Lessons from Brazil

Below is the text of TORCH Visiting Professor Marcio Goldman's talk at the TORCH event, Towards a diverse university: lessons from the Global South, which took place on Tuesday, July 3, 2018.

Good afternoon. First, many thanks to TORCH, The Mellon Foundation, The University of Oxford, The Department of Anthropology. And also to Elizabeth Ewart and Ramon Sarro for proposing this talk, Katherine Collins for the organization, and everybody here. Second, apologies for my clumsy English. To be pretentious I will quote Claude Lévi-Strauss when he said something like “when I speak English I never say what I want to say but what I can say.” Third, more apologies for the fact that I am going to try to talk about something I’m not a specialist in. My involvement with what we call in Brazil ‘affirmative actions’ and ‘ethnic-racial quota’ policies derives from my involvement with Afro-Brazilian collectives with whom I have been working for a long time (that is why I will talk more about the situation of Afro-Brazilians than about that of indigenous people). And also, as you will see, from a debate in the institution where I work, the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

As a social anthropologist, I’ll try to talk, not about, but from a more or less personal experience in a specific context, the Brazilian one, with no intention of commenting on what is happening in the United Kingdom or other places where situations are of course very different. But, as anthropology also teaches us, I speak always with the hope that my personal experience may help to understand other experiences. And anyway, in a perfect world the theme of affirmative actions and quota policies would have no need for “experts”.

Since I do not have much time, I’m not going to fill it with too many statistics that can easily be found in many sources. Nevertheless, a few numbers might be necessary. The last (2016) “National Survey by Sample of Households” (PNAD), of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) give the following numbers for the Brazilian population (205,005,000 people):

  • 8.2% identified as Black (Pretos); 46.7% Brown (Pardos) [the sum of Blacks (Pretos) and Brown (Pardos) is considered by the Black Movementa as total of Blacks (Negros) in the country, that is 54.9% of the population];
  • Indigenous (Indígenas): 0.5%;
  • Yellow (Amarelos): 0.4%;
  • Whites (Brancos): 44.2%.

This means that between 2012 and 2016, while the Brazilian population grew 3.4%, the number of those who declared themselves white declined by 1.8%, and on the other hand the number of self-declared browns grew by 6.6% and blacks by 14.9%.

 In contrast to this data, in 2000 only 2.2% of undergraduate students were black. But in 2017 this number was 9.3%, which means that there were four times more black students than there had been 17 years earlier. However, despite this growth, black students have not yet reached the rate of white graduates. Among the white population, currently 22% graduate from university, which is double  the number of white graduates compared to 2000.

I do not know the numbers at the postgraduate level but of course they were and are even worse. This situation of discrimination and injustice has led, especially since 2001 with the Third World Conference against Racism in Durban, to the intensification of the struggle for the promotion of the rights of the black population, a struggle that, of course, is much older. The Brazilian document at the conference already proposed “the adoption of quotas or other affirmative measures that promote the access of black students to public universities.”

Also in 2001, the State University of Rio de Janeiro implemented the first quota system in the country, and in 2012, the State Parliament enacted a law establishing the quota system for all state universities. In 2003, after a case of academic racism, the University of Brasilia became the first federal institution to implement a quota system for black students. But it was only almost ten years later (in 2012), when several public universities had already adopted different systems of affirmative action at undergraduate level, that the federal government instituted the so-called “Law of Social and Racial Quotas” for all public universities in the country and, in 2014, for selection to public sector jobs.

It should also be taken into account that the less conservative governments that ruled Brazil between 2003 and 2016 offered somewhat more adequate conditions for the advances of the struggles of the black and indigenous movements. In this respect the coup d’état of two years ago has made the situation much more difficult, and today we can say the entire system is under threat and even risks being destroyed altogether.

