Monday, September 25, 2006

A university named after a 17th-Century rebel slave leader in Brazil is at the forefront of a controversy over the country's complex racial identity

Robert Plummer:

Unipalmares, as it is known for short, was founded in 2003 as a private college in the run-down Sao Paulo district of Luz.

With its utilitarian classrooms and its array of desktop computers, it could be any Brazilian academic institution.

But uniquely, it reserves 50% of its places for black students, reflecting the fact that roughly half the country's 183 million people have African slaves as forefathers.

The university's rector, Jose Vicente, says its aim is to provide higher education for underprivileged Brazilians in general, but with particular emphasis on black people.

"It has become a reference point as a place where minorities can have the opportunity for access to higher education, taking into account that this access is still very limited in our country," he says.

"A large part of the public, if they didn't have this opportunity, would find it difficult to study elsewhere."

Brazil has more people with black ancestry than any other country outside Africa. But there are very few black people in the higher echelons of society, including government, Congress and top posts in the civil service and armed forces.

Black people remain socially disadvantaged in Brazil. Last year, a UN Development Programme report found that a huge economic gulf existed in the country between the black and white population.

However, racial mixing has been taking place in Brazil throughout its 500-year history. As a result, many of its citizens regard themselves as neither black nor white, but something in between.

For some, Unipalmares is a chance to change the fact that most black Brazilians remain at the bottom of the heap in the country's rigidly hierarchical society.

For others, it is a threat to Brazil's very nature.

They see it as an attempt to replace the country's hallowed notions of "racial democracy" with US-style affirmative action, polarising the population and forcing millions of people to choose between being black or white.

The issue has come to the fore in Brazil recently because of attempts in Congress to compel other universities to introduce racial quotas.

Efforts are also under way, with the backing of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to bring in a statute of racial equality that would extend the same quota system to civil service jobs, the private sector and even television.

Brazil's racial divide in spotlight

The cultural capital still blighted by racial divide

Analysis: Brazil's 'racial democracy'

The Wind from the South— Anti-White Populism

Brazil, kin & race

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