown people). Although black people comprehend most of the Brazilian citizens, they are sub-represented by the higher education institutions. Among young blacks from 18 to 24 years old, only 12.8% are students from higher education institutions.

"The black and brown population have been amplifying the access to education and health, but there's still a huge historical heritage, which means that public policies must keep focusing on this group", says André Simões, researcher of IBGE, to Agência Brasil. "A country like Brazil needs specific measures to fix inequality. It’s something that must be done."

Renato Janine Ribeiro, professor and lecturer of the Philosophy Department at the University of São Paulo (known as FFLCH/USP) and former Minister of Education, affirms that this law is crucial in two aspects to promote more equality: It broadens opportunities to all public school students and cooperates with the correction of heritage linked to slavery, colonialism, and discrimination against black and native Brazilian people.

"The ‘social and racial affirmative actions’ are very useful for debates. I believe the actual model meets the demands very well, though. The point of race miscegenation is something real. It’s hard to define a black person in Brazil," says Janine Ribeiro. "However, it’s very clear to victims of discrimination, police suppression, and to people who are dismissed of job vacancies because it requires 'good appearance'. I believe the actual system balances the needs of social and racial equivalences very well."

However, according to the former Minister of education, it's something with an expiration date - in Brazil, this law has been active for 20 years. "It’s like a historical and current correction. After correcting injustice and inequality, it must be a process that counts exclusively on merit. The law must exist for a determined period of time."

Integrantes do movimento negro no STF. Crédito: José Cruz/Agência Brasil

For now, the performance of the affirmative action beneficiary students has been similar to the non-affirmative action beneficiaries, being a little inferior, however. The research "Does affirmative action increase diversity without compromising the performance?", developed and published by the Federal Fluminense University, in 2013, determined that the affirmative action beneficiaries students had a 9.3% smaller score in the National Student Proficiency Exam (ENADE) in comparison to the non-affirmative action beneficiaries. In relation to the grade performance in the institutions, the coefficient of performance of the affirmative action beneficiaries is 8.5% higher than the non-affirmative action beneficiaries.

Brazilian news service Folha de São Paulo assessed the performance of 252 thousand affirmative action beneficiaries and non-affirmative action beneficiaries students in the Enade editions from 2014 to 2016. The research concluded that in 33 of the 64 different courses, the average grade of the students benefited by the affirmative actions was superior or up to 5% inferior to the general average - such performance is considered similar.  The study identified, however, a more critical performance in exact sciences, comprehending seven out of the ten cases in which the grade difference was bigger. The hypotheses brought up by the news from Folha de São Paulo is that the public schools lack in quality when teaching mathematics. "The moment that the underprivileged student is approved by the university, he's going to work hard to make good use of this opportunity," said Luiz Cláudio Costa, former Minister of Education, to Folha de São Paulo.

The Affirmative Action Law in Brazilian universities brought access to higher education to more than 150 thousand young PPIs, and it was praised by the United Nations (UN). In 2012, the authority commended "the efforts of the State and the Brazilian society to fight inequality and in the implementation of affirmative policy to guarantee equality, therefore, achieving the goals of country development."

The UN highlights the importance of diversity and inclusion in achieving a fairer society and improving sustainable development, and qualifies this value as the fourth of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The authority acclaims the "insertion of policies that bring more integration of groups, whose opportunity had been historically limited, such as African descendants, indigenous descendants, women, and disabled people."

Civil Service Affirmative Action

Given the positive outcomes of Affirmative Action policy on universities, the measure was also adopted for the federal civil service. In June 2017, the Supreme Federal Court (STF) assembly acknowledged the enforceability of Law 12,990/2014, which reserves 20% of vacancies through civil service exams for permanent civil workers and federal jobs in direct and indirect public administration settings. The decision was unanimous.

