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Nerds and Barbarians: Race and Class Encounters through Affirmative Action in a Brazilian University

  • ANDRÉ CICALO
Abstract

This ethnographic article discusses how race emerges between discourses of class and space at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro. Following a legal decision, this academic institution was required to implement racial quotas to combat social exclusion and raise the number of ‘black’ students in public higher education. A crucial question is whether such racially based policies help redress social inequalities, or whether they actually increase discrimination by reifying ‘racial’ differences in Brazil. I argue that the social diversity promoted by quotas at the university stresses certain urban tensions and unequal dynamics that come to be reflected within the university. However, it also reveals novel and positive paths by which policies can negotiate these contrasts.

Este artículo etnográfico discute cómo la raza emerge entre los discursos de clase y espacio en la Universidad del Estado de Río de Janeiro (UERJ). Tras una decisión legal, se le pidió a este centro académico implementar una cuota racial para combatir la exclusión social y elevar el número de estudiantes ‘negros’ en la educación superior pública. Una cuestión crucial es saber si tales políticas sobre la raza ayudan a compensar las desigualdades sociales, o si de hecho incrementan la discriminación al cosificar las diferencias ‘raciales’ en Brasil. Sostengo que la diversidad social promovida por las cuotas en la UERJ muestra tensiones urbanas y dinámicas sociales desiguales que se vienen a reflejar al interior de la universidad. Sin embargo, ésta también revela senderos novedosos y positivos en donde ciertas políticas pueden negociar tales diferencias.

Este artigo etnográfico discute como a raça emerge entre discursos classistas e de espaço na Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). Seguindo uma decisão judicial, a referida universidade foi obrigada a implementar cotas raciais para combater a exclusão social e aumentar o número de estudantes ‘negros’ na educação pública superior. Uma questão crucial é se tais políticas raciais contribuem para reduzir desigualdades sociais ou se elas na verdade aumentam a discriminação ao reificar diferenças ‘raciais’ no Brasil. Argumento que a diversidade social promovida pelas cotas na UERJ reforça certas tensões urbanas e dinâmicas desiguais que acabam se refletindo na universidade. Entretanto, caminhos novos e positivos também são revelados pelos quais diretrizes poderão negociar estes contrastes.

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1 The concept of ‘middle class’ is used here in its Brazilian sense, where it is widely considered part of the ‘wealthy’ or ‘upper middle class’, or the ‘dominant’ group. See Souza, Jessé, Os batalhadores brasileiros: nova classe média ou nova classe trabalhadora? (Belo Horizonte: UFMG, 2010). In working-class metropolitan areas and favelas in Brazil the population is phenotypically more diverse, although 66 per cent of favela households are still headed by preto (black) and pardo (mixed-race) women or men. Institute for Economic and Applied Research, ‘Retrato das desigualades de gênero e raça’ (2008), available at www.ipea.gov.br/sites/000/2/pdf/livreto_retrato_3edicao.pdf.

2 See Michael G. Hanchard, ‘Black Cinderella? Race and the Public Sphere in Brazil’, in Hanchard (ed.), Racial Politics in Contemporary Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).

3 Goldstein, Donna, Laughter out of Place (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

4 Such courses are social work, education and social sciences, as observed in Daniela Valentim, ‘Políticas de ação afirmativa e ensino superior: a experiência da UERJ na perspectiva dos professores da Faculdade de Direito’, unpubl. MA thesis, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, 2005.

5 Rosemberg, Fulvia, ‘Acción afirmativa para negros en la enseñanza superior en Brasil’, Alteridade, 14: 28 (2004), pp. 6574.

6 Quotas were temporarily suspended in the State of Rio de Janeiro in 2009 following claims that they were unconstitutional (see www.colegioqi.com.br/blog/fim-das-cotas-nas-universidades-do-rio). However, in November 2009 the Court of Justice of Rio de Janeiro reconfirmed their constitutionality. The state deputy Flávio Bolsonaro undertook legal action against quotas because he felt that they infringed on ‘equality’. The Brazilian media reported that the deputy had been informed by ‘some’ students that quotas had created distressing situations for their beneficiaries, and also increased levels of racism at university.

