How race quotas—and their public perception—reflect Brazil’s complicated history with racial injustice

Look Inside


Brazil has developed a distinctive response to the injustices inflicted by the country’s race relations regime. Despite the mixed racial background of most Brazilians, the state recognizes people’s racial classification according to a simple official scheme in which those self-assigned as black, together with “brown” and “indigenous” (preto-pardo-indigena), can qualify for specially allocated resources, most controversially quota places at public universities. Although this quota system has been somewhat successful, many other issues that disproportionately affect the country’s black population remain unresolved, and systemic policies to reduce structural inequality remain off the agenda.
In The Prism of Race, David Lehmann explores, theoretically and practically, issues of race, the state, social movements, and civil society, and then goes beyond these themes to ask whether Brazilian politics will forever circumvent the severe problems facing the society by co-optation and by tinkering with unjust structures. Lehmann disrupts the paradigm of current scholarly thought on Brazil, placing affirmative action disputes in their political and class context, bringing back the concept of state corporatism, and questioning the strength and independence of Brazilian civil society.

David Lehmann is Emeritus Reader in Social Science at the University of Cambridge where he directed the Centre of Latin American Studies.

“Brazil has pursued a more tolerant path in regard to the interaction of races than the United States. However, this more tolerant path did not lead to upward mobility among the black population and access to higher education has been one of the causes of low social mobility in Brazil. Since the last decade, Brazilian public universities introduced several programs for access of blacks to universities. These programs together changed the landscape of Brazilian public universities but also deeply divided the country on the adequacy of these policies. On the one side, intellectuals and social movements activists considered the change a watershed in the country’s history while on the other intellectuals and conservative actors considered it a disaster or an undesirable Americanization of race relations in Brazil. In a country divided on many issues, Brazilians could not reach an agreement on the programs, the interpretations on race and the effectiveness of public policies for inclusion in higher education.  David Lehmann’s book offers the most balanced attempt so far to evaluate all these issues. The book is a history of affirmative action in the form of quotas for black students and also a survey of arguments in favor or against race quotas. In addition to that, the book provides the reader with an excellent account on how the Brazilian state created public policies for the inclusion of blacks in higher education. Professor Lehmann explains not only each one of these programs but also the itinerary of several intellectuals and social movement activists from civil society to the state. The result is an excellent book that I recommend to everyone interested in race relations and social movements in Brazil.”
—Leonardo Avritzer, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil

“Lehmann offers fresh critical perspectives on affirmative action whilst respecting the arguments of others in the strongly polemical debate over racial quotas, coupled with a broader analysis of the Brazilian state, politics, and social movements that makes this book obligatory reading even for those less interested in its primary theme.”
—John Gledhill, University of Manchester

The Prism of Race provides an in-depth analysis of how Brazil unexpectedly created racial quotas, arguably the country’s most important social policy since the end of the dictatorship, 40 years ago. David Lehmann masterfully combines archival research, interviews and a deep understanding of Brazilian politics to produce a much-needed analysis of this important social experiment in the country with the largest Afro-descendant population in the Western Hemisphere.”
—Edward Telles, University of California, Santa Barbara
“David Lehmann has produced a profoundly thoughtful, insightful and comprehensive analysis of affirmative action in Brazil, which will lead the field for many years. He analyses it as a political phenomenon, asking how such a policy could emerge in such an elitist society, and as a social phenomenon, critically and sympathetically exploring its diverse effects.”
—Peter Wade, University of Manchester

"This meticulously documented and rigorously argued work ... without doubt makes a major contribution to the understanding of a fundamental ideological and political shift which few had foreseen."
--- Brésils

- Veronique Boyer

"The Prism of Race constitutes required reading for all those who wish to further their understanding of Brazilian racial dynamics."
-- Ethnic and Racial Studies

- Ethnic and Racial Studies

"This book is a model for how to do an empirical political sociological study of race."
-- American Journal of Sociology

- Howard Winant, University of California, Santa

" The Prism of Race is an excellent overview of the debates and developments around affirmative action in Brazil over the last quarter-century. Clearly written, deeply researched, and judiciously argued, the book is a balanced analysis of contentious issues by a scholar with deep experience in Brazil and strong ties to Brazilian scholars on all sides of the debates about affirmative action."
-- Journal of Latin American Studies

- Marshall C. Eakin, Vanderbilt University

Read: The Prism of Race reviewed in Times Higher Education Link | 5/9/2019