For the rapporteur, minister Luís Roberto Barroso, the law is motivated by the historical slavery debt and current structural racism in Brazilian society. “We’re paying a historical debt to those who inherited the social weight and social cost and moral, socioeconomic stigma of slavery in Brazil. Once abolished, those people were left on their own, with no real conditions to be integrated into society,” he said in a voting session.

The dean of the Court, minister Celso de Mello, cited attorney and abolitionist Luiz Gama (1830-1882) to depict “how the trajectory of battles of black people has been long, not only for judicial emancipation, but also social emancipation and for the fair, legit and necessary inclusion.”

Julgamento da constitucionalidade da Lei de Cotas. Crédito: José Cruz/Agência Brasil

The exclusion of the non-white population was a nationwide project, said Carmen Dora de Freitas, president of the São Paulo section at the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB-SP). “The black immigrant was enslaved, while European immigrants were helped by the government with land donation and money,” she completed. “After slavery was abolished, 1.5 million blacks were left on the streets, forgotten. From there, laws were enacted that directly hit the black population, such as the loitering law, which lasted until the ‘60s. Authorities found that there were many people on streets loitering. But they weren’t idlers, they were free blacks, who were sick, disabled and even mad, and the labor market didn’t incorporate them,” she explains.

How do other countries apply their Affirmative Action law?

Debate on affirmative action policies began in Brazil much after other western countries. In the United States, for example, the first idea of proposing a historical compensation for black people because of slavery dates back to 1865; that is, nearly 150 years before the Brazilian Affirmative Action Law - even before Brazil’s slavery abolition, which took place in 1888. The proposal consisted of granting 40 acres of land and a mule for each black family in Georgia, in the southern region of the US. The project never became real.

Instead, there was a regression: in 1876, there were the Jim Crow laws, enacted in southern states and which determined that most public locations, such as schools and buses, would have facilities for whites and for blacks in separate. Such laws were enforced for almost a century, and were only abolished when the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964.

The Civil Rights Act is the landmark for the start of the de facto affirmative actions in the United States. At first, the actions were directed at opening vacancies for black workers in civil construction and encouraging companies to open a minimum number of vacancies for them. At the time, President Lyndon Johnson gave a speech at Howard University, advocating the Affirmative Actions. “"You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: 'now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.' You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair…. This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity - not just legal equity but human ability - not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result." Johnson’s meaning was unmistakable.

The University of California pioneered affirmative action programs for minorities. The outcomes overcame expectations by far and the program was suspended in 1995. In a short time, the percentage of black students in the university dropped to levels similar to those in the ‘60s, about 2%. This model re-emerged in 2001, this time with automatic admission of best performing public school students - hence, the rates rose again.

Alunos indianos na universidade. Crédito: Ravi Jha/Unsplash

In India, secular segregation by castes triggered intense economic, right and opportunity inequalities. Throughout Indian history, there has been a formal difference between citizens, meaning that individuals from the Dalit caste were prohibited to study and suffered from blatantly discriminatory government policies. To revert the situation, in 1947, India then included Affirmative Action in its Constitution, not only in education, but also in government jobs and civil services. The outcome is significant: in 1950, graduated Dalits were only 1%, while in 2005 this number went up to 12%. Today, Indian universities reserve 22.5%-49.5% of vacancies for discriminated groups. “India is an international example on Affirmative Action systems,” said Márcia Lima, Professor at USP’s Sociology Department and researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap).

Other nations have consolidated affirmative actions to date. The best examples are South Africa, where blacks and whites can study at the same institutions after the end of Apartheid policy; Canada, with reserve of vacancies for native peoples and Eskimos at universities, civil services and even at the Parliament; Australia, with policies aimed at Aboriginals.

“Each country designs its model to the type of institutions they have. Affirmative Action is a model, not the unique format, and it’s usually employed when one starts policies to settle great inequalities. Over time, other types of adhesion emerge,” explains Márcia Lima.


Conteúdo publicado em 30/01/2019