“As the proudly mixed-race country grapples with its legacy of slavery, affirmative-action race tribunals are measuring skull shape and nose width to determine who counts as disadvantaged”
Late last year Fernando received news he had dreaded for months: he and 23 of his classmates had been kicked out of college. The expulsion became national news in Brazil. Fernando and his classmates were roundly vilified. The headline run by weekly magazine CartaCapital — “White Students Expelled from University for Defrauding Affirmative Action System” — makes it clear why. But that’s not how Fernando sees himself. He identifies as pardo, or brown: a mixed-race person with black ancestry. His family has struggled with discrimination ever since his white grandfather married his black grandmother: “My grandfather was accused of soiling the family blood,” he said. So when he applied to a prestigious medical program at the Federal University of Pelotas, he took advantage of recent legislation that set aside places for black, brown, and indigenous students across the country’s public institutions. Brazil didn’t begin experimenting with affirmative action until 2001, because it collided with a defining feature of Brazilian identity: the idea that it was a “racial democracy,” whose history favorably contrasted with the State-enforced segregation and violence of America and apartheid South Africa. But as the country’s black activist groups have argued for decades, it is a myth. Brazil’s horrific history of slavery --5.5 million Africans were forcibly transported to Brazil, in comparison with the just under 500,000 brought to America-- and its present-day legacy demanded legal recognition, they said. Two decades ago, these activists achieved race-based quotas at Universities. In a country as uniquely diverse as Brazil — where 43% of citizens identify as mixed-race, and 30% of those who think of themselves as white have black ancestors — it’s not immediately clear where the line between races should be drawn, nor who should get to draw it, and using what criteria.