Here’s a pretty funny story from biologist Jerry Coyne’s blog about affirmative action in Brazil. Around the turn of the century, Brazil introduced racial affirmative action and, not surprisingly, that has led to countless brouhahas over who should qualify for what preference.
Brazil’s nonstop history of Elizabeth Warren-type controversies over affirmative action brings up the interesting question of why there are so few in the United States, especially over people trying to horn in on the huge quota benefits of being black.
I’m writing this because reader Cindy called my attention to an NPR article describing how Brazil is now using skin color to determine who fits into various categories subject to affirmative action boosts. Brazil has “race tribunals” to place people in “racial” groups, and the traits used can include more than just skin color.
The NPR story starts with Lucas Siqueira, who got a coveted government job in Brazil after scoring well on a test and identifying himself as “mixed race.”
Since 2014, 20% of government jobs are reserved for blacks or mixed races. Siqueira was applying for a hoity-toity job as a diplomat.
People looked at his Facebook page, determined he didn’t look “mixed race” but white, and they complained bitterly. The government put his job on hold. The story then gets really bizarre\:
. . . . in order to “prove” that he was Afro-Brazilian, [Siqueira’s] lawyers needed to find some criteria. He went to seven dermatologists who used something called the Fitzpatrick scale that grades skin tone from one to seven, or whitest to darkest. The last doctor even had a special machine.
“Apparently on my face I’m a Type 4. Which would be like Jennifer Lopez or Dev Patel, Frida Pinto or John Stamos. On my limbs I would be Type 5, which is Halle Berry, Will Smith, Beyonce and Tiger Woods,” he said.
Scientists typically measure skin tone on the inside of the upper arm as being unlikely to be tanned. But if you had a good government job on the line depending on how tanned the inside of your upper arms got, I could see sunbathing on Copacabana Beach with your arms in an uncomfortable position.
Like most people he has different skin tones on different parts of his body. But in none of these tests did he come out as lighter skinned.
He says the whole thing struck him as completely bizarre because identity, he says, is made up of more than just physical characteristics. [JAC: but to me, the important thing is whether discrimination is based on more than just physical characteristics.]
But this wasn’t just an isolated incident.
Mandatory for all government jobs
A few weeks ago, these race tribunals were made mandatory for all government jobs. In one state, they even issued guidelines about how to measure lip size, hair texture and nose width, something that for some has uncomfortable echoes of racist philosophies in the 19th century.
“It is something terrible. I believe this kind of strategy can weaken the support of society for affirmative action policies,” says Amílcar Pereira, an associate professor at the School of Education in the Federal University of Rio, who studies race relations. “These policies have huge support … the majority of Brazilian society supports affirmative action.”
“But this kind of commission can jeopardize the support because it’s so controversial. It’s unacceptable to come back to the 19th century, to determine who is black and who is not,” he says.
But the race commissions have a lot of support from the black community.
In Brazil, there was no One Drop rule, which in United States keeps genealogy, genotype, and phenotype all pretty well correlated. To successfully pass from black to white in the U.S., you not only had to look pretty white, you had to stop associating with your blacker looking relatives. So, that was quite uncommon.
Thus, America has countless affirmative action systems with relatively few controversies, especially over whether or not someone qualifies as black. That’s because most people in America (outside of Hispanics) who have black ancestors either have a lot of black ancestors or very few black ancestors.
So, in the U.S. there are surprisingly few controversies over whether somebody qualifies for a Black Privilege quota. Either they have black relatives whom they publicly identify with or they don’t. Like I’ve often said, to my surprise when I really worked through these issues about 15+ years ago, the U.S. system of racial classification for affirmative action purposes turns out to be good enough for government work.
In Brazil, however, two sisters could be seen as racially different, with the fairer one having better marriage prospects of finding a whiter husband than the darker sister. But this kind of selection on phenotype tends to lead to phenotype and genotype being less correlated than in the U.S.
The old North American One Drop view was that genes besides those expressed in skin color, features, and hair type also mattered. Just because somebody looked pretty white, if they had substantial black ancestry, they’d still be risky to marry.
The Brazilian view is less worried about how descendants will turn out. If somebody looks pretty white, then they are pretty white.
Plus, transracialism in Brazil is fashionable. The top Brazilian soccer star Neymar Jr. was a normal looking 16-year-old black youth, but then used his new fortune to give himself a racially ambiguous Hawaiian surf punk look.