The Miami Herald
Mon, Feb. 09, 2004

Blacks' push for quotas stirs up Brazil

Over the past decade in Brazil, a vocal black movement has been demanding benefits such as racial quotas, but new public policies are polarizing the nation.

  Associated Press

  RIO DE JANEIRO - Black activists have a new weapon in their quest for racial equality in deeply divided Brazil: little white flowers.

  The white camellia has become a seal of approval that black leader Ivanir dos Santos and his Center for Articulation of Marginalized Peoples will award to stores,
  companies and schools that hire, promote and enroll black people.

  ''We're going to show that no one profits from racism,'' dos Santos said. ``In a country with a big black population like Brazil, this will be an important factor.''

  Dos Santos could be right. After all, nearly half of Brazil's 178 million people are Afro-descendants. If they started speaking with their pocketbooks, they would be hard to ignore.

  But dos Santos could be wrong, too, since racial unity has long been elusive in Brazil, which projects an image of tolerance and equality even though people with lighter
  skin continue to hold most of the nation's wealth and power.

  Only over the past decade has a small but increasingly vocal black movement begun demanding benefits such as racial quotas for universities, contracts, employment and even television and films where blacks rarely appear.

  Public policies to accommodate those demands are newer still.

  Last year, three state universities began implementing a system of racial quotas for the first time and this year several more are following suit.

  Even in their limited form, racial quotas have stirred up quite a fuss, challenging the oft-stated belief that Brazil is a ``racial democracy.''

  ''Before the quotas nobody even talked about discrimination. The quotas open the question up so society can see what's really happening,'' said Joao Gilberto de Sa Jesus, 21, a premed student admitted to Rio de Janeiro State University under the quota system.

  The quotas have also resulted in a slew of lawsuits from white students claiming discrimination.

  But Paulo Fabio Salgueiro, director of admissions at Rio de Janeiro State University, claims that the quotas have had little practical effect beyond stirring up racial tension.

  The university set aside 40 percent of last year's freshman class for black or mulatto students, but only 243 out of a class of 4,970 benefited, Salgueiro said, meaning only around 5 percent owed their admission to the quotas.

  ''The blacks who got in were mostly those who would have gotten in anyway because of their test scores,'' Salgueiro said. ``They were the ones who had enough money to pay for private high schools.''

  To correct these flaws, state legislators are now requiring quota-benefiting students to prove their families earn 300 reals -- about $100 -- a month or less.