- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

RIO DE JANEIRO Faced with widespread racial inequality and statistics showing that a century of social and economic progress has done nothing to help close the gap between blacks and whites, the Brazilian government has quietly begun tipping the scales.
The affirmative action programs are the first of what officials say will likely be a broad package of projects aimed at making job and education and opportunities more available to the 43 percent of Brazilians who are black or dark-skinned.
The proposals, made in anticipation of the United Nations race summit opening this Friday in Durban, South Africa, come as government researchers carrying out the most comprehensive study on racial inequality in Brazil said affirmative action is imperative if Brazil is to overcome its deeply rooted discrimination.
"To reduce discrimination, you have to have some sort of preference [system]," said Ricardo Henriques, coordinator of the research, jointly funded by the Brazilian government and the United Nations Development Program.
"In this century at least, the differences between black and white, independently of all the structural and economic changes that have taken place, have remained the same. The study suggests that if you don't introduce policies of racial preference you won't be able to move the tendencies," Mr. Henriques said. "It seems to me to be unquestionable that political action … is necessary."
Government officials and black leaders say blacks are justified in demanding special treatment because the government already provides it to help the handicapped, indigenous people and women.
Companies with more than 100 employees are required to give 2 percent of their jobs to handicapped persons, and universities in the states of Mato Grosso, Para and Amazonas already have, or soon will have, entrance rules to assure that indigenous people are more equally represented, said Ivanir dos Santos, the Justice Ministry's special assistant for race affairs.
Under a 1997 law, at least 30 percent of each political party's candidates for office must be female. Blacks, however, have never benefited from quotas and remain underrepresented in many of Brazil's decision-making bodies, Mr. dos Santos said. Of the country's 21 Cabinet ministers and 11 Supreme Court justices, not one is black.
Blacks are angered by such statistics, and their anger is increasingly being translated into action. At one recent protest, black activists protesting what they see as the refusal of store owners to hire black salespeople went to a busy mall and slapped stickers on the windows of several shops, leading several stores to pull down their shutters. Black rap artists and intellectuals recently formed a political party exclusively to fight for black causes.
Claudia Calmon is one of those agitating for change. The 30-year-old teacher says she has repeatedly suffered discrimination. When she applied for a job as a secretary a few years ago, she was told all the positions had been filled, only to see the same jobs advertised a week later. She said clerks often ignore her and when she visits offices or schools, they assume that since she is black she is a poorly qualified person looking for work.
"As a black in this country, you are invisible," Miss Calmon said.
Until recently, she worked at Rio de Janeiro State University, where one of her functions was to enforce a law prohibiting state employees from holding two jobs at once. Some people consider the law unfair, and Miss Calmon has received abuse for enforcing it. On one occasion she received a letter insulting her and calling her an "uppity black."
"I was surprised and offended," she said. "They weren't questioning my work, they were questioning the color of my skin."
It is because such stories are common in Brazil that the government has introduced its first affirmative-action programs.
In February, Education Minister Paulo Renato Souza announced that blacks will receive a proportion of Bolsa Escola grants, which pay poor families to keep their children in school.
The Social Security Ministry said last month said that 40 percent of agents hired to work on a poverty program in the country's poorest municipalities would be black, and Brazil's Labor Ministry said 20 percent of its annual (U.S.) $145 million training budget would be used exclusively for blacks. This federal funding is used by states and municipalities to run professional and technical courses teaching subjects like hairdressing and software design, ministry officials said.
In a potentially more influential move, lawmakers are discussing a proposed law that would establish quotas for black actors. The legislation, which was passed by the lower house's technical commission but has not yet come before the full house, would ensure that blacks get 25 percent of roles in commercials, television, film and theater productions.
The government is reluctant to publicize the moves. The Social Security and Labor ministries did not issue public announcements of the projects. Officials say they are not part of a coordinated government policy but separate pilot programs aimed at measuring the efficiency of affirmative action and the public response to it.
Brazil's senior spokesman on race affairs, Gilberto Saboia, called the programs "a kind of experiment that could be the seed for more wide-ranging policies."
Black leaders praised the moves and called on the government to expand the experiment.
Hedio Silva, a black lawyer who recently resigned from a government race-relations committee to protest its lack of action, said the government must motivate companies to hire more blacks. He suggested that the authorities ban or restrict credit to firms that do not hire blacks, and give preference to bidders for government contracts that hire in proportion to population groups.
Putting such ideas into practice is the key to not only ending discrimination but also to reducing poverty in Brazil, experts said.
"The elite say that the principal way to do away with poverty is economic growth," said Mr. Henriques. "But in reality, the only way to reduce poverty is to reduce inequality. Poverty in Brazil has a color. Poverty in Brazil is black."

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