The Brazilian Congress has passed a new law that requires no fewer than 20 percent of its civil service employees in the public sector to be of African origin. Good motives, bad policy.
SAO PAULO — Brazil's National Congress approved a new law last week that would establish a fixed 20% minimum quota for people of African ancestry to be hired for civil service positions filled through federal examinations.
President Dilma Rousseff is expected to sign the proposition soon. But we must say that this was a populist gesture, politically motivated, and likely to bring negative consequences for the country in the long run.
How would it work? Instead of the designations preto (black) and pardo (brown/mixed-race) traditionally used by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics and enshrined in the quotas law at federal universities, it refers to the generic: negro.
The term is tricky. Combining the population of pretos (7.6%, according to the 2010 Census) and pardos (43.1%), it ignores the fact that the latter are neither black nor white.
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Practicing capoeira in Porto Alegre — Photo: Tetraktys
The most problematic questions are yet to follow.
As is usually the case in these situations, the criteria for the jobs that are subject to the quota are based on self-declaration. To deter fraud, the project stipulates that false declarations will automatically disqualify a candidate.
In other words, the authors of the project want to appoint a type of racial tribunal that would decide if the candidates for the reserved positions are indeed black or brown.
Racism is real
The idea is highly unfortunate. First of all, there are no juridical or scientific criteria defining black, brown or white people. In a country as multiracial and interracial as Brazil, a search for ethnic definitions creates more problems than it could ever hope to resolve. In particular, it introduces the hateful factor of social cleavage.
Racism in Brazilian society cannot be ignored. Any close comparison of ethnic and socio-economical data proves its existence. It is, however, nonsense to fight this inequality by highlighting racial differences.
While there are good reasons to compensate disadvantages related to social condition, it does not make sense to deprive poor white citizens from any proposed benefits.
Even those who defend affirmative action based on ethnic origin find it difficult to extend this policy from universities into the workplace. After all, quotas in the education system are largely aimed at ultimately enhancing the chances of socially disadvantaged groups once they reach the job market.
Especially in the case of public service, the recruiter's goal should be to choose the most qualified candidate — regardless of skin color — who can offer the best service to the citizens who pays his or her salary.
The principle of meritocracy, in these cases, cannot be violated — and certainly not for the sake of satisfying political and electoral expediency.