Inequality, Income and Race: Affirmative Action in Developing Nations
Inequality, Income and Race: Affirmative Action in Developing Nations

At the end of August 2012, as students prepared to return to universities in northern parts of Brazil for the new semester,  President Dilma Rousseff signed the new Law of Social Quotas, a sweeping decree on the nation’s policies of affirmative action for public Brazilian universities.

With the world watching, Brazil attempts to rectify inequalities that have existed in the nation since its inception. Brazil, the largest Latin American country and the country with the largest population in South America, remains one of the world’s most unequal societies (Glickhouse, 2009). However, Brazil is not the only nation implementing a potentially controversial affirmative action bill to counter-act years of inequality. Colombia and South Africa have also, in recent years, attempted to mandate practices that allocate quotas for underrepresented populations.

Large-scale Change in Brazil’s Public Universities

The newly enacted Law of Social Quotas was put into place precisely to reverse the long-standing racial and income inequality that has plagued the nation. The new law requires public universities “to reserve half of their admissions spots for the largely poor students in the nation’s public schools and vastly increase the number of university students of African descent across the country” (Romero, 2012). As Brazil has the largest population of people with African heritage outside of Africa, this law could potentially have a large impact on the racial dynamic of some public universities in Brazil (Hernandez, 2012).

The law obligates public universities to admit students in alignment with the racial makeup of Brazil’s twenty-six states and the capital, Brasília, which could lead to large changes for predominately black or mixed-race areas and little change in areas predominated by white populations like those in southern Brazil (Romero, 2012).

The Law of Social Quotas gives Brazil’s fifty-nine public universities a mere four years to ensure that fifty percent of the entering class comes from public schools, in an effort to curb the dominance of middle- and upper-middle-class students educated at private elementary and secondary schools. Luiza Bairros, the minister in charge of Brazil’s Secretariat for Policies to Promote Racial Equality, said officials expected the number of black students admitted to public universities to climb from 8,700 to 56,000 in coming years (Romero, 2012).

This law comes in the wake of the Brazilian Supreme Court’s unanimous decision this past April to uphold Federal University of Brasilia’s 2004 affirmative action program, which sanctioned twenty percent of its class be comprised of mixed-race and black students. Before that, several Brazilian institutions established race-based affirmative action for the first time in that country in 2001, following the United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa (Telles, 2009).

The Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro-Uerj announced an independent decision in October of 2003 to create its own affirmative action plan for black students, leading to the adoption of affirmative action plans in ten other Brazilian universities (Ramos, 2006). These plans were not fully adopted by all public universities until recently however. In upholding the 2004 law involving the Federal University of Brasilia, the court also declared that the affirmative action plan “was not only constitutional but an important duty and social responsibility of the nation-state in its enforcement of equality” (Hernandez, 2012).

Affirmative Action in Colombia

Brazil is not the only developing country in recent years to establish statutes that implement principles of affirmative action in universities and the workplace. Colombia presented an affirmative action bill to Congress in 2009. Though there is a façade of harmony among the races within the nation, some Afro Colombians, such as sociologist Edna Martínez experienced systematic racism firsthand. She remembered from her childhood in the poor neighborhoods of Bogotá, seeing a sign in an apartment window that read, “For rent, but not to blacks”. Recently, she has been turned down from various nightclubs while out with friends. These clubs claimed to be closed for private parties or threatened exorbitant cover charges for entrance (The Economist, 2012).

Edna Martinez is not alone. Colombia’s report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2009 concluded that black or Afro-Colombians are actually facing “structural discrimination” (Salem, 2010). Because these circumstances seem unchanging, despite lawsuits, some black Colombians support the government plan for an affirmative-action bill.

In the 1990s, important steps were taken to aid the Afro-Caribbean community’s involvement in national affairs. The nation’s 1991 constitution provided two additional congressional seats for Afro-Colombian and, in 1993, the Afro-Colombian communities on the Pacific coast were granted titles to the land occupied by their ancestors when slavery was abolished in 1851 (The Economist, 2012).

