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A formula for equity

Affirmative action has broadened black people’s access to the most competitive undergraduate programs in Brazil, but the impact on black jobs has been limited

Luana Vitra

First launched around two decades ago, affirmative-action policies for black, brown, and indigenous people have helped to drive diversity in higher education, particularly in the most competitive programs—such as engineering and medicine—and in southern universities. But despite the increased access to undergraduate and graduate university programs, black employment levels in both the public and private sectors have remained low. Management and better-paid positions are still largely held by white men.

A research project—titled Latin American Anti-racism in a Post-Racial Age—conducted at the University of Cambridge and the University of Manchester from 2017 to 2018 with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK, found that affirmative action, laws criminalizing racism, and awareness campaigns were some of the most commonly adopted measures in Latin American countries in the mid-2000s. In Brazil, where black and mixed-race people represent 56.2% of the total population, according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the first institutions to implement affirmative action in admissions in the early 2000s were the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), Bahia State University (UNEB), and West Zone State University (UEZO). In 2004, the University of Brasília (UnB) and the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) followed suit.

In 2012, Federal Law no. 12 711 required 50% of spots in federal universities to be reserved for students from public schools. Half of those spots are reserved for youth in households with an income per capita of less than one-and-a-half minimum wages. The other half is allocated to other students with higher per-capita incomes. Within each income bracket, universities are required to enroll a percentage of black, mixed-race, and indigenous applicants that reflects the makeup of the relevant state’s population. This means that the total percentage of black, mixed-race, and indigenous students at a university must be equivalent to the total percentage of those minorities in the state population. “By taking both race and income into account, this type of affirmative action benefits society more broadly and not only people of color—it includes white students from public high schools, and excludes black students from private schools, who presumably have had access to a better secondary education than students in public schools,” explains economist Hélio Santos, chairman of Oxfam Brasil.

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Impact on science

Reflecting these policies, in 2018 black and mixed-race students accounted for 50.3% of enrollments in public universities, according to the IBGE. “Article 7 of the affirmative action law is due to be amended in 2022 to include mechanisms for tracking students’ academic and professional careers, including program completion or abandonment, entry in the job market, and pay grades,” notes Santos, who in 1984 founded and initially managed the São Paulo Black Community Council, one of the first organizations in Brazil to develop, advocate for, and track racial equity policies.

In an effort to measure the impact from affirmative action in Brazilian federal universities, in 2018 Adriano Souza Senkevics, an education sociologist at the National Institute for Education Studies and Research (INEP), partnered with Ursula Mattioli Mello, an economist at the Barcelona School of Economics, in Spain, to assess shifts in the profiles of undergraduate students as a result of those policies. By intersecting data from the Higher Education Census and the National High School Examination (ENEM), they compared the profiles of students entering university between 2012 and 2016 in terms of their academic background, self-identified color and race, and per-capita income. Although they recognize that the expansion of university places since the 1990s, the creation of higher learning institutions outside major cities, and the increased offering of nighttime programs has also influenced the recent shifts in student profiles, Senkevics and Mello argue that affirmative action can be credited for a 50% increase in black and indigenous university students in Brazil.

A paper published in 2019 with preliminary findings from their research shows that, between 2012 and 2016, the shift in student profiles was most marked at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC), the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), and UnB, especially in the most competitive university programs—such as medicine, law, and engineering. “These institutions and programs have been significantly transformed by affirmative action,” says Senkevics. He notes that the South of Brazil saw the highest relative gain in black, indigenous, and public-school students entering higher education, with UFSC, to name an example, recording a 120% increase in the presence of black, mixed-race, and indigenous university students coming from public schools. “In 2012 those minorities accounted for 6.4% of admissions to UFSC, and by 2016 they accounted for 14.2% of the total,” he notes in comparison.

Research shows that the academic performance gap between students admitted under affirmative-action policies and those admitted through regular admission pathways is now small or nonexistent

Another example is the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), where black, mixed-race, and indigenous students from public schools rose from 8.7% to 15.6% over the same period. Among the programs with the most marked changes in student profiles, says Senkevics, was the Bachelor of Laws program at UFC—from a 1% share of black, mixed-race, indigenous, and low-income students from public schools to 27% in 2016. In the electrical engineering program at UFSC, the share of minorities went from zero to 13.7%, while the medicine program at the Federal University of Rondônia (UNIR) recorded a 38% gain.

