To try to correct these historic inequities stemming from slavery, the Brazilian government has made efforts to pass legislation to ensure rights and equal opportunities for black Brazilians. But can one legislate a change in culture?
The first law was passed in August 2012, requiring public universities to set aside half of their spots for public high school students, largely aiming to benefit black Brazilians. And though racial quotas had been in place at numerous universities for at least a decade, the law inspired and continues to inspire controversy. There are those who argue that race in Brazil is too hard to define, and that social class should be a basis for quotas. Some say the system is easy to exploit. There are those who argue that quotas incite more racism, and lower the quality of education. And there are those who simply deny that racism or racial inequality exists at all. Early results show that quotas actually have the opposite effect, since in some universities, affirmative action students tend to get higher grades than their counterparts (though they tend to do worse on standardized testing, according to one study). I recently had a conversation with a black professional from Rio and a white journalist from São Paulo who both explained why they oppose quotas based on a variety of the aforementioned reasons.
Last year, Alex Castro wrote about race in Brazil for Papo de Homem, saying:
"The worst still are those people (many of whom are black) that are against quotas (and other similar things), arguing that they 'never needed them.' And I consider this and say: 'I agree, of course, how could I not? And what's more, I'm also against that whole dialisis thing in public hospitals and wheelchair ramps in buildings.' All that happened yesterday, and continues happening today. The past, like a stone thrown in a lake, creates ripples in the water and has an effect on the present. The past is the present. Racial quotas are necessary today not to correct the historic injustices of the past, but to correct the daily injustices of the present."
Even though Brazilians of African descent make up at least half of the population, only 6 percent of university students are black. That university classrooms have historically been largely white means a major sea change for establishing a more diverse student population. It means changing not only the culture of colleges, but the concept that universities should no longer be centers of privilege.
Then there's the Domestics Law, which was signed in March and went into effect in April. The law has revealed a serious culture clash between the past of slavery and the modern reality of labor rights. Brazil has nearly 7 million domésticas, more household servants than any other country. The majority are women, and over half are black. Now, household workers have the same labor rights as formal-sector workers, like a 44-hour work week, a lunch hour, overtime, and unemployment insurance.
The fear is that the law could lead to mass layoffs--around 815,000, by one estimation. Some have complained that they won't be able to afford maids anymore; conservative magazine VEJA published a calculator to determine how much maids will cost under the new law. It also published a cover story about the law with an image of an unhappy man doing the dishes with the headline: "You tomorrow." Globo published a piece about what it will mean for families that have to do their own cooking and cleaning. One psychoanalyst quoted in the story predicted "emotional confusion" and a higher rate of divorces.
Historians compared the legislation to the Lei Áurea, saying it was a watershed moment for black Brazilians. Slavery created a "strongly exclusionary society, despite appearing racially diverse and having social mobility," said UFRJ Professor Flávio Gomes. "My surprise, with the domestics law, is the fact that these workers were in a category of "nearly citizens" in terms of workers rights."
Even today, many middle-class homes, even small ones, have a room and sometimes a separate bathroom for a domestic worker. Relationships between maids and families are complex; the movie "Neighboring Sounds" illustrates this phenomenon well. The law aims to change this, in theory, moving from a slave-owner relationship to one of worker-employer. "We’re shutting down the last of the slave quarters and throwing away the key," Senate President Renan Calheiros said last month.
But will the law work? Will families fire their maids? Will they simply ignore the law and risk being taken to court for inevitably lengthy labor lawsuits? Or will they ignore the law and count on the maid not to complain? Or will unwillingly go along with the new rules? Laws in Brazil sometimes "don't stick," and this is an interesting one to watch.
But the bigger question is if the law will actually change the culture of domestic employment. My guess is: not anytime soon. There has been talk of maid shortages due to women moving into other professions, another element of pressure on people employing domestics. My guess is that if these shortages continue and if families fear backlash from not obeying the new law, they may turn to foreign workers, which has already started happening in São Paulo. Brazil has become an increasingly bigger destination for immigrants, and low-paying jobs that involve going around labor laws are natural magnets for foreign workers.
One can look to other countries, like the United States, to try to see if legislation like affirmative actions works or has a sizeable impact. But how long laws take to change a deeply rooted culture is much more difficult to define.
Image: Blog do Planalto