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SÃO PAULO, Brazil – As the country’s classrooms become gradually more diverse, the debate over racial quotas at public universities has once again reached the Brazilian Supreme Court.
The 10 judges representing the country’s highest court voted unanimously on April 26 that affirmative action based on race is legal.
Though quotas remain a controversial issue in Brazil, the path to a college education is becoming increasingly accessible for Brazilians of African descent.
In 2000, only 2% of university students in Brazil were black, according to the NGO African Brazilian Society for Social Cultural Development (Afrobras), which is working to increase the inclusion of Afro-Brazilians in higher education.
That rate has risen to 13%, according to the Ministry of Education (MEC).
The federal government’s University for All Program (ProUni) provides scholarships in private universities to students with disabilities, as well as indigenous, mixed-race and black students. The number of scholarships awarded is based on percentages of each group within the overall population, using figures from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
“The situation is somewhat different because of ProUni, which made it possible for a lot of people from low-income communities to study at private universities (by granting them scholarships),” says Francisca Rodrigues, the director of communication for the Afrobras. “But the proportion is still very low when you take into account the fact that 51% of the population is black or mixed-race.”
Of the 919,551 scholarships awarded throughout Brazil by ProUni from 2005 to 2011, 35.34% went to students who declared themselves to be mixed race and 12.51% went to students who declared themselves to be black.
In addition, 51 of Brazil’s 123 public institutions of higher education adopted quotas for black students, according to a 2011 study by the Institute for Inclusion in Higher Education and Research titled the “Map of Affirmative Action in Brazil.”
Bills being considered by Brazil’s House of Representatives (PL 3627 of 2004 and PL180 of 2008) seek to reserve enrollment spaces for public school students, particularly black and indigenous students, at all federal institutions of higher education. And PL 6630/2002 mandates grants from the Higher Education Student Financing Fund give absolute priority to Afro-Brazilian and indigenous students.
But before this discussion reached Congress, the directors of Afrobras, which brings together intellectuals, government officials and public personalities, proposed the creation of the Zumbi dos Palmares College.
The idea was presented to the Ministry of Education as a strategy for including Brazilians of African descent in all aspects of society.
In 2003, the MEC authorized the college to operate in the city of São Paulo. The first undergraduate courses were offered the following year: management, law, advertising, education and land transport technology.
In 2013, courses are expected to be offered in human resources technology and financial technology.
As the first college created for people of African descent in Latin America, Zumbi dos Palmares was named after the most important black leader in Brazilian history.
Zumbi dos Palmares led Quilombo dos Palmares – communities of freed and escaped slaves founded in 1580 in northeastern Brazil – when he killed in 1695 after being captured by Portuguese colonizers.
To this day, his name remains a symbol of the struggle for racial equality in Brazil, where slavery was abolished in 1888.
Education for all
Zumbi dos Palmares College may help to reduce the historic educational gap between whites and Brazilians of African descent.
On average, black Brazilians receive 6.2 years of schooling, compared to the 7.2 years received by Brazilians of other races, according to the Observatory of the Black Population, which was created by Zumbi dos Palmares College, together with the Secretariat for Strategic Affairs (SAE) of Brazil’s Office of the President and the Secretariat for Policies to Promote Racial Equality (SEPPIR). Sixty-nine percent of illiterate Brazilians are black.
The low level of schooling is reflecting in the salary gap, as Brazilians of African descent receive an average of R$464 (US$246) monthly, well below the national average of R$640 (US$340).
Of the 16.2 million living below the poverty line in Brazil, 11.5 million are mixed-race or black, according to the IBGE’s 2010 Census.
“We believe that education is the key to allowing people to advance, insert themselves into society and demand their rights,” Rodrigues says.
Freedom of education
Zumbi dos Palmares College was also the first in Brazil to comply with Law 10.639 of 2003, requiring the teaching of Afro-Brazilian history and culture.
In addition to their commitment to diversity in terms of educational content, 50% of the school’s freshmen spots are reserved for people of African descent. Currently, 87% of the school’s 1,800 students declare themselves to be black.
Zumbi dos Palmares College has adopted a several measures to assist Afro-Brazilians who have financial difficulties or insufficient basic educational levels obtain their college degrees:
“Cost was a big part of my decision,” says Tatiana da Silva Barros, a 25-year-old earned her degree in management in 2011 and now works in the legal department at a bank. “By giving us this opportunity, the college encourages other black people to study.”
Students with financial difficulties can apply for scholarships covering 50% or 100% of monthly fees.
Renato Manoel de Souza, 32, is one of the scholarship recipients, as he’s majoring in education and pays for the course by giving capoeira classes three times a week at the college.
Souza, who is the first member of his family to attend college, has already convinced one of his cousins to follow in his footsteps. He also wants to encourage his sister, nephew and neighbors.
This network of positive influences is common at Zumbi College, where eight of 10 candidates applied because they were influenced by students who were already enrolled.
“I feel at home here because everyone shows up tired from work,” says Ricardo Henrique Rocha, a 19-year-old who enrolled after receiving a recommendation from a friend. “The methodology might be the same as it is everywhere else, but the vision of the institution is reflected in the lives of everyone who study here.”
Rocha, who is majoring in management, plans to study advertising after completing his first degree. Once he completes his studies, he hopes to have a career in politics.
Opportunities on the job market
With internship opportunities at companies such as Bradesco, Carrefour, Ford, Nestlé and Mercedes, the college helps its students enter the job market.
Most of the students – 85% – graduate with jobs.
“We’re trying to fix the past, developing people in the present and giving them opportunities for the future,” says Ulisses Mormile, a professor of sociology and philosophy. “We prepare students for society and we give them access to these companies.”
Thiago Pereira Ribeiro, a 28 year-old rapper known as “Thig,” is in his second year of the management program and has already landed an internship at a bank. He says the success of his friends who graduated from Zumbi influenced his decision to enroll at the university, but the sense of belonging was what motivated most.
“Human beings need to identify with their environments,” he says. “That’s why we need black presidents, black celebrities and black TV personalities.”