In São Paulo, Senkevics cites as an example the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), the first public university to adopt affirmative-action policies. The share of black, mixed-race, and indigenous students from public high schools climbed from 16.14% to 24.23% over the same timeframe. In the university’s medicine program, the presence of these minority groups increased from 8.20% in 2012 to 19.35% in 2016. “But affirmative-action initiatives have had a lesser impact on the more popular programs. In some cases the number of minority students has even fallen in these programs,” says Senkevics. “Minority students appear to be attempting admission to more competitive programs.”

In 1993, physicist Sônia Guimarães became the first female and black professor to join the Department of Fundamental Physics at the Aeronautics Institute of Technology (ITA). During her first month at the department, there were not more than 4 female students out of a class of 120. She now sees the university’s diversity rates improving since it implemented affirmative-action policies in 2019. “Out of the 160 new students admitted to ITA in 2021, 17 are women, and 3 self-identify as black. I don’t know whether they were benefited by affirmative-action policies, but it’s the first time I’ve seen this happening since joining the institute,” says Guimarães, who has just won a patent for an infrared radiation sensor she developed.

Recent research has shown that the academic performance gap between students admitted under affirmative action policies and those admitted through regular admission pathways is now small or nonexistent. A 2020 study by researchers at São Paulo State University (UNESP) collected data from 2014 to 2017 on around 30,000 students at the university, including affirmative action students and those enrolled via regular pathways, and found no significant disparity in academic performance.

Similarly, a 2017 survey codeveloped by Jacques Wainer, a professor of electrical engineering at UNICAMP, and Tatiana Melguizo, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, compared the performance of around 1 million students in the National Student Performance Examination (ENADE) from 2012 to 2014, and found that those admitted under affirmative action policies either matched or exceeded the performance of their classmates. “People of color have gone from being the subjects to being the authors of research, producing knowledge that is strategic for Brazil,” says Santos of Oxfam, describing his own personal experience. With a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s and PhD in finance, in the last 15 years he has worked in the field of corporate social responsibility, advising corporations on matters involving ethnic and racial diversity.

Graduate programs
In 2017, one year after the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC) published a normative directive requiring federal higher education institutions to submit proposed measures for the inclusion of black, mixed-race, indigenous, and disabled people in graduate programs, the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) began to officially collect data about race and ethnicity in graduate education (see chart). Recent research has shown, however, that the number of graduate programs with affirmative action policies was already growing before the directive was published.

In a study she started in 2019 during her doctoral research at UERJ and which she is now continuing as part of a post-doctoral internship at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), political scientist Anna Carolina Venturini reviewed the admission rules for 2,700 graduate programs at public universities, published between 2002 and 2018. “In 2014, affirmative-action policies started to gain significant traction. Today, 1,090 graduate programs, or 39.4% of the total, include some form of affirmative action,” she says, noting that these initiatives may be established by the programs themselves, under a broader resolution of the university, or as a requirement under state regulations. Most programs with affirmative-action policies are currently in the humanities and social sciences, says Venturini. In other fields, such as engineering, progress has been slower. “As recently as 2018 I was unable to identify any graduate academic programs in engineering that had created affirmative-action programs on their own initiative, but only under university resolutions or as a legal requirement,” she notes.

In investigating the reasons for adopting affirmative action policies in graduate programs, Joaze Bernardino-Costa, a professor of sociology at UnB, found that 33 of the 69 federal universities in Brazil had implemented policies for black, mixed-race, indigenous, and disabled applicants under resolutions passed by university boards. “This means that those policies apply to all graduate programs and are not decided upon by individual program managers,” he clarifies. Universities are increasingly investing in curricula designed to combat racism, says Bernardino-Costa, a trend that is especially noticeable in humanities and social science programs, as discussed in his book, Decolonialidade e pensamento afrodiaspórico (Decoloniality and Afro-diasporic thought; Autêntica, 2019). Although the number of research projects and fields dedicated to ethnic and racial issues is still limited, there appears to be a growing movement to diversify the scope of research at universities. “Historically, the textbooks used in humanities and social sciences programs have been written by white European and American authors. The inclusion of a diverse spectrum of students in graduate studies has led to the incorporation of textbooks written from other social and historical perspectives,” says Bernardino-Costa. He also notes that there is now a growing market for books written by black authors, such as translations of theoretical works by feminist bell hooks and sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, and republished books by Brazilian authors such as poet, writer, and playwright Abdias do Nascimento (1914–2011).