The myth that there is no racism in Colombia was abolished when a governmental committee realized Afro-Colombians were more likely to be poor, less educated, have shorter lives and higher infant mortality rates (Glickhouse, 2009). The committee proposed, “quotas for blacks in universities, government agencies and the armed forces, and incentives for companies to recruit Afro-Colombians as middle managers and for political parties to field black candidates. The role of Afro-Colombians, today little more than a footnote in history books, would be highlighted in school texts” (The Economist, 2012).

The Aftermath of Apartheid: South Africa and Affirmative Action

Similar to the inequality experienced in Brazilian and Colombian public schools during elementary and secondary education, South African students face vastly different educational systems often dependent on their race. The vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) notes, “Even 15 years after the end of apartheid, it’s still the case that 80 percent of black students go to very poor township schools or rural schools.” He continues, “Their teachers are poorly qualified, the schools are poorly equipped, and the result is that on the national exams, they perform poorly” (Kelto, 2011). So admission standards for UCT have tended to be quite different depending on the prospective student’s race. While white students must achieve the equivalent of straight A’s in order to receive admission, black and mixed-race students can be admitted with B’s. While this may seem quite controversial, the University of Cape Town does not make it secret but rather lists these criteria by race in the prospectus (Kelto, 2011).

These measures taken to create equality are ongoing in South Africa over the last fifteen years since the end of the long-standing and tumultuous period of apartheid that tore the nation apart. In 1998, President Nelson Mandela’s government backed a plan in which black South Africans would need to constitute sixty-nine percent of the workforce at all levels. The plan was designed to prevent discrimination, provide for affirmative action and bridge the wage gap between management and workers in the name of equality for black South Africans (CNN, 1998).

Recently, however, the controversy surrounding affirmative action in South African universities is concerned with whether or not these race-based policies actually create equality. Black students like Michael Tladi, who received admission to UCT after achieving good—not great—marks in secondary school, often felt overwhelmed upon entering the university. “I was not prepared financially, I was not prepared academically and I was not prepared for the new environment,” he said (Kelto, 2011). Tladi was, however, able to overcome these difficulties and graduate. He now hopes to be an inspiration to other underprivileged students.

Reactions to Affirmative Action

While some also see the affirmative action policies as a necessary staple in post-apartheid South Africa, others think it may be negatively contributing to the university system. Amanda Ngwenya, a student at UCT, worries that the policy is could be creating a sense of entitlement among her black peers. “It means they think that, ‘Because I’m black, I deserve special privileges. Because I’m black, I need to be treated differently,’ even though they are just as capable,” Ngwenya says (Kelto, 2011). In assessing the necessity of affirmative action in South Africa, vice chancellor Max Price of the University of Cape Town looks at the issue from a different perspective than university students. He asks that critics consider students’ socioeconomic status in their understanding of why race-based policies are the only way:

There are two fundamental arguments against the use of race. The first is that racial categorisation undermines our national commitment to nonracialism.

It forces us, and especially youngsters born at the time of the first democratic elections, to view the world, themselves and others in terms of racial categories.

The second argument against race as a basis for affirmative action is that it may include black students who are certainly not disadvantaged, may come from wealthier homes than most whites and may have had the benefits of 12 years of private-school education.

These are the reasons we ought to move away from a race-based policy. We should accept it in the interim only if there is no better solution and only if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Unfortunately, the University of Cape Town’s experience is that this is still the case.

If the task were only to identify economic disadvantage, this could be done by asking about income or by looking at the school a potential student attended. But the problem is that educational disadvantage has been the consequence of many determinants — including, but not limited to, economic disadvantage.

Experts worldwide recognize that these educational determinants take at least a generation to improve after the obvious economic measures of disadvantage and inequality have been addressed. (Price, 2012)

Focusing on the economic and racial inequalities faced by many in South Africa, Price is interested in rectifying these issues through race-based policy until the inequality is eradicated. But some wonder how this kind of policy will affect university administration and how changes to the admissions process might affect academics.

