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Racial quotas stir Brazil campus debate

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Amid the kaleidoscope of skin colors that is modern Brazil, Diego Souza Barreto is like millions of other young men: He has a cinnamon complexion and features that borrow a little from Africa, a little from Europe, and maybe a little from the Middle East. A few months back, when he applied for college, Souza Barreto had to "self-define" his race for the first time. He chose the box marked "pardo," which means brown or mixed race. "For me, pardo is a meaningless term," he said, frowning. "It's a word used to describe an envelope."

Diego was one of thousands of students who entered the State University of Rio de Janeiro this year as part of its new racial quota program. Never before had race been used as a criterion for admission to a Brazilian public university.

The quotas are an experiment in social engineering that many blacks hope will help start a revolution in race relations in Brazil. But at the State University of Rio, the attempts to redress the country's historic inequalities have plunged the campus into the complex and often bewildering world of racial identity.

Race in Brazil is a notion beset by paradoxes. Blacks and whites intermarry more commonly, perhaps, than anywhere else. But there is a clear racial divide between rich and poor.

"Brazilian law has always tried to deny that race exists," said Paulo Fabio Salguiero, the university's admissions director. "When slavery was abolished, all the records of the slaveholders were destroyed."

Brazilian slavery was a less rigid institution than its American counterpart -- a black slave, for instance, could buy his freedom -- but Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888.

Now, race is at the center of the admissions process, although it is not always clear who is black and who is not.

In Brazil, a national saying holds that everyone, no matter how fair-skinned, has at least a drop of "black blood." But there is also an inflexible racial pecking order: Walk into an upscale boutique or a corporate boardroom in Rio and other Brazilian cities, and black people all but disappear.

"The world is beginning to realize this other truth about Brazil -- that we are a country where racism has produced one of the most effective systems of domination in the world," said Ivanir dos Santos, one of Brazil's most prominent black activists. "Without a single law in place to support it, we have a hierarchy of skin color where blacks appear to know their place."

Dos Santos and other activists in Brazil say quotas at Rio's university and other reforms are long overdue. They see the university's step as the first in a Brazilian "reconstruction," like the 20th-century revolution in civil rights that began to chip away at the legacy of slavery in the United States.

But as in the United States, where racial quotas in university admissions were declared illegal in the 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Rio plan has provoked an angry backlash. About 300 students have filed lawsuits over the quotas, and the state government has scaled back the program for next year.

In the Rio quota system's first year, 40 percent of admission slots were reserved for black and pardo students and half for students who had completed all their schooling in public institutions (one student could fill quotas in both categories).

"Any quota system is wrong because it discriminates against white students for the crimes of the past," said Jair Bolsonaro, a federal congressional deputy representing Rio.

"I'm Italian. My father and grandfather were Italian. None of them had anything to do with slavery."

To these arguments, black activists respond with statistics illustrating glaring racial inequality. Blacks make up 2 percent of the nation's university students, even though nearly half of all Brazilians defined themselves as black in the most recent census.

Go to nearly any public university in Brazil, Dos Santos said, and you will be lucky to find one Brazilian-born black in its medical school. "The only blacks are the exchange students from Africa," he said.

"We pay our taxes, so why shouldn't we receive this public service we're paying for and which supposedly belongs to everyone?"

Salguiero, the admissions director, sees the quotas as a very crude answer to the issue of racial injustice. Implementing them, he said, has been like performing surgery with a hacksaw.

The State University of Rio is the region's most exclusive institution of higher education, attracting the brightest, most ambitious students from Rio's best public and private schools. Before this year, admission was decided solely through difficult entrance exams.

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