7 ‘Cotistas’ is an emic term consistently used by quota and non-quota students, academic staff and black organisations in Brazil to refer to quota students. On dropout rates, see Arruda, José Ricardo (org.), Políticas de ações afirmativas na Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro: Rede Sirius UERJ, 2007); Cicalo, André, ‘What Do We Know about Quotas?’, Vibrant, 5: 1 (2008), pp. 6582; Dayane Santos, ‘Para além das cotas: a permanência de estudantes negros no ensino superior como política de ação afirmativa’, unpubl. PhD diss., Universidade Federal da Bahia, 2009; Valentim, ‘Políticas de ação afirmativa e ensino superior’; Sales A. dos Santos, ‘Movimentos negros, educação e ações afirmativas’, unpubl. PhD diss., Universidade de Brasília, 2007, pp. 519–20.

8 Schwartzman, Luisa F., ‘Seeing Like Citizens: Unofficial Understandings of Official Racial Categories in a Brazilian University’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 41: 2 (2009), pp. 221–50. Schwartzman shows that many pardo students at UERJ do not self-identify as negro, thus problematising the affirmative action approach that lumps pardos and pretos together as negros.

9 Andrew Francis and Maria Tannuri-Pianto, ‘Endogenous Race in Brazil: Affirmative Action and the Construction of Racial Identity Among Young Adults’, Working Paper (2010), available at http://userwww.service.emory.edu/∼afranc5/Endogenous%20Race%20in%20Brazil.pdf. According to these authors the racial quotas in the University of Brasília have increased ‘black’ (negro) self-identification.

10 Valentim, ‘Políticas de ação afirmativa e ensino superior’; Maria P. Nery, ‘Afetividade intergrupal, política afirmativa e sistema de cotas para negros’, unpubl. MA diss., Universidade de Brasília, 2008. Nery approached this subject through a socio-dramatic experiment carried out with a group of students.

11 Folha Online (2008), ‘113 Cidadãos anti-racistas contra as leis raciais’, available at www1.folha.uol.com.br/folha/educacao/ult305u401519.shtml.

12 Sheriff, Robin, Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001).

13 Telles, Edward, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

14 Peter Fry, Yvonne Maggie, Marcos Chor Maio, Simone Monteiro and Ricardo Ventura Santos (eds.), Divisões perigosas: políticas raciais no Brasil contemporâneo (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2007). See also Fry, Peter, A persistência da raça: ensaios antropológicos sobre o Brasil e a África Austral (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2005).

15 Rosemberg, ‘Acción afirmativa para negros’.

16 IBGE data for 2007, available at http://noticias.terra.com.br/educacao/interna/0,,OI3205059-EI8266,00-IBGE+n+de+brancos+com+diploma+e+vezes+maior+que+o+de+negros.html. See also Fernandes, Florestan, The Negro in Brazilian Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969); Nogueira, Oracy, Tanto preto quanto branco: estudos de relações raciais (São Paulo: T. A. Queiroz, 1985); Costa-Pinto, Luiz, O negro no Rio de Janeiro: relações de raça numa sociedade em mudança (Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ, 1998); Hasenbalg, Carlos, Discriminação e desigualdades raciais no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1979); and Nelson Valle do Silva, ‘Updating the Cost of Not Being White in Brazil’, in Pierre M. Fontaine (ed.), Race, Class and Power in Brazil (Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Centre for Afro-American Studies, 1985), pp. 42–55.