Senator Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, who voted against the affirmative action bill for public universities in Brazil, said, “It straitjackets universities because it violates their management autonomy” (Langois, 2012). Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Da Silva’s predecessor as president, echoed this sentiment, stating in an interview that, “I think it’s better to leave more freedom for universities to show how to adjust” (Romero, 2012).

Other critics argue that enforcing such expansive quotas will weaken the quality of Brazil’s public university system, given the nation’s relatively weak public elementary and secondary schools. Leandro Tessler, institutional relations coordinator at the University of Campinas, agreed. Tessler said, “you don’t create capable and creative people by decree” (Romero, 2012). In South Africa, affirmative action faces opposition from a middle-class black student who says he finds racial admission preferences “offensive,” and from a left-wing mixed-race professor, who spent a decade in jail with Nelson Mandela for opposing apartheid and says affirmative action now betrays the goal of a non-racial society (Kahlenberg, 2010).

Another issue with race-based plans is in the determination of who deserved to benefit from them. Some detractors against the Colombian affirmative action plan argue that the definition of race will be an obstacle in attempting to implement race-based affirmative action plans. In the 2005, Colombian census, 10.6 percent of the population defined themselves as black, but some demographers say the real figure could be as high as 26 percent.

In spite of these detractors, there are plenty who champion affirmative action. Jorge Werthein, director of the Brazilian Center for Latin American Studies, observed, “the democratization of higher education, which has always been a dream for the most neglected students in public schools, is one way of paying this debt” (Romero, 2012). Senator Paulo Paim also said that most Brazilians would benefit from the new law, as private schools only account for one of every ten students in Brazil (Langlois, 2012).


As more and more nations attempt to implement government sanctioned affirmative action programs with race-based criteria, the controversy surrounding the topic and the questions of the programs effectiveness will grow as well. These programs, meant to counteract past racism and racial inequality, are reversing many standards for college admissions as well as career placement. Underrepresented populations are now more visible in the university system, but the question of whether their poverty and subsequent poor education in elementary and secondary schools are preparation enough for college.

In nations like Colombia, where many of the racial lines are blurred due to mixed race backgrounds or desires to conceal one’s race, the question of race-based criteria becomes more complicated. Despite these problems, many citizens choose to focus on the success of enacting the affirmative action program. “Brazil is experiencing an extremely positive moment,” said Bairros, the minister in charge of Brazil’s Secretariat for Policies to Promote Racial Equality. Bairros recognizes this as a small victory. “Next, we will seek to extend this concept to other areas, like culture and jobs” (Romero, 2012).

Works Cited

CNN world. (1998, October 08). South Africa tries affirmative action. Retrieved from

Debating quotas: Black Colombians suffer “structural discrimination”. (2009, July 30). The Economist. Retrieved from

Glickhouse, R. (2009, August 06). Affirmative action in Colombia and Brazil: Shared lessons. Retrieved from

Hernandez, T. (2012, October 9). The view of affirmative action from the other side of the Americas. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Kahlenberg, R. D. (2010). South Africa’s affirmative action debate. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Kelto, A. (2011, May 10). Inequalities complicate S. Africa college admissions. Retrieved from

Langlois, J. (2012, August 8). Brazil approves affirmative action bill for universities. Global Post. Retrieved from

Price, M. (2012, January 06). In defence of race-based policy. Mail and Guardian. Retrieved from

Ramos. (2006, February 3). Affirmative action in Brazil: The day of the lambs. Black Commentator. Retrieved from

Romero, S. (2012, August 30). Brazil enacts affirmative action law for universities. The New York Times . Retrieved from

Salem, B. (2010, January 16). Colombians still fighting racial discrimination. Retrieved from

Telles, E. (2009). Brazil in black and white: Discrimination and affirmative action in Brazil. Retrieved from

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