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Race and Inclusion in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States

Module by: Miguel Centellas. E-mail the author

Summary: This module provides a historical discussion of issues of race and inclusion in comparative perspective, looking at Brazil, South Africa, and the United States. The module also asks students to use social data to comparatively analyze the three cases. It then also focuses on affirmative action reforms in Brazilian higher education.

Race and Inclusion in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States

Issues of race and inclusion are not unique to the United States. Although a developing—and more recently an “emerging”—economy, Brazil shares some similarities with the US that make it an interesting comparative case. This module focuses on recent moves in Brazil to introduce affirmative action policies aimed at reducing inequalities between whites and blacks—specifically efforts to make college education accessible to all Brazilians. For broader comparison, this module includes South Africa, which faces similar challenges—even if in a very different historical context.

Historical Legacies

Despite their many differences, the US and Brazil share similar histories. Both countries began as colonies of European powers (England and Portugal). In contrast to the pattern in Spanish American colonies (which had larger indigenous populations), the US and Brazil were “settler” colonies of European immigrants and African slaves. Later, both drew large numbers of immigrants (mostly from Europe) throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whites remain the largest group in both the US and Brazil. In the US, whites (not including Hispanics/Latinos) are a majority of the population (63.7%) and blacks make up only 12.6% of the population.1 In Brazil, whites are the largest group (48.4%) and blacks make up only 6.8% of the population.2

Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 (by a royal decree; Brazil was a monarchy until a year later), making it the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery. The US abolished slavery in 1865 (the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation only applied to territory under Confederate control). In both countries, slavery was replaced by some form of “sharecropping” (as it was called in the southern US), with former slaves continuing to work on plantations. As industrialization took hold in both countries (particularly in Northeastern US and Southeastern Brazil), workers tended to come from new waves of European immigrants.

A key difference is that miscegenation (or “race mixing”) was much more common in Brazil—in part encouraged by official government rhetoric of Brazil as a “color blind” society. Although discrimination against black Brazilians was pervasive, it was never institutionalized. Today, 43.8% of Brazil’s population is identifies as pardo (“mixed”).3

The issue of race has a different history in South Africa. Although slaves were imported (mainly from Madagascar and Indonesia) into South Africa during British and Dutch colonialism, it was not as widely practiced as in Brazil or the US and slavery was abolished in South Africa in 1834. Instead, in South Africa, European settlers exploited the majority indigenous African population, in ways that were similar to the kinds of labor exploitation practiced in Brazil and the US after the abolition of slavery. Today, whites remain a minority in South Africa (9.2%) and blacks are a majority (79.4%).4

A key similarity is that, unlike in Brazil (where no formal segregation was practiced), various forms of legal racial segregation were practiced in the US and South Africa well into the twentieth century. In the US, segregation and legal discrimination was most widely practiced in the South through “Jim Crow” laws. In South Africa, segregation became national policy after 1948 with the implementation of Apartheid. Under both Jim Crow and Apartheid, blacks in the US and South Africa were formally segregated from whites.

Apartheid went much further, forcibly removing black South Africans (including the small African middle class) from their homes and forcing them to live in reservations, or bantustans; it made no pretense of providing “separate but equal” facilities or services. While segregation in the US was legally abolished in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Apartheid lasted until 1994, when the country transitioned to a multiracial democracy.

Blacks remain disadvantaged in all three countries. They are disproportionately more likely to be unemployed, earn less, and be undereducated. Table 1 shows differences in unemployment rates, average annual income, and college attendance between whites and blacks in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States. Although there are significant racial inequalities in all three countries, they tend to be narrowest in the United States and widest in South Africa.

Table 1: Employment, Income, and Education Gaps by Race
Data from the Brazilian Institute of Georaphy and Statistics (IBGE), Statistics South Africa, and the US Census Bureau.
Country Unemployment Rate (%) for Whites Unemployment Rate (%) for Blacks Average Annual Income for Whites Average Annual Income for Blacks College Education Rate for Whites (% of adult pop) College Education Rate for Blacks (% of adult pop)
Brazil 8.2 10.1 $9,456 $4,812 28.7 10.0
South Africa 4.1 28.1 $9,034 $1,678 29.8 5.2
United States 8.8 15.5 $32,919 $27,110 58.8 45.8

A broader comparison of Brazil, South Africa, and the US highlights some key differences and similarities. The US is richer than either Brazil or South Africa, and more equal than Brazil and South Africa, based on the income Gini coefficient (a statistic that looks at the range of differences between the highest and lowest incomes in a population; 0 equals "perfect equality"). South Africans are least satisfied with their freedom of choice and personal standard of living, but the latter differences are sharper. Brazilians seem about as satisfied with their life as Americans, even though they are poorer.

