Protecting the socially weak
The conventional wisdom, among the Brazilian middle- and upper-classes, is that there is no racial prejudice, in a clear misconception of Gilberto Freyre's writings. According to the mainstream view, the problem in Brazil has a social character, rather than a race-based issue. Following this rationale, these people - usually white and well-off - oppose any government policy that aims at solving, even if partially, the problem of social and racial inequalities.
This commonplace opinion is deprived, however, of both a sense of reality as well as of a sense of justice. The opponents of affirmative action policies recognize there's a problem - even if they don't grasp it completely - and their proposed solution is to do nothing about it. That is a consequence of a limited interpretation of the issue, reducing it to an economic matter. It is that old, conservative idea that the pie must grow in order to be divided among more people, accordingly exclusively to their merits.
The idea, held as a universal and undisputable truth by the Brazilian middle- and upper-classes, mostly white, is based on false premises and defended only by those who are in a comfortable position to do so.
Poverty is closely linked to race, in Brazil. A recente study by Ipea concluded: "poverty in Brazil has a color, and it is black." Due to poor formal education, the underprivileged tend to continue in that situation throughout their lives. Added to that structural problem, there's the cultural one too. In equal conditions, a black person's wage is lower than his/her white counterpart.
In the long run, it is obvious that the public school system must improve and thus offer better opportunities to the Brazilian poor - most of whom happen to be black.
But, while we prepare the road for the next generations, something must be done for those young poor - and black - Brazilians who pay the price for society's neglect towards public education and the poor. Something must be done, furthermore, to repair the historic injustice suffered by the black Brazilians. When slavery was legally abolished by the Brazilian State in the last quarter of the 19th century, the African-Brazilians were left unassisted, on their own - they were socially marginalized.
It is a cynical position to oppose official measures to help out sectors of Brazilian society who have historically been looked down at by the ruling elites.
Affirmative action policies are not, in an ideal world, something to be aspired to. It is, however, a pragmatic and fair response to accumulated social troubles. It is a policy that aims at social justice and better wealth distribution. Although such policies might, at times, present some flaws, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Only when we live in a country in which a poor black person has the same opportunities as a white middle-class person, will we be living in a truly democratic and republican society - but until then, there is a long road ahead.