Is Brazil’s New Affirmative Action Policy Fair?

by Satoru Kishi

On August 29th, 2012, the Brazilian government passed a law to oblige all public universities in Brazil to ensure fifty percent of their admission seats to the poorer background students. The fifty-nine federal universities in Brazil, usually free of charge, have only four years to implement this law (Romeo, 2012). The objective of this affirmative action is to bring major changes in the social structure and lessen the income inequality in Brazil.

First, this law will generate a great transformation of social structure or the seats of the elite jobs. Currently, most of the elite jobs or high wage jobs are possessed by the so-called “whites”. If the new affirmative policy were to be enforced, it would create better chances for blacks or Africans and the indigenous people to be educated in great universities, fewer for the affluent whites, automatically assuring more possibility for the poor background blacks to attain high-wage, elite jobs, like becoming a lawyer and a governor. This will also contribute in reducing the gap between the rich and poor, or whites and blacks, since the people with poorer background will have better opportunity.

Despite of this reputable intention, there are questions of whether this affirmative action policy is just or not. There are many aspects to this issue.

From the Utilitarian perspective, since this was signed by the President and given consensus by eighty out of eighty-one senators, who were elected by its citizens through domestic impartial election, the implementation of the affirmative policy is justified, because it signifies the majority of its opinion, maximizing the utility and happiness of all people.

For the libertarians, the only consideration for them is whether this policy violates the fundamental individual human rights. Through giving an invented example, this issue can be seen clearly. Let’s assume that that the university admission requires students to take a central exam. A black woman score 50 out of 100 and a white woman score 70 out of 100. With the new policy implemented in four years, a university may take this poorer black woman, rather than highly educated rich white woman. Some may say this is unjust, prejudice and violate the white woman’s individual rights, because she is discriminated in something that she cannot control. On the other hand, some may claim that this is just, when considering the fact that this black woman could not afford to attend a good high school as the white woman, due to economic reasons. This corrective reasoning of justifying the affirmative action is still arguable.

Another justification for the affirmative action is compensatory reasoning. From the 16th to the 19th century, the “whites” or former Europeans had been importing massive African slaves, seven times of the number exported to the United States, and forced them and the indigenous people to work on agriculture and mining, with cheap labor or for free (Telles, 2009). To compensate for historical exploitation, it is arguable that this affirmative action is temporary justifiable, until the blacks reaches the social and economic equality as whites. In contrast, there are many people who argue that “why do the present people have to pay for what their ancestors or what people in the past did” (Sandel, n.d.).

Another possible justification for this affirmative action is that universities are better off to have more diversity, whether people are coming from different social, economic, national, ethnic or racial background. Assuming that the universities’ main objective is to educate students and make them attain better jobs, having diversity in universities is an advantage, because it creates an opportunity for students from different background to share their opinions, cultivate in way of thinking and learn how people from diverse background look at the world differently (Sandel, n.d.).

Currently the public universities in Brazil is said to be better than the private ones (Romeo, 2012). However, due to the implementation of the affirmative law, there may be a large flow of educated white professors and students into private school, who dislike blacks, lowering the educational level of Brazil’s public university.


Romeo, S. (2012). Brazil enacts affirmative action law for universities. The New York Times: Americas. Retrieved from action-law-for-universities.html?_r=0

Sandel, A. (n.d.). Justice: What’s the right thing to do? Episode 09. Harvard University Lecture. Podcast retrieved from:

Telles, E. E. (2009). Affirmative action in Brazil. Wideangle. Retrieved from ation-and-affirmative-action-in-brazil/4323/