To Be Brown in Brazil: Education and Segregation Latin American Style


As a scholar who studies civil rights movements from a comparative perspective, the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision causes me to query the power of Brown as a symbol of equality outside of the United States. Because there is a larger community of African descendants living in Latin America and the Caribbean than there is in the United States, examining the role of Brown in Latin America and the Caribbean is particularly worthwhile. Furthermore, focusing on the Latin American and Caribbean contexts is also relevant due to the significant influence of the U.S. civil rights movement in inspiring Latin American social justice movements. Yet, what immediately becomes apparent in examining the Latin American social movements’ literature is the general absence of any mention of the Brown decision. This absence is particularly remarkable given the growing amount of data that such movements are disseminating about problems surrounding poorly funded segregated schools in the region. In order to be more concrete about this rhetorical phenomenon, I have chosen Brazil as a case example. I shall focus on Brazil because of its longstanding Black social justice movement, the rich body of literature describing this movement, and the country’s recent experience with affirmative action in higher education. I put forth the theory that while the U.S. civil rights movement has been a great inspiration to Afro-Brazilian activists and Afro-Latino activists generally, residents of Brazil and Latin America still view the absence of explicit state-sanctioned barriers to educational access as evidence that segregation does not exist, which in turn undermines the rhetorical value of Brown for Latin American brown people, despite the existence of entrenched de facto segregation that determines the poor social conditions of the majority of Afro-Latinos. In Section I, I will detail the ways in which Brazil’s educational system is racially segregated and discuss what this particularly means in the context of Latin American racial discourse. In Section II, I will then describe the current educational reforms in Brazil, and in particular the debate over affirmative action, as a vehicle for demonstrating how the Latin American racial discourse veils the existence of segregation and thus prevents the use of tools like Brown to combat the ill effects of segregation. Finally, in Section III, I conclude by proposing some suggested applications of Brown as an anti-caste precedent in the struggle for racial equality in Brazil.

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