 In any case, from 2005 onwards, public policies promoting affirmative action provoked intense discussions in the country, especially in universities. In 2006 two petitions appeared, one for and the other against two laws then under discussion in Parliament, the Quota Law and the Statute of Racial Equality. The arguments against these laws were basically of four types:

  • A legal one claiming the unconstitutionality of quotas because they contravened the principle that “all are equal before the law” etc. In 2012, however, the Federal Supreme Court unanimously rejected a court action against the program of racial quotas at the University of Brasilia. The Court held that affirmative actions cannot be considered forms of discrimination and since the Brazilian Constitution says it is the duty of the State to promote equality, it should also be its duty to implement policies to correct historical inequalities.
  • A socioeconomic argument stating that racial quotas are a form of discrimination against poor whites. However, it is clear that racial quotas do not preclude affirmative policies according to income, and this is the way they have been applied in Brazil. On the other hand, it is impossible to deny the historical degree of exclusion of the black population, which demands specific redress. We should always remember that Brazil was the last Western country to abolish slavery as late as 1888.
  • An anthropological argument, claiming the impossibility of identifying “blacks” in a “miscegenated” country like Brazil. There is no time to elaborate on this point here and it is enough to remember that the idea of “racial democracy” has always been one of the instruments to perpetuate inequalities in Brazil. In the end, almost all affirmative action programs adopted self-identification as a form of selection. And although this system is now being discussed because of the existence of some fraud, it is undeniable that in the vast majority of cases it is working quite satisfactorily.
  • Finally, a set of supposedly “academic” arguments: quotas would subvert the principle of merit and lower the standards in universities. The solution, in this case, so the argument goes, should be sought in improving the quality of public basic education. But here, the operation of the quota system in universities for almost twenty years speaks for itself: the performance of quota holders quickly becomes similar or even superior to that of non-quota holders. This, I believe, also points to the fragility of our systems of selection which eliminate potentially promising people solely because of a past that is absolutely compromised by the discrimination and inequality they face. As for the improvement of public basic education, no one has ever been against it but it is difficult to understand why this would be seen as incompatible with quotas in universities.

By 2012, with the exception of one or other smaller postgraduate program, quota policies were restricted to undergraduate courses. However, in the institution where I work, which only admits postgraduates, the students had put the subject under discussion from 2006 onwards. But the, let’s say, silent reaction of the faculty members postponed any vote on the proposal to introduce quotas for six years, until 2012! With only one opposing vote and two abstentions the proposal was approved for implementation the following year. This does not necessarily mean that all those who voted in favor were actually engaged in the implementation of the policy, having done so perhaps only because only because their position in the vote was inevitably going to become publicly known. Proof of this is that in the first two years that the system was in operation, the selection committees were particularly harsh and did not fill the number of available positions. After that I believe that the system started to work much better and has now reached a point and a sort of critical mass that already allows some further considerations.

The Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro was the first postgraduate program in anthropology to be established in Brazil in 1968 — offering PhDs degrees since 1973. Since then it has always obtained the highest marks in all evaluations and is considered the best program of social anthropology in the country. From 1973 to 2013 (40 years), the Program granted around 125 PhD titles, and of these no more than four to black students, two of them being non-Brazilian. Besides that, no indigenous person had ever obtained a master’s degree from the department until 2009, when Tonico Benites (a Guarani man) submitted his thesis, much less a PhD, until 2014, when the same student completed his doctoral dissertation. Since then the number of indigenous and black students has grown to the point where a black collective has been founded and several Master’s theses have been completed. To date there has only been one more PhD dissertation, but from next year on this number is set to increase considerably.

All this allows us today to reflect on the effects of these policies on postgraduate programs beyond or beside issues of justice, struggle against inequality and reparation, which of course are absolutely fundamental. As I said, I do this from a very personal point of view or experience. Tonico Benites, who I just mentioned, was my student in a course on “anthropological theory.” To this day, I remember very well how his presence in the classroom made it impossible for me to keep repeating formulas, clichés, and even continue with some of the apparently sophisticated elaborations I had been using for more than thirty years. This means, I believe, that his presence caused a certain shame, this kind of shame Deleuze claims to be an important driving force for thinking (Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations, 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, pp. 172-173). A shame that made me hesitate and as a result think more and, I like to believe, a little better. Since then I have been a teacher of a few more indigenous students and many black students (some of them as a supervisor) and this experience has always been repeated.