17 In the 2008 Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílio (National Research by Household Sample, PNAD) by the IBGE, 48.8 per cent of the Brazilian population self-identified as branco/a, 43.8 as pardo/a and 6.5 as preto/a, while the remaining categories of amarelo/a and indígena together represented less than 1 per cent of the Brazilian population. See http://noticias.uol.com.br/especiais/pnad/ultnot/.

18 Charles Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in Amy Gutmann (ed.), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 25–73; Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, ‘Citizenship in Culturally Diverse Societies: Issues, Contexts, Concepts’, in Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman (eds.), Citizenship in Diverse Societies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 1–41. On ‘Justice as Fairness’, see Rawls, John, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001).

19 Htun, Mala, ‘From “Racial Democracy” to Affirmative Action: Changing State Policy on Race in Brazil’, Latin American Research Review, 39: 1 (2004), pp. 6089.

20 Sonia, Alvarez and Arturo, Escobar (eds.), The Making of Social Movements in Latin America: Identity, Strategy and Democracy (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992).

21 Dos Santos, ‘Movimentos negros, educação e ações afirmativas’. See also Amaral, Shirlena, ‘A política de cotas e o acesso do negro à universidade pública’, Confluenze, 1: 2 (2009), pp. 227–43.

22 120 anos de luta pela igualdade racial no Brasil: manifesto em defesa da justiça e constitucionalidade das cotas (2008), available at www.ifhc.org.br/files/pdf/manifesto-em-defesa-da-justi%C3%A7a-e-constitucionalidade-das-cotas.pdf.

24 Heringer, Rosana, ‘Mapeamento de ações e discursos de combate às desigualdades raciais no Brasil’, Estudos Afro-Asiáticos, 23: 2 (2001), pp. 143.

25 Amongst these, the Catholic organisation Educafro and the organisation Prevestibulares para Negros e Carentes (PVNC) were relevant.

26 For example, the NGO Palmares.

27 Maio, Marcos and Santos, Ricardo, ‘Política de cotas raciais, os “olhos da sociedade” e os usos da antropologia: o caso do vestibular da universidade de Brasília (UnB)’, Horizontes Antropológicos, 11: 23 (2005), pp. 181214; Maggie, Yvonne, ‘Políticas de cotas e o vestibular da UnB ou a marca que cria sociedades divididas’, Horizontes Antropológicos, 11: 23 (2005), pp. 286–91.

28 Alves-Silva, Juliana, Santos, Magda, Guimarães, Pedro, Ferreira, Alessandro, Bandelt, Hans-Jürgen, Pena, Sérgio D. J. and Prado, Vania, ‘The Ancestry of Brazilian mtDNA Lineages’, American Journal of Human Genetics, 67: 2 (2000), pp. 444–61; Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi, Genes, povos e línguas (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003).

29 Medeiros, Carlo A., Na lei e na raça: legislação e relações raciais, Brasil–Estados Unidos (Rio de Janeiro: DP&A Editora, 2004); de Carvalho, José J., ‘Usos e abusos da antropologia em um contexto de tensão racial: o caso das cotas para negros na UnB’, Horizontes Antropológicos, 11: 23 (2005), pp. 237–46; Sansone, Livio, ‘O bebê e a água do banho – a ação afirmativa continua importante, não obstante os erros da UnB!’, Horizontes Antropológicos, 11: 23 (2005), pp. 251–4; Guimarães, Antonio S., ‘Entre o medo de fraudes e o fantasma das raças’, Horizontes Antropológicos, 11: 23 (2005), pp. 215–17.

30 Nelson do V. Silva and Carlos Hasenbalg, ‘Race and Educational Opportunity in Brazil’, in Rebecca Reichmann (ed.), Race in Contemporary Brazil: From Indifference to Inequality (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), pp. 53–65.