Table 2: Economic and Life Satisfaction Indicators: Brazil, South Africa, the US
Data from 2010 Human Development Report (
Country Gross National Income (GNI) per capita ($PPP) Human Development Index Income Gini Coefficient (2000-2010) Satisfaction with Freedom of Choice (% satisfied) Satisfaction with Personal Standard of Living (% satisfied)
Brazil 11,239 0.699 40.8 76 74
South Africa 9,812 0.597 57.8 73 42
USA 47,284 0.902 55.0 83 75

Higher Education in Brazil, South Africa, and the US in Comparative Perspective

Because education is understood to be closely linked with better future opportunities, equal access to education has been a key issue in countries like the US, Brazil, and South Africa. This module focuses on recent efforts in Brazil to adopt “affirmative action” policies to make college education more accessible to black Brazilians. A 2007 PBS Wide Angle documentary (“Brazil in Black and White”) looked at the efforts of one Brazilian university—and the possibility that similar policies might be enacted at other universities in the country (or even become national policy).

The following discussion is meant only to provide you with the necessary context and background information to better understand the PBS documentary. Be sure to follow the link to view the video online:

The documentary follows five young Brazilian students from Brasília, the capital city of Brazil: Josie de Souza, Iolanda dos Santos, Rafael Mendes, Karinny Da Silva, and Karen Demarchi. All five are trying to gain entrance into the University of Brasília, one of the country’s best public universities.

To understand the documentary, it is important to understand some key differences between the US and Brazilian public university systems. Brazil has more than 200 public universities, and public universities are considered the best schools. Public universities in Brazil charge no tuition—they are essentially “free” (other than a small enrollment fee and the cost of textbooks). But gaining entrance into a public university of Brazil is a much more difficult process. To gain entrance into a public university, students must take a single standardized test—and the chance of admission depends entirely on that test score. Lastly, Brazilian universities do not follow the American “liberal arts” model. That means there are no “elective” or “general education” courses. Students enter the university directly into their major, take only courses in that major, and write a thesis. But that also means that students must declare their major before they enter the university, and take the appropriate exam for that major. In other words, if you want to be a doctor, you would take the Brazilian equivalent of the MCAT right out of high school, not after four years of college.

This gives you a sense of what is at stake for the five hopeful young Brazilians featured in “Brazil in Black and White.” On the one hand, the public university system offers them a wonderful opportunity for a brighter future. On the other hand, that future depends entirely on their performance on a standardized test.

Despite the lack of legal racism in Brazil, black Brazilians (which in this context includes “mixed” Brazilians) are underrepresented in the public university system. Prior to adopting reforms in 2004, only two percent of students at the University of Brasília were black—even though black Brazilians make up half the country’s population. In 2004, the University of Brasília adopted a controversial new quota system, which reserved 20 percent of the spots for new incoming students for black Brazilians. Black students had to self-identify themselves—and be judged “black enough” by a review board—in order to qualify for the quotas. They still had to take the entrance exam, and only the students with the top scores would be admitted.

Since then, a number of other Brazilian universities have adopted similar quotas. Currently, there is a proposal to introduce a national system of quotas for public universities that would reserve 20 percent of new slots for black Brazilians, and another 20 percent for students from the public education system.

Below are some statistics on education indicators in Brazil, South Africa, and the US. Notice that despite being slightly wealthier than South Africans, Brazilians are much less satisfied with their public education system—and are less than half as likely to have high school degrees—than South Africans.