I believe that when we speak of “opening up” or “diversifying” the university we have to understand these terms in a very strong sense because the promotion of diversification cannot be confused with mere tolerance for difference. It is not simply a question of “opening the university” by making some sort of “concession” to the underprivileged, tolerating their presence in a space that insists on remaining unchanged and that requires from them only adaptation. Diversification must be understood as a continuous process of producing differences on all sides, on the students’ side certainly, but also on the side of the university.

In this regard, it is very important to mention that alongside the quota policies, another kind of affirmative action was established in Brazil, the so-called “Encounters of Knowledge” (Encontro de saberes). In these encounters, indigenous and black thinkers, and masters from traditional communities in general, teach regular courses at universities. All the narratives we have about these encounters attest to their incredible political and epistemological effects. Of course, they do not have the same effect on everyone, nor do they work in the same way in all fields of knowledge. Nor should it be so, since when we speak of learning from others we must always remember that what we have to learn is not only content but also how to learn, as Bateson established with his concept of deutero-learning (Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an ecology of mind: collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972, pp. 167-183). And perhaps it is even possible and necessary to also learn to relate to and use in other ways the things that we consider “our own.”

Thus it is quite probable, for example, that there is not much to learn from indigenous thinking about, say, technical-scientific procedures for the construction of nuclear bombs. But it is equally likely that there is much to learn about the very meaning of making these bombs and about the relationship with the knowledges that make them possible. And I remember that long ago Michel Foucault asked a question that he left unanswered: will it be possible to transport Western scientific medicine to other places without bringing together its immanent devices of power? That is: would it be possible to graft knowledges in such a way that instead of ignoring, destroying, or simply tolerating each other they become stronger?

In a book published in 2011 and translated into English in 2014 with the fascinating title “Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaithful Daughters of Virginia Woolf”, Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret return to the question answered by Virginia Woolf in 1938 about whether women should accept the university that had just been tolerantly opened up to them. The authors, who are important academics, know of course that it would not make much sense to simply repeat Woolf’s powerful negative in a world in which, albeit always problematic, the presence of women in the university is a fact. To return today to this question can only mean, then, to ask what women, but also indigenous peoples, black people, migrants — in short, minorities — can do with and for the University.

At a time when University faces the most serious threats coming from the state and from the market, it is wise to remember that these threats stem from the fact that for many, the very existence of these few and small spaces of relative autonomy that we still have is simply unbearable. That’s why I think that what is at stake are not great kindnesses or small concessions, but the transformations necessary for the university to become worthy of receiving those it has excluded since its foundation. I really believe that this is the only way we can proceed if we really want to resist the destruction that is looming.

To keep using a term that appeals so much to Stengers, it is therefore a question of reclaiming university, since “reclaim” does not mean any romanticism, no idealization of the past, but simply, in the beautiful words she wrote with Philippe Pignarre “to become capable once again of inhabiting the devastated zones of experience.” (Pignarre, Philippe & Stengers, Isabelle. Capitalist sorcery. Breaking the spell. New York: Pallgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 137)

To conclude, I also believe that this is why categories so in vogue today, such as postcolonial, decolonial, decolonization, and so on, must be taken with some care. As the great Brazilian quilombola thinker Antonio Bispo dos Santos — who is a frequent contributor to the encounters of knowledges I mentioned — strongly states, these categories put us at risk of imagining that forms of power such as colonialism (but also racism, fascism, and so on) can somehow be “undone”. Instead, Santos proposes a “counter-colonial” attitude, which does not forget that forms of power are not just historical phenomena that happened in the past or happen in the present and have disappeared or will disappear in the future (Santos, Antônio Bispo. Colonização, Quilombos. Modos e Significações. Brasília: INCTI, 2015). They are also molecular, threatening forces that are always present, so the resistance against them has to be continuous, intensive and intransigent. I would like to believe that affirmative action policies and quota systems are part of this counter-colonial struggle in and for the university. Thank you very much.

Professor Marcio Goldman
Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology, National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro


TORCH Global South Visiting Professors and Fellows
Humanities & Identities
Curriculum Diversity
Race and Resistance across Borders in the Long Twentieth Century

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