Mário Augusto Medeiros da Silva, a professor of sociology at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), believes diversity is important in science and academia. From his experience selecting candidates for the graduate programs he has taught at UNICAMP’s Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH) since 2015, he has observed that researchers in different fields have begun to engage in research involving aspects of the black experience, including anthropology, political science, philosophy, history, demographics, and sociology. “Affirmative action in the academic environment is now high on the university agenda, with even private institutions adopting these policies,” notes Silva.

Greater diversity in higher education has not had a significant impact on minority employment in federal and state government agencies or in the private sector. In 2014, Law no. 12 990 required that 20% of positions available in federal agencies be reserved for black candidates. Similar legislation has since been enacted at other government levels. A report on racial representation in government positions, written in 2021 by Tatiana Dias Silva, an analyst at the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), found that there are proportionately more black employees in municipal government positions, which are typically lower paid positions involving the provision of government services. In academia, a Higher Education Census in 2014 found that only 60,194 professors self-identified as black, or 15.2% of total faculty. In 2018 the number increased slightly to 65,249, or 16.4% of the total.

The inequality observed in government agencies is mirrored in the private sector. According to a 2019 IBGE report, of the poorest 10% of Brazilians in 2016, 78.5% were black and 20.8% were white. This is reversed when it comes to the richest 10%: 72.9% are white and 24.8% are black. According to the report, 68.6% of managerial positions are held by whites, versus 29.9% by black and mixed-race individuals. A 2016 survey by Instituto Ethos of the 500 largest corporations in Brazil found that 95% of C-suite positions were held by whites. Blacks represented only 5% of executives (see the chart).

A study coauthored by Bárbara Castro, a professor of sociology at UNICAMP, and Helena Hirata, also a professor of sociology at the Center for Sociological and Political Research in Paris, found that the gender and racial pay gap in Brazil had narrowed from 2003 to 2015. According to the study, published in 2019, average Black income improved by 52.6% in the period, while income earned by whites increased by 25%. The highest gains were among black women, whose incomes rose by 58.5% in the study period. “However, the pay gap was narrowed not by an increase in education levels among black people but primarily by the rising minimum wage in recent decades,” argues Castro. Another factor affecting black income was the increased level of formalization in domestic and construction work.

Last July, a group of private-sector corporations in Brazil launched a Racial Equity Pact that drew inspiration from a 2019 paper by economists at Stanford and the University of Chicago, which showed that the inclusion of blacks and women in highly skilled occupations accounted for around 20–40% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in the US from 1960 to 2010.  The initiative calls for the adoption of a Racial ESG (environmental, social, and governance) Protocol, i.e. governance measures designed to expand racial diversity. As part of this strategy, economists have developed an ESG Racial Equity Index that measures racial imbalances at companies based on workforce composition, average wages and the racial distribution in the region where the company operates. The initiative will encourage Brazilian companies to conduct assessments against this index and act on them by creating affirmative-action programs and undertaking social investment to expand racial equity.

1. Two results in Education – computers and primary education and comparative studies of social actions in Brazilian universities (nº 15/19288-0); Grant Mechanism Research Internship Abroad; Supervisor Jacques Wainer (UNICAMP); Investment 75,193.23.
2. The colors of citizenship: Black clubs in the state of São Paulo (1897–1952) (nº 17/06218-9); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Mário Augusto Medeiros da Silva (UNICAMP); Investment 82,049.39.

Scientific articles
GALHARDO, E. et al. Desempenho acadêmico e frequência dos estudantes ingressantes pelo Programa de Inclusão da UNESP. Avaliação. Vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 701–723. São Paulo, Nov. 2020.
HURST, E. et al. The allocation of talent and U.S. economic growth. Econometrica. Vol. 87, no. 5, pp. 1439–1474. Sep. 2019.
SENKEVICS, A. S. and MELLO, U. M. O perfil discente das universidades federais mudou pós-lei de cotas? Cadernos de Pesquisa/São Paulo – Fundação Carlos Chagas. Vol. 49, no. 172, pp. 184–208. Jun. 2019.
VENTURINI, A. C and JÚNIOR, J. F. Política de ação afirmativa na pós-graduação: o caso das universidades públicas. Cadernos de Pesquisa/São Paulo – Fundação Carlos Chagas. Vol. 50, no. 177, pp. 882–909. Sep. 2020.
WAINER, J. and MELGUIZO, T. Políticas de inclusão no ensino superior: avaliação do desempenho dos alunos baseado no Enade de 2012 a 2014. Educação e Pesquisa, Vol. 44, e162807, São Paulo, 2018.