31 The idea that black racial policies might raise black consciousness comes from a broadly accepted view within the black movement that considers that the category ‘black’ (negro) used for policies should include pardo (brown-skinned) and preto (dark-skinned) census groups, both discriminated against in Brazilian society (see Edward Telles, Race in Another America). In this way, affirmative action would be encouraging a biracial view of Brazilian society similarly to the system in the United States. On the need to raise racial consciousness in Brazil, see Hanchard, Michael G., Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945–1988 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994); Howard Winant, ‘Racial Democracy and Racial Identity: Comparing the United States and Brazil’, in Hanchard (ed.), Racial Politics in Contemporary Brazil, pp. 98–115; Nascimento, Abdias do, O negro revoltado (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1982).

32 Forty-nine per cent of brancos and 44 per cent of negros hold this latter belief, along with 52 per cent of white men, 55 per cent of people with high school educations and 63 per cent of people with household incomes equal to 10 or 20 times the minimum Brazilian wage (the minimum legal wage was Reais$ 415 in 2008). The figures are basically reversed among people with low education levels and incomes, as well as among black people (Datafolha, 2008).

33 Zona Norte is a relatively working-class area, despite the presence of some wealthier districts within it.

34 Alvito, Marcos, As cores de Acarí: uma favela carioca (Rio de Janeiro: FGV, 2001); Abreu, Mauricio, A evolução urbana do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro: Iplanrio, 1988); Andrelino Campos, ‘O planejamento urbano e a “invisibilidade” dos Afrodescendentes’, PhD diss., Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 2006.

35 An expression used in Cunha, Haroldo, Contribuição à memória histórica da Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro: UERJ, 1988), p. 41.

36 However, several informants noted that UERJ has always had a less typically middle-class status than other public universities, especially in courses that have gradually been abandoned by the middle class. This traditionally less elite profile of UERJ is also shown by the presence of evening undergraduate programmes, which cater for those who work during the day. See also Teixeira, Moema, Negros na universidade: identidade e trajetória de ascensão social no Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2003), p. 186.

37 To this 5 per cent, Law 5074/2007 also added siblings of firemen, policemen and other state security workers whose death or disability was due to service activities. In spite of the spreading institutional and activist habit of understanding ‘negros’ as both ‘pardos’ and ‘pretos’, neither the law nor the university offer any explanation or interpretation of the term ‘negro’ within university policies.

38 This was raised from R$ 300 in 2004 to R$ 630 in 2007.

39 The study received formal permission from the university administration.

40 There were 9.29 applicants for every place in the law programme (vestibular data, UERJ, 2007).

41 The research used for this article is part of a wider research project whose objective was primarily to document the experience of affirmative action amongst quota and lower-class law students at UERJ. The fact of focusing on this group prevented me from equally constant access to the middle-class students’ social space, as these students largely associated me with the lower-class social group in the classroom. Having said this, I was able to access the law freshmen's middle-class environment enough to collect important data about this group.

42 See Burdick, John, Blessed Anastacia: Women, Race, and Popular Christianity in Brazil (London: Routledge, 1998). Burdick researched the racial politics and thoughts of black women who were not linked to mainstream black activism in Rio de Janeiro.

43 Statistics from the UERJ socio-economic database show that the social status of non-quota students in courses like education and social work can be also considered lower class.

44 Cristine, first-year law quota student.

45 The socio-economic gaps between quota and non-quota students in the Law Department are highlighted by the vestibular data divided per undergraduate programme: see www.vestibular.uerj.br/portal_vestibular_uerj/2008/dados_socioculturais/dados_socioculturais.html.

46 See Valentim, ‘Políticas de ação afirmativa e ensino superior’.

47 See also Maria A. Holanda, ‘Trajetórias de vida de jovens negras da UnB no contexto das ações afirmativas’, unpubl. MA diss., Universidade de Brasília, 2008.

48 In the evening shifts, according to informants, the frente–atrás pattern observed among the morning group was reversed. In the evening programmes, quota and lower-class students tended to sit at the back because most of them worked full-time and arrived late at university, or needed to leave class earlier to catch the last train home. This is a further example of how patterns of urban social inequality may be reflected in the classroom.

