Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action?


Susan Graham for Project RACE

If you think multiracial people have racial and ethnic problems in the United States, just look at what’s happening in Brazil. Forty-three percent of Brazilians self-identify as part pardo or brown. In the United States, multiracial people are about seven percent of the population. Their census has 136 classifications and ours has 57 for multiracial combinations.

Brazilians often do not identify as white or black, but fall into an assortment of names like dark nut, burnt white, and copper. It reminds me of the 1990s in the United States, when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was actually considering a “skin gradation chart” for their racial categories. Thank goodness that didn’t happen.

Brazil has a very complex history, which I won’t go into here, but 5.5 million Africans were forcibly transported to Brazil in its story of slavery. They have never been and are now no closer to a color-blind society than we are.

Affirmative action is very scary in Brazil. Many multiracial Brazilians are being rejected or thrown out of affirmative action programs for being too white. Whether you agree with the basics of affirmative action or not, will what’s happening in Brazil ever happen to us in the United States? Will affirmative action bite the dust rather than try to qualify its participants?

Schools there are setting up race boards to inspect future educational and job applicants, It may surprise you to learn that Louisiana, in fact, had “race clerks” to maintain the one-drop rule and ensure racial “purity” until 1977.  The race boards in Brazil may be the law soon. About 25 students were recently expelled from one of the leading universities for “defrauding” the affirmative action system when they were found to be not “black enough.”

One of the points we won in the 1990s in the United States was for self-identification on the census and on all other forms requiring racial and ethnic information. It was a very important victory, as important as having the ability to check more than one race. We should never forget that it was a huge win from the previous observer identification policy. In Brazil, people can self-identify, but identification is very different in Brazil, as F. James Davis wrote in Who is Black, “The implied rule is that a person is classified into one of many possible types on the basis of physical appearance and by class standing, not by ancestry.” There is a big difference in the way the two countries count by race.

The criteria used by those universities and employers in Brazil are indeed scary and include the following: Is the candidate’s nose short, wide and flat? How thick are their lips? Are their gums sufficiently purple? What about their lower jaw? Does it protrude forward? Candidates can be awarded points per item, like “hair type” and “skull shape.” So, the laws stipulate that an applicant’s race should be self-reported, but then accuses them of lying for affirmative action purposes. Many of these students are resorting to something called the Fitzpatrick scale that grades skin tone from one to seven, or whitest to darkest. It’s something we would, hopefully, never tolerate in the United States. Yet, the race commissions in Brazil have a lot of support from the black community.

The United States must be aware of the tactics utilized in Brazil and we have to learn from them. If affirmative action remains alive in our country, let’s make sure it is fair for our multiracial population.



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