Bolsonaro’s Election Threatens the Future of Brazil’s Quota Law

Brazil’s reservation policy recognises the state’s moral responsibility to the black and mixed-race community for years of suffering and racial discrimination. Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government wants to undo this.


In 2012, the Brazilian federal government passed a landmark legislation, reserving 50% of university places in federally-funded public universities for students from state schools. This 50% reservation was further divided: one-half was for low-income students (defined as earning up to 1.5 times the minimum wage) and the other half was for non low-income students. Within each income parcel under this scheme, black, mixed race, and indigenous students had to be represented according to their proportion of the state population. Students who entered via quotas could compete only against students in their particular category, meaning that the cut-off mark to enter university would vary according to a student’s category and subject.  This “quota law,” as it is known in Brazil, was a watershed moment for a country that has long denied or minimised the role that racism plays in denying equal opportunity and social mobility for a little over half of the country’s population. 

Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to formally abolish slavery in 1871. Although slavery was ended via decree, and not by civil war, as was the case in the United States (US), no compensation was given to former slaves nor was any investment made to help them integrate into society. This meant that the living and working conditions of most black Brazilians remained unchanged. The legacy of slavery in Brazil today is evident both demographically, and in exclusion from higher education, particularly from elite universities. According to the latest demographic study carried out in 2016 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IGBE), Brazil´s national statistics agency, 46.7% of Brazilians identified as pardo or mixed-race, 8.2% as preto or black, 44.2% as white and 0.43% as indigenous. Yet, prior to the introduction of quotas, Brazil´s elite public universities were dominated by middle to upper-class white students, many of whom studied in private schools, and who could afford to take expensive preparatory courses for the highly competitive university entrance examinations[1]

Both state and private schools in Brazil are Portuguese medium. However, a huge gulf exists in quality and resources between the two. The former suffers from a high rate of teacher absenteeism and infrastructure is severely lacking—less than half of public schools have sewage drainage facilities. The chronic low quality and underinvestment in state schools can be traced to Brazil's military dictatorship (1964–1988). During this time, the military overturned a previous law which mandated that a minimum of 12% of Brazil´s gross domestic product (GDP) and 20% of state budgets be invested in education. The amount spent on education declined from 12% to just 4.3% of the GDP in 1970 (Zinet 2016). At the same time, the military regime in 1967 passed a law legalising private schools. Even though the military made eight years of schooling obligatory, it did not invest in school infrastructure and adequate teacher training, nor did it bother to pay teachers a dignified salary. In effect, the military dictatorship created a two-tier education system: one for the poor, mostly black and mixed race students, and another for the middle-class and above who deserted the state school system, which remains in place today. Ironically, the situation at the higher education level is reversed: while private school students traditionally entered prestigious tuition-free public universities, state school students mostly attended fee-charging private universities. In São Paulo, Brazil´s most populous state, 85% of students study in state schools and 15% in private schools. Yet at Unicamp, one of Brazil's most reputed state universities, just 30% of its students came from state schools, and 70% from private schools, despite having its own institution-specific affirmation action policy (the 2012 quota does not apply to state universities) (Elton 2014).

Problems with the Quota Law

Like in India, the introduction of quotas has been controversial. Resistance to this system has been strongest towards race-based quotas, particularly among wealthier Brazilians. Brazilians distinguish themselves between two types of quotas: racial and social, the latter being based on income. Social quotas enjoy greater credibility and legitimacy in Brazilian society. A study by Hello Research, a leading online market research firm in Brazil, in 2016, found that 54% of Brazilians support social quotas, while 42% approve racial quotas (Lewer 2016). Besides leaving state schooling in a state of decay, Brazil’s military dictatorship also promoted an ideology of national unity and “racial democracy,” based on Brazil´s racially mixed population and purported racial harmony, emphasising the absence of racial discrimination. All social movements during this time were suppressed, including the black movement. Although the ideology of racial democracy has since been widely discredited in academic circles, in everyday life, many Brazilians still believe that class, and not skin colour, holds one back. 