49 Gabriel, lower-class student, self-identified as white.

50 On a scale between A (top grade) and E (failing), quota students in the Law Department at UERJ usually have to score a B (more typical) or at least a C in the vestibular.

51 For differences between social patterns in law and those in the less elite courses such as education, see Holanda, ‘Trajetórias de vida de jovens negras’, p. 146.

52 €1=approximately R$ 2.6 at the time of my fieldwork.

53 On different law students’ lifestyles, see ibid., pp. 136–7.

54 See also Nery, ‘Afetividade intergrupal’.

55 Ibid.

56 Glória, law quota student. On the costliness of students’ outfits as a factor of social division in the classroom, see Holanda, ‘Trajetórias de vida de jovens negras’, pp. 125–6.

57 Edward Telles, Race in Another America, p. 98; Hanchard, ‘Black Cinderella?’. In particular, see Hanchard's point that ‘blackness taints’ (ibid., p. 75); see also Wade, Peter, Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). Wade argues that black people in Colombia are typically regarded as ‘black’ no matter how wealthy they are.

58 I have mentioned the widespread opinion that white quota students easily ‘pass’ as non-quota at UERJ.

59 Sheriff, Robin, ‘Exposing Silence as Cultural Censorship: A Brazilian Case’, American Anthropologist, 102: 1 (2000), pp. 114–32. Sheriff defines this silence as a form of ‘cultural censorship’, which she separates from state-sponsored censorship as it does not rely ‘on explicit coercion or enforcement’.

60 See also Valentim, ‘Políticas de ação afirmativa e ensino superior’, p. 121.

61 Sheriff, ‘Exposing Silence’, p. 114.

62 This point has already been supported theoretically by Nogueira, Oracy, ‘Skin Color and Social Class’, Vibrant, 5: 1 (2008), pp. xxixli.

63 Santos, ‘Para além das cotas’; Holanda, ‘Trajetórias de vida de jovens negras’, p. 136.

64 Sheriff, Dreaming Equality, p. 83.

65 Holanda, ‘Trajetórias de vida de jovens negras’.

66 For more on the class factors mentioned here, see Valentim, ‘Políticas de ação afirmativa e ensino superior’.

67 A black self-declaration does not imply that black quota users actually self-identify or are identified by others as phenotypically black.

68 Freyre, Gilberto, O Luso e o Trópico (Lisbon: V Centenário Morte Infante D. Henrique, 1961).

69 Here Luciana refers to the fact that UERJ is surrounded by a violent area, several favelas and general street criminality.

70 Rogério, third-year non-quota student from Zona Sul. This quote is extracted from a discussion between Rogério and a first-year non-quota student at a student party, where the latter student had expressed sarcastic comments about the low academic skills of his first-year quota colleagues.

71 Also see Valentim, ‘Políticas de ação afirmativa e ensino superior’. The majority of teachers and students stated that the best strategy would be to improve the standards of public schools, and that quotas should be accepted only as a temporary solution until this objective was achieved. However, most interviewees seemed very sceptical about the idea that any improvement of public education would be likely to happen in Brazil.

72 In research carried out by José Luis Petruccelli with 557 university teachers across several Brazilian universities, 77 per cent of interviewees said that race relations did not change at university after the introduction of quotas, and 80 per cent thought that it was important or very important to have racial diversity in their courses. Cited in dos Santos, ‘Movimentos negros, educação e ações afirmativas’, pp. 519–20.

73 Nery stresses how a psychological approach through group activities encourages social interactions between students of different backgrounds – see Nery, ‘Afetividade intergrupal’.

74 Appiah, Anthony and Gutmann, Amy, Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

* I am deeply indebted to the JLAS anonymous readers and editorial board, who helped me to improve the first versions of this piece. I also thank Peter Wade, John Gledhill and David Lehmann, who provided crucial comments.

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