So yeah. Me = HUGE policy dork. I view public policy as an expression of democratic and social values, for good or for ill. The kinds of policy that a group enacts is, generally, reflective of their beliefs and their collective will to solve problems. Do they believe that problems resolve themselves, or do they need specific intervention? Do the needs of minority groups garner more interest than their numbers would suggest, or is it a ‘majority rules’ kind of deal? Do we empower individuals to find their own solutions, or do we envision government as a problem-solving apparatus? I find these questions fascinating.
Another part about public policy that I think is really important (but doesn’t get the level of attention I think it deserves) is this: does the policy work? It is all well and good to spend public funds or pass a law or build a program, but if you fail to measure whether or not you’re actually solving the problem you’ve set out to tackle, it quickly turns from government “expenditure” into government “waste”. It is partially (but primarily) for this reason that I went into the career path I’m in now.
With that in mind, I am really excited to see the outcome of this policy:
The Brazilian Senate has approved a bill that reserves half the places in the country’s prestigious federal universities to state school students. African-Brazilian Senator Paulo Paim said most Brazilians would benefit as only 10% of students graduated from private schools.
Brazil has the biggest black population anywhere outside of Nigeria, but private schools are still predominantly white. Private school students are usually better prepared than pupils from the public school system for the tough university entry exams. They get most of the places in federal universities, which paradoxically are heavily subsidised and virtually free of charge.
But many argue that a US-style affirmative action policy should not be implemented in Brazil, where most of the population is mixed race. Brazil is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world and many Brazilians regard their nation as a “racial democracy” where there is little overt racism. Nonetheless black Brazilians, the descendants of African slaves brought over during Portuguese colonial rule, are much more likely to be poor and rarely reach the top levels of business or politics.
So the obvious short-term impact of the legislative change is that federal universities are about to get a lot blacker. This will, in the medium term, mean that a large ‘boom’ or ‘bulge’ of highly-educated black and brown students will be entering the work force. Allowing for the fact that being well-educated doesn’t necessarily safeguard you from employment discrimination, it should result in an increase in the number of Brazilians of colour participating in the higher-income sectors of the economy.
The unanswered questions here are several:
- Will the success rate go down or up? Critics of affirmative action policies will say that by bringing in “less qualified” students, you run the risk of increasing dropout rates among students who couldn’t hack it without AfAm. Proponents will note that AfAm students often outperform others who are granted entry for financial reasons rather than academic ones (itself a form of ‘action’ that I don’t really see as affirmative).
- What will the cohort do after school? Will the ‘bulge’ result in measurably-improved outcomes for Brazilians of colour that do not attend the federal universities? Will the AfAm students get hired into appropriate jobs after graduating, or is there an opportunity to observe the magnitude of employment discrimination?
- What happens after the AfAm period is over? This is a 10-year experiment, meaning that schools will no longer have to abide by quotas after the legislation expires. Will there be a ‘sea change’ in the culture, or will it simply revert to the racially divided system that necessitated the change?
- What effect will this have on student life? University campuses are steeped in tradition. All of a sudden they will have a student body that lies well outside what their view of a ‘traditional’ student looks like. Will there be racial segregation on campuses? Will students of colour assimilate, or choose to start their own traditions?
- What effect will this have on racial relations at large? Opponents of AfAm often bring up the canard of “racial resentment”, saying that white people will start to resent people of colour for taking “their” jobs and “their” university spaces. Brazil has a very different racial climate than the United States does – what effect will this have on racial relations in the short/medium/long term?
All in all, it seems like a really good time to be a sociologist or policy analyst in Brazil. I am excited to hear more about the outcomes of this policy. And yes… that makes me a giant dork. Get over it.
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