Affirmative action policies in higher education were introduced in patchwork fashion, with each university adopting its own autonomous policy. The first university to adopt a quota policy was the State University of Rio de Janeiro in 2002, which reserved 20% of its seats for self-declared black and pardo students, 20% for students from state schools and 5% for students with disabilities. In 2004, the National University of Brasília (UnB) was the first federal university to adopt quotas, reserving 20% of seats for self-declared black and pardo students, regardless of the school they had attended.

Again, similar to India, these quota policies were challenged in court. In 2009, the conservative Democratas (DEM) party took the UnB to court over its racial quotas, alleging that they were discriminatory, unconstitutional, and fostered racial division. In 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of UnB´s quota policy, arguing that Brazil had a duty of solidarity and a national debt towards the descendants of former slaves. The Supreme Court ruling paved the way for the obligatory implementation of quotas nation-wide in federal universities over a period of three years. The advantage of the 2012 law was that it created uniformity in policy across Brazil, but at the same time forced the innovators of affirmative action in Brazil to abandon their former race-focused policies in favour of the more income-based 2012 quota law, making racial quotas always subordinate to and conditional upon income and type of school attended. Although the term “creamy layer” does not exist in Brazilian discourse, the 2012 law in effect excludes black middle-class students who attend private schools from benefiting from quotas, along with all students studying in private schools on scholarships.  Private universities, where 76.6% of Brazilian students study, are not included in the remit of the law, although government-backed scholarship and loan programmes exist for low-income students in the private sector.

Now that quotas have received both political and legal sanction, the main challenges revolve around the implementation of the law. Unlike in India, where caste certificates are required to prove caste background,  beneficiaries of Brazil’s racial quota “self-declare” (income and the school attended must be certified). Since racial boundaries are not rigidly defined in Brazil and mixing has created a whole range of pardo skin tones, this has led to controversy over how to prevent quota fraud and ensure that white students do not unfairly benefit from the policy. The 2012 law does not mandate that universities verify the racial identities of those applying under the quota for black and pardo students (indigenous students must provide documentation of the indigenous community to which they belong)[2]. Some universities have adopted verification committees to prevent fraud, but these too have been mired in controversy. The most well-known case emerged from the UnB, the federal university that pioneered racial quotas. In 2007, two mixed-race identical twins applied as quota students to the university at the same time: one was classified as black, and the other, white. This decision generated a heated debate around the value and practicability of having racial quotas in Brazil. The UnB was accused of having instituted “racial tribunals.” The university subsequently abandoned its verification committee, but with rising cases of quota fraud being denounced by the black movement and with black student groups mobilising to publicly expose white students who have made fraudulent use of the quota system, universities are increasingly moving towards verifying the self-declarations of black and mixed students[3].

In 2019, the State Paulista University of Júlio de Mesquita Filho expelled 27 students after a university investigation found that they lied when they self-declared as either black or mixed race. The Federal University of Minas Gerais is currently investigating 34 students who were denounced for quota fraud in 2017. After a blond, blue-eyed medical student—who later apologised and voluntarily left the university— entered as a quota student after self-declaring as black, the university has since created verification commissions and mandated that all quota students write a letter supporting their self-declaration. Furthermore, the black movement is campaigning for all quota students to have their racial identity confirmed by a verification commission, and argues that such verification should be based on phenotype and not on ancestry. In Brazil, both racism and colourism are strong: the darker your skin, the more prejudice and discrimination you will face throughout life. Black activists object to white students suddenly claiming black heritage—a phenomenon called afro-conveniência (afro-convenience) in Portuguese, when skin colour does not disadvantage such people in their daily lives. One solution would be for each university to convene a working group that involves black student groups to work out solutions to quota fraud so that the black movement feels that their voices are heard and concerns are more seriously addressed at the institutional level.

The Quota Law under Bolsonaro

In a short period of time, the government’s quota policy has succeeded in democratising access to university, which has transformed both the social and racial composition of Brazilian universities. According to the census of higher education carried out by the National Institute of Educational Study and Research, black/mixed individuals represented just 11% of university students in 2011. However, according to the latest census in 2016, this percentage had jumped to 30% (Brito 2018). The proportion of black/mixed individuals who are university graduates has climbed from 2.2% in 2000 to 9.3% in 2017. While this is still well below the white graduate rate of 22%, the overall trend is clear, and continues to improve. The fear that quotas would reduce quality and negatively affect academic performance has also not been borne out. Multiple studies carried out across the country have consistently shown that the grades of quota students are equal to or superior to those of non-quota students. The dropout rate of quota students is also lower than that of the general category. To cite just one study, carried out at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, the average grade of quota students is up to 89% higher in some disciplines than non-quota students. The same university also reported that in more than half of their courses, the cut-off grade is higher for quota students than it is for their general competition counterparts. When the cut-off grade is lower for quota students, the difference is less than 10% (Oliveira 2015). 

