An Overview of Affirmative Action Policies in Brazil

By Isabel Morales

Racial discrimination has historically existed in Brazil, and it is reflected in many spheres of the country’s society through human rights abuses, police violence, and economic inequality (United Nations, n.d.). The introduction of affirmative action policies within higher education in Brazil have sought to combat some of these inequalitiesYet, the implementation of the policies over a decade ago is a controversial topic in Brazilian society todayAffirmative action intends to decrease the racial inequities in Brazil by increasing opportunities for Black and underrepresented individualsbut many Brazilians continue to question the policies’ true impact. 

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888, which has left a deep-rooted legacy of racism in the country. Currently, Brazil has the largest population of African descent in a country outside of Africa with 56 percent of approximately 212 million Brazilians identifying as Black in 2020 (Nugent & Paulo, 2020). However, Afro-Brazilians make up just 18 percent of congress and 4.7 percent of executives in Brazil’s 500 largest companies (Nugent & Paulo, 2020). Black Brazilians earn about half of the income of the white population—a factor that was exacerbated by the pandemic (Nugent & Paulo, 2020)Studies have revealed that even Black Brazilians with the same background as white Brazilians when considering age, work experience, educational level, sex, class origin, and labor market characteristics, earn about 20 to 25 percent less than white Brazilians (United Nations, n.d.). This reflects the significant income and racial inequalities present in Brazil. The country currently has the highest Gini index coefficient compared to other Latin American countries. The Gini index measures wealth distribution within countries from zero to one hundred percent, and Brazil is measured at 53.9 percent (Lloyd, 2015). Besides income, Afro-Brazilians face more challenges accessing healthcare and high-quality education, which is linked to high rates of poverty and unemployment (Toruño 2020).  

To better understand how some of these inequalities arise, it is important to examine Brazil’s higher education system. The system in Brazil differs from others in Latin America due to its late origins and its relatively low levels of enrollment in the public sector (Lloyd, 2015).  The first universities in Brazil were created in the 20th century, while the first universities in countries under Spanish control such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Peru, were founded in the 16th century. The late development of universities in Brazil had a significant impact on the country’s higher education policy (Lloyd, 2015)When Brazil’s first university in Rio de Janeiro was created in 1920, a research-focused German education model of the time was implemented. This then led to the creation of other well-known research universities such as the University of São Paulo—the region’s top-ranked institutionBrazil has free public education up to postgraduate level for domestic and international students, so most public universities only charge student fees (Times Higher Education, 2019)Paradoxically, public universities tend to be superior in ranking to private universities, such as São Paulo University. However, public universities account for a small percentage of enrollments (Telles & Paixão, 2013). This is because students who are enrolled in public universities disproportionately come from private secondary schools that Brazil’s more privileged classes attend. On the other hand, lower class Brazilians usually enroll in private universities, which account for around 70 percent of higher education students in Brazil (Telles & Paixão, 2013).  

The elite characteristics and inequality in Brazilian higher education is one of the influences that sparked the debate over affirmative action policies (Lloyd, 2015)Arguments in favor of affirmative action mainly came from Afro-Brazilian activists fighting against the widespread idea of Brazil being a racial democracy (Telles & Paixão, 2013; Lloyd, 2015). In 2001, President Henrique Cardoso adopted the country’s first affirmative action policies in the public sector, specifically for government jobs (Lloyd, 2015). The policy required that the Brazilian Ministry of Agrarian Development set aside 20 percent of new jobs for Afro Brazilians. Other race-based policy efforts had taken place previously in other municipalities, but the affirmative action policy passed in 2001 was the first implemented on a large scale and at the federal level (Telles & Paixão, 2013) 

Affirmative action expanded to many public universities and federal law now requires it at all public universities (Telles & Paixão, 2013). These policies required a percentage of jobs to be reserved for underrepresented groups. For instance, 20 percent of the jobs at the Brazilian Ministry of Agrarian Development had to be reserved for Afro-Brazilians (Lloyd, 2015).  In terms of higher education, legislation from 2012 made it mandatory to reserve 50 percent of spots in federal universities to students from public high schools. Additionally, it became mandatory to reserve a percentage of seats for Black, brown, and indigenous students depending on the proportion of each group in each state population (Heringer, 2020)For example, the Northern region in Brazil reserved 2.7 percent of seats for Afro-Brazilians and indigenous students and 22.9 percent for graduates of public high schools and students from low-income families (Lloyd, 2015). On the other hand, universities in the Southern region reserved 4.1 percent for Afro-Brazilians and indigenous students and 24.2 percent for other low-income students (Lloyd, 2015). Research has shown that the demographics of students in Brazil’s universities have become more diversified, and the higher education system is much more democratic and less elitist than it was prior to the affirmative action policies (Heringer, 2020). The proportion of Black Brazilian students who entered federal universities increased by 51 percent between 2003 and 2017 (Heringer, 2020) 

Though affirmative action policies have diversified universities and increased the educational and labor opportunities for Black Brazilians and other minorities, there are still opposing views regarding its implementation and benefits to society (Heringer, 2020)The past presidential election polarized views regarding affirmative action. President Jair Bolsonaro has stated his disapproval towards these quotas, claiming they divide Brazilian society because Brazil is already a racial democracy. Other individuals claim that Brazil’s development is harmed by these quotas. They argue that helping certain groups access higher education goes against the principal of merit which allows qualified individuals to bring prestige to universities and forward economic development (Carneiro, 2013). On the other hand, some activists and individuals who do support affirmative action policies are skeptical about their efficacy. This is mostly due to the use of race and ethnic criteria. Brazil’s greatly diverse population makes racial ambiguity an issue in cases where race and identity are criteria for acceptance into universities and jobs. In many cases, university applicants who identified as white but have African or indigenous ancestry take advantage of these quotas and start identifying as a minority (Telles & Paixão, 2013). Also, though affirmative action in universities is significantly important, this only affects a small proportion of the Black population in Brazil. Most of Brazil’s Black population have working-class jobs—mostly within the informal sector— and affirmative action has little effect in the labor market (Telles & Paixão, 2013).  

Evidently, affirmative action and racial quotas are significant and impactful policies that work towards increasing equality in Brazil. However, these policies alone are not enough to combat Brazil’s high level of racial inequalities and deep-rooted racism. Long-term reductions in Brazil’s racial inequality are possible. However, this is a long process that requires additional universal and race-based policy measures that can expand to other areas of society and that are supported by the government. 



Carneiro, B. J. (2013, August 29). Brazil’s universities take affirmative action. BBC News. 

Lloyd, M. (2015). A Decade of Affirmative Action in Brazil: Lessons for the Global Debate. National Autonomous University of Mexico. 

Heringer, R. (2020, January 27). The Future of Affirmative Action Policies in Brazil. Society for Cultural Anthropology. 

Nugent, C., & Paulo, T. B. R. (2020, December 16). How Black Brazilians Are Looking to a Slavery-Era Form of Resistance to Fight Racial Injustice Today. Time. 

Telles, A., & Paixão, M. (2013). Affirmative Action in Brazil. Latin American Studies Association. 

Times Higher Education. (2019, August 23). The cost of studying at a university in Brazil 

Toruño, Benji. “Black Lives Matter Protests Resonate in Brazil.” Latin America Working Group, 5 Aug. 2020, 

United Nations. (n.d.). Racial Discrimination and Miscegenation: The Experience in Brazil 



About Author(s)