Brazil: Supreme court votes to back Affirmative Action programs in education

Students at State U. of Rio de Janeiro. PHOTO/Douglas Engle

Brazil’s top court has backed sweeping affirmative action programs used in more than 1,000 universities across this nation, which has more blacks than any country outside Africa yet where a severe gap in education equality between races persists.

The Supreme Court voted 7-1 late Thursday to uphold a federal program that has provided scholarships to hundreds of thousands of black and mixed-race students for university studies since 2005. Its constitutionality was challenged by a right of center party, The Democrats. Three justices abstained from the vote.

The court ruled last week in a separate case that it was constitutional for universities to use racial quotas in determining who is admitted.

“If I didn’t have the scholarship, I wouldn’t be here. It pays my entire tuition,” said 22-year-old student Felipe Nunes, taking a break between classes at the privately run Univerisdade Paulista in Sao Paulo.

Nunes, the mixed-race son of a mechanic, said he’s the first person in his family to attend university. He’s one of 919,000 recipients of a “ProUni” scholarship since 2005. The ProUni program funds studies in private universities for black, mixed race, indigenous and poor students whose primary education was in the public school system.

Education inequality in Brazil is stark despite economic advances that have seen 20 million people pulled from poverty since 2003. A woeful public education system is considered a weak link as Brazil tries to build on recent economic gains and become a global powerhouse.

There are shortages of trained labor in several key areas, such as engineers to help the nation develop its massive offshore oil reserves, the biggest finds in the Western hemisphere in three decades. Supporters of affirmative action say it will help the country fully tap into the potential of Brazil’s entire population.