America's Long Experiment in Racial Quotas


A 1937 redlined map of Philadelphia by the city's Home Owners' Loan Corporation.

Racial inequality in housing, health, and education is still a fact of American life, but many of the programs and policies meant to combat it are on the chopping block. This year, for instance, the Supreme Court will rule on a challenge to the University of Texas’ affirmative action program—from a white student denied admission—and in doing so, is expected to end race-based preferences in college admissions. Likewise, conservative Republicans have mounted an effort to gut the Voting Rights Act. Their position? That it’s unfair to place greater federal scrutiny on states with a history of racial discrimination. This, despite the fact that—over the last two years—those same states have passed a host of laws that make voting more difficult for African Americans and other minorities.

At the other end of the hemisphere, however, politicians and activists are working to combat racial inequality, with policies and programs meant to drastically boost the fortunes of historically disenfranchised groups. In Brazil, for example, the legislature has implemented a large quota system for public universities. In short, “public federal universities must reserve half of their spots for underprivileged students hailing from public schools, disproportionately attended by minorities.” Here’s the Christian Science Monitor with more:

The law, signed in August and set to be completely implemented within four years, will have the widest impact on Afro-Brazilians, who make up more than half of the nation’s population.

“Without the law, many black students could not get into the system,” says Rodrigues, who is Afro-Brazilian. […]

But many consider Brazil’s quota law for public universities a game changer because it opens up the bastions of social opportunity to previously excluded populations, says Christopher Sabatini, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly (AQ).

This radical approach to affirmative action has opponents, who rely on rhetoric familiar to anyone who follows American debates over racial inequality:

Mariana Vilanova sits eating rice and beef in UERJ’s airy cafeteria on a fall afternoon. She is a first-year student in visual arts who entered the university through the general admissions process. The quota system, she says, gives the government an easy out.

“What they should do is invest in better public [elementary and high schools],” Ms. Vilanova says.

Vilanova says she considers quotas based on race to be reverse discrimination. “I understand there is discrimination in the world,” she says, “but racial quotas are also discrimination.”

I don’t have a strong grasp on Brazilian history, but the general idea behind this massive quota is sound. Minority disadvantage—whether it’s African Americans here or Afro-Latinos in Brazil and other South American countries—is almost always the cumulative result of explicit discrimination and exclusion from mainstream life. In the United States, after a brief attempt at empowering freed slaves, governments—state and federal, Democratic and Republican—all but abandoned the goal of racial equality. They endorsed or ignored racial terrorism—often aimed at blacks who accumulated wealth or competed for jobs and education—and allowed states and localities to build an elaborate racial caste system, designed to keep blacks as impoverished laborers.

During the age of liberal consensus—when reformers mobilized the federal government to lift the country out of depression, and later, build a durable middle-class—blacks were excluded from the largest, most important programs. To pacify Southern segregationists, Social Security didn’t extend to agricultural and domestic workers until more than a decade after its creation, and the G.I. Bill offered limited assistance to black veterans, while showering benefits on their white counterparts. Restrictive covenants kept the large, prosperous suburbs of the 1950s and 60s off-limits to blacks, and the Federal Housing Administration took pains to keep African Americans out of desirable real estate, denying them loans, and encouraging local realtors to “redline” blacks into downscale areas with few jobs and services.

Of course, that’s only one way to describe this large scale project of black immiseration, the effects of which shape the United States in profound ways. The other way is this: For most of its history, the United States has consciously moved to improve the position of white Americans, and white men in particuar. Federal, state, and local governments worked to keep blacks and other minorities from competing with whites for any of the opportunities or benefits of society, from desirable housing to decent schools and higher education. It created an unequal playing field—one that exclusively benefited whites—and engineered a society that kept whites in almost every position of power and authority.

Americans hate quotas, but if you were looking to undo this by brute force of policy, quotas are exactly what you would pursue: Massive quotas for higher education, followed by equally large quotas for employment. And all of this would be tied together with large investments in minority communities, in an attempt to correct for background discrimination and disadvantage. A Brazil-style policy of quotas is only radical if you count the status quo as somehow natural and not the result of deliberate policy choices.

With all of that said, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the policymakers who developed affirmative action and other programs meant to ameliorate racial inequalities, or at least, begin the process of doing so. They were inadequate, but there was never the political will for anything broader.

Indeed, it’s something of a recurring pattern in American history. Every time we take a large step toward racial justice—abolishing slavery, ending apartheid—there remains the work of actually integrating black people. But at each step, we either can’t or—too often—won’t.