Using affirmative action to decrease racial inequality is the latest chapter of a long tradition of comparing Brazil and the United States with regard to race. After over ten years since its implementation, affirmative action in Brazil has been bathed in controversy.
Dr. Vania Penha-Lopes, professor of Sociology at Bloomfield College, has authored the book Confronting Affirmative Action in Brazil: University Quotas Students and the Quest for Racial Justice (Lexington Books). The book is based on her sociological study of the first class of graduating affirmative action, or “quota,” students from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). She is a native of Rio de Janeiro.
Her book explores the need to understand the first results of a public policy expected to promote major social change, as it represented the first time Brazil admitted to the existence of racial inequality and took measures toward combating it despite any successive controversy or fall out.
While the university quota policies have created opportunities for upward social mobility for their qualifying students, the university cannot bring full racial justice to Brazil on its own because the higher university setting is but one sector of Brazilian society. The university remains a privileged arena still occupied by a numerical minority of Brazilians, regardless of race.
“In Brazil, Whites are now the minority, numerically, but not socially,” Dr. Penha-Lopes stated, while informing the group that 86% of Brazilian whites are descendants of African Americans. “The definition of ‘race’ in Brazil is not the same in the United States. In Brazil, race is subjective and terms vary from region to region. If they were in the United States, they’d be considered Black, but in Brazil, they are White. That’s the issue in Brazil: race is so fluid. One’s racial classification can change so quickly.”
Dr. Penha-Lopes provided an example of such quick change, telling the group that if someone knows that a Black person has a university degree, that person may be considered “lighter,” whereas if the person’s level of education is unknown, the person may be considered “darker.”
Dr. Penha-Lopes also noted during her discussion that she views the future of affirmative action as a social policy in Brazil as uncertain since the recent major political change brought up by the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the installment of Michel Temer as her successor.
Dr. Penha-Lopes believes her book is timely for both Brazil and the United States, as both struggle with racial justice in higher education. This book responds to the United States’ dismantling of affirmative action programs and a belief that they have run their course.
“What compelled this study was that there was all this buzz, polarization, in the media surrounding affirmative action in Brazil,” the professor stated. “Yet, there were no interviews with the actual quota students. I wanted to hear their stories.”
The book signing was held on Tuesday, September 19 in the Shelby Art Room. It was sponsored by the Division of Social & Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Dan Skinner, chair of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences, delivered the opening remarks.
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About Dr. Vania Penha-Lopes
Vania Penha-Lopes is Professor of Sociology at Bloomfield College, in New Jersey. She is also co-chair of the Brazil Seminar at Columbia University (2008-present) and was a member of the executive committee of the Brazilian Studies Association-BRASA (2010-14). A native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Dr. Penha-Lopes graduated with honors from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro with a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences (1982). She is also a graduate of New York University, with a Master’s degree in Anthropology (1987) and a Ph.D. in Sociology (1999). As a post-doctoral fellow at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (2006-07), she did research on the first graduating class of Brazilian university quota students. She has received a number of awards, including the Carter G. Woodson Institute Predoctoral Fellowship in Afro-American and African Studies, from the University of Virginia (1996-98), and the Scholarship for Study Abroad from the Encyclopaedia Britannica do Brasil (1982), of which she was the youngest recipient. Dr. Penha-Lopes has lectured extensively on comparative race relations, African American fatherhood, and racism in Brazil and has been interviewed for articles in The Washington Post, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, and O Estado de São Paulo. Her work has been cited in a number of books on race relations, in textbooks, and in peer-reviewed articles. In addition to Confronting Affirmative Action in Brazil, she is the author of Pioneiros: Cotistas na Universidade Brasileira (2013) and co-editor of Religiosidade e Performance: Diálogos Contemporâneos (2015).