Affirmative Action in Brazil

Surprising problems determining who qualifies for affirmative action in Brazil.

Posted Mar 30, 2012

Lady in litter being carried by her slaves, province of São Paulo in Brazil, ca.1860

In today’s New York Times (March 30, 2012) there is an interesting discussion by eight experts of the question, “Would Brazil benefit from U.S.-style affirmative action to counter its history of slavery?” The overall piece, labeled, “Brazil’s Racial Identity Challenge,” was stimulated by the buildup to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, and the desire to understand the culture of the colossus of the southern hemisphere. (Brazil occupies more than half the landmass of South America, is larger than our 48 contiguous states, and at nearly 200,000,000 has half of its continent’s population.)

The responses of the participants were hampered by the brevity of the space allotted to them. A key issue that could not be explored—and which all participants clearly understand--is the very different conceptions of race held by Americans and Brazilians. Micol Seigel referred to these as, “the incommensurate ways we delimit social categories.” Nevertheless, the responses grappled with the question at a level that was rarely reached in the U. S. during President Clinton’s national dialog on race.

A key Brazilian cultural expression is dar um jeito, with a range of meanings that go from creativity to flexibility to finagling to bribery and corruption. Slavery was much more widespread in Brazil than in the United States, and ended significantly later, in 1888. However, Brazil deu um jeito and avoided a civil war by phasing it out over nearly four decades. First the slave trade was abolished, then anyone born to a slave was free, then slaves over the age of 60 were freed, and finally, when many fewer people were still enslaved and the economy had had time to adjust, the institution was finally ended.

In a similar contrast, America with its one-drop rule drew a sharp color line between white and black. The American idea of race has traditionally been based on ancestry, so that anyone with a parent classified as black was also considered black—even if he or she had blond hair, blue eyes, and very light skin. In Brazil, people are classified by what they look like, with the number of categories varying from about ten or twenty in the south to well over a hundred in the northeast. A family in Salvador, Bahia with a mother, father, and six children might well be of eight different cores or tipos—the words Brazilian use instead of race. In addition, when darker people make more money and enter more prestigious occupations, they may become less black—the Brazilian expression is, “Money whitens.”

African Americans who visit Brazil as tourists, and may sometimes even be mistaken for Brazilians because of what they look like, return home with varying perceptions of Brazilian racism. Some will say that Brazil really does seem to approach its ideal of a “racial democracy,” while others express shock at the overt racism they encounter of a kind that has largely disappeared in the United States. It may not occur to them that the differing treatments they experienced depended significantly on what they look like. That is, in Brazilian terms, some were not discriminated against for being black because in Brazil they were not black. (The Brazilian judgment is made based not just on skin color, but on facial features and hair texture, not to mention clothes and other social class indicators.)

So a key problem in considering the question, “Would Brazil benefit from U.S.-style affirmative action to counter its history of slavery?” is that of “Who is black?” If there are benefits to obtain by being black, then some Brazilians have expressed concern that non-blacks (that is, those outside whatever category the government sets up) would dar um jeito and claim to be black. This is similar to the way some Americans have “rediscovered” their Indian roots after the development of casinos on reservations. It also explains why some of the participants in the discussion advocated affirmative action based on social class instead of “race.” The high correlation in Brazil between poverty and, for lack of a better term, blackness, means that the program would affect substantially the same people.

Image Source:

Lady in litter being carried by her slaves, province of São Paulo in Brazil, ca.1860

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About the Author

Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of psychology at St. John's University. He has authored and edited 12 books, including The Myth of Race.

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