Table 3: Education Indicators: Brazil, South Africa, and the US
Data from 2010 Human Development Report (; 1College enrollment data from NationMaster (
Country Average Years of Schooling Adult Literacy Rate (% ages 15 & older) Population with High School Education (% ages 25 & older) College & University Enrollment1 (% college age pop) Satisfaction with Education System and Schools (% satisfied)
Brazil 7.2 90.0 21.9 16.5 53
South Africa 8.2 89.0 57.9 15.2 66
USA 12.4 99.0 89.7 72.6 70

Below are some statistics on public spending on education in Brazil, South Africa, and the US. Although the US spends more on public education than either Brazil or South Africa, it spends less on university students—largely because such a large percentage of

the total US population (more than two-thirds of college-age population) attends college. South Africa spends the most public money per college student, as percentage of per capita GDP. But notice that the average cost of tuition cost for South Africans is about half of what it is in the US, even though Americans are about five times wealthier (see Table 2 above).

Table 4: Public Education Spending: Brazil, South Africa, and the US
Data from Nation Master ( and (
Country Population(millions) Education Spending(% of GDP) Education Spending for University(% of total education spending) Public Spending per University Student (% of GDP per capita) Average Cost of Tuition at Public College or University
Brazil 190.7 4.2 21.6 30.37 $0
South Africa 50.6 5.3 14.6 49.62 $3,370
USA 312.0 5.7 25.2 22.04 $7,605

Video: “Brazil in Black and White”

Now, watch the PBS Wide Angle documentary, “Brazil in Black and White” online.

The documentary follows five young Brazilian students from Brasília, the capital city of Brazil: Josie de Souza, Iolanda dos Santos, Rafael Mendes, Karinny Da Silva, and Karen Demarchi. All five are trying to gain entrance into the University of Brasília, one of the country’s best public universities.

Reading Comprehension: Self-Assessment

Exercise 1: Questions about the reading

  1. Of the three countries, which has the largest gap between average income for blacks and whites?
  2. What percent of the Brazilian population is black (not including those who are "mixed")?
  3. According to the Gini coefficient, which country has the highest gap between the rich and the poor?
  4. Look at the proportion of white and black Brazilians with a college education. How much more likely are whites to have a college education in Brazil?


  1. South Africa
  2. Almost seven percent (6.8%)
  3. The United States
  4. Three times (3x)

Exercise 2: Questions about the video documentary

  1. Which of the students is the wealthiest?
  2. Which of the students is trying to get into medical school?
  3. Prior to the adoption of race quotas, what percentage of students at the University of Brasília were black?
  4. What kind of high school do Rafael and Karen attend?
  5. Why does Karinny decide to attempt to apply under the racial quota?
  6. True or false: "Brazilian students can only take the college entrance exam once."
  7. In the documentary, a Brazilian sociologist argues against the quota system. What is her argument?
  8. If students apply under the racial quota, what is the process?


  1. Rafael
  2. Karen
  3. About two percent (2%)
  4. They attend Galois, a very prestigious and expensive private school.
  5. Even though she's lighter skinned, she is just as poor and disadvantaged as her classmate Iolanda.
  6. False
  7. She argues that Brazil was previously a "color blind" society, and that the introduction of racial quotas will "politicize" race and make it a divisive political issue.
  8. Students must submit a photo of themselves, and a panel then judges whether they are "black enough" to qualify to apply under the quota.

Discussion Questions

  1. Did Iolanda make a mistake by not applying under the quota system?
  2. Should Karinny have been allowed to apply under the racial quota?
  3. Compare and contrast Rafael’s private high school with the public school Josie attends. What advantages does Rafael have as he prepares for the university entrance exam?
  4. Some have suggested that Brazil’s tuition-free public university system asks poor Brazilians to subsidize the education of rich Brazilians. Why do they suggest this?
  5. What would be the benefits of adopting the Brazilian system of college entrance exams (eliminating the multi-step admissions process common in America and replacing it with a single standardized entrance exam)? What would be the costs?

Writing Exercises

  1. Imagine you are on staff at a public university admission office, and you’ve been asked to write a short (two-page) memo outlining a strategy to increase diversity and/or ensure equal access to college education at your university. Would you recommend a quota system, like the one in Brazil? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a system?
  2. Imagine you are drafting policies for your state university system. Would you recommend that public universities adopt the Brazilian model of using only standardized test scores in admissions decisions? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a system?


  1. Data from the US Census Bureau (2010).
  2. Data from Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics (2008).
  3. Data from Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics (2008).
  4. Data from Statistics South Africa (2010).

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