However, this university’s success story risks being undermined by the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army officer. Before being elected President, Bolsonaro attacked quotas and indicated that he would lower them (Globo 2011). He is particularly hostile to racial quotas and has also questioned Brazil´s collective responsibility for, and moral debt towards black Brazilians for 300 years of slavery (UOL 2018).  Bolsonaro´s victory in 2018 is due in large part to a series of corruption scandals that have seriously undermined public faith in politics, especially in the centre-left Worker’s Party, (PT), which passed the quota law, along with other social justice and economic redistribution legislation. Since taking office, Bolsonaro is yet to make any direct moves to modify the reservations policy in higher education; however, he has consistently targeted public universities and threatened their ability to function. In April 2019, he cut the federal university budget by a drastic 30% and attacked university autonomy and the democratic elections that are held to elect university vice-chancellors, which Bolsonaro alleges has resulted in the left-wing dominance of universities. He has further launched an ideological attack on specific disciplines, and has threatened to defund sociology and philosophy departments because they do not generate an immediate return on investment to the taxpayer, nor do they contribute to a student’s “employability.” These attacks led to the first massive demonstration since Bolsonaro came to power, which saw over 1.5 million people from across Brazil take to the streets in protest in May 2019 (AFP 2019). Bolsonaro responded by calling the protesters “useful idiots,” with “nothing in their heads” (Peres 2019).

However, the measures that could sound the death knell for democratic access to Brazilian public universities are the proposals that Bolsonaro and his Education Minister, Abraham Weintraub, floated in July 2019 to privatise federal universities, beginning with postgraduate courses. Bolsonaro´s neoliberal government would clearly like to privatise all universities in Brazil, and is searching for ways to do so incrementally and via the “back door.” A new policy, "Futura-se," incentivises public colleges to raise funds from the private sector. Privatisation would disproportionately affect the poorest students, the majority of whom are black and pardo. Even without having to pay fees, poor students struggle to cover their living costs and the costs of public transport, both of which are high in Brazil. Introducing fees for one group or category of students could easily lead to the slippery slope of fees for all, making quotas for black and pardo students effectively a dead letter, except for the most well-off. While Brazil´s racial democracy ideal is still far from reality, quotas have made a significant contribution to social mobility, and black and pardo Brazilians are a visible presence in universities in just six years. Sadly, this social progress is very much threatened by the neoliberal, privatisation agenda of Bolsonaro, which would block further practical implementation of the successful quota policy. 

Unlike in India, where reservation has tended to expand, as the latest 10% quota for economically weak general category students attests, in Brazil, there is no movement to exceed the current 50% quota. All attention is focused on protecting the advances that have been made to date, and above all, in keeping federal universities public, democratic, pluralist spaces where all forms of knowledge are valued.

The Next Step for Brazil’s Quota System 

When Brazil´s Supreme Court sanctioned the constitutionality of quotas, it also placed a time limit of 10 years on them, after which the 2012 quota law should be evaluated.  While any changes to the quota law would require majority congressional approval, the conservative wave that has recently shaken Brazil means that the continuation of the policy in its present form is by no means guaranteed[4]. However, the state legislature of Rio de Janeiro has recently extended its own quota policy for a further 10 years, and the example of India itself suggests that quota policies, once passed, tend to solidify and further expand. There is currently no regional or national movement to exceed the current 50% quota or extend quotas to the private sector, whether in universities or the workforce (In 2014, 20% of all federal government jobs were reserved for blacks/pardos). Bolsonaro will likely face steep resistance from both opposition legislators and civil societies should he decide to reduce the current level of reservation. The upcoming review of the quota law also presents an opportunity to include provisions that directly address and combat quota fraud, which are absent from the 2012 law.

The author would like to thank the anonymous referee for comments and feedback on an earlier version of this article.

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