Civil Liberties

Affirmative Action in Other Countries

Different countries try different strategies to correct legacies of discrimination, and many are just as controversial as affirmative action.
As the United States continues to wrestle with affirmative action, it is not alone. Other countries, such as Malaysia, India, Brazil and South Africa struggle with their own diversity initiatives, and can offer lessons for the United States.

In 2000 in Brazil, the state of Rio de Janeiro instituted racial quotas in its university system that targeted blacks and those with some African heritage, who were disadvantaged due to the country's legacy of slavery. However, under the Rio system, many white students claimed African heritage to gain an advantage in a very competitive applicant pool. In fact, Brazilians with mixed blood, called "pardos" -- brown in Portuguese -- account for approximately 40 percent of all Brazilians.

Critics in Brazil say racial quotas have no place in such a mixed-race society. On June 23, the conservative and prestigious Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper called racial miscegenation "one of the country's greatest sources of anthropological and cultural wealth." It was difficult to determine with precision "to which race each Brazilian belongs," the paper added.

Rio's quota-based policy has been suspended in the face of a challenge to its constitutionality in Brazil's Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court's recent split ruling in two affirmative action cases -- which allowed race to be used in admissions decisions but banned quotas and systems based on points -- emboldened critics of Rio's policy. Brazil's experience could also foreshadow problems for the United States, as its mixed-race population grows and notions of racial identity change.

Paulo Renato Souza, Brazil's former education minister, advises doing away with affirmative action completely. The policy, he wrote in the Eastado newspaper, has distracted Brazil from its real task: improving the quality and access to public education at the primary and secondary school levels so that poor Brazilians, who tend to be black or brown, can be admitted to the universities at greater rates. Souza points to one successful government program that pays low-income parents to send their kids to primary school.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also recently hinted at dumping the country's "bhumiputra," or "native son" policy, which grants preferences to the Malay majority. Adopted in 1969, the bhumiputra policy gives Malays preferences in business opportunities and university admissions, but it leaves out other groups, such as the mostly labor-class Indians who comprise 11 percent of the country's population.

The policy was created to boost the Malays' economic standing, mainly against ethnic Chinese, who make up 33 percent of the nation's population but control 70 percent of its wealth. This disparity has contributed to some of Malaysia's bloodiest conflicts.

Mahathir's criticism of bhumiputra is longstanding. In his controversial 1970 book "The Malay Dilemma," Mahathir, who is half Malay and half Indian, said that bhumiputra hasn't worked because of Malays' cultural habits. Malays' relaxed, folksy and fatalistic lifestyle makes it difficult for them to compete with the Chinese, he claimed.

But Mahathir, who has courted controversy throughout his 22-year term, knows that Malays will not let the policy go lightly. Bhumiputra may provide Malays with a kind of psychological buffer against their financial disparities with the Chinese, and to do away with the policy overnight, many say, would plunge the nation into chaos and violence.

In South Africa, the nation's 1998 Employment Equity Act has so far had little impact on the black majority, 70 percent of the country's population. The boardrooms of the country's top companies are still dominated by whites, and affirmative action policies have benefited only a small number, mainly the black elite. The rest of the black population still lives in rural poverty, devastated by generations of oppressive apartheid policies.

What may be emerging instead in South Africa are more urgent, direct efforts among blacks to fight longstanding inequalities. Whites still own 80 percent of farmland, and some blacks, taking cues from neighboring Zimbabwe, are taking back property from white farmers by force. And like the U.S. movement to gain reparations for descendents of African American slaves, some in South Africa are filing lawsuits seeking damages from companies that participated in apartheid programs, including U.S.-based firms.

India, with one of the oldest affirmative action policies, created after the country gained independence in 1947, is tweaking its system. In 1979 a commission recommended changing the country's caste-based system to one based on income level and class. The definition of so-called "backward castes" eligible for preferential programs was changed to "backward classes," which could cover as many as 3,500 groupings based on such factors as income level, occupation and proximity to drinking water.

Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh in the 1980s was the first to recognize the lower classes -- more than 60 percent of India's population -- as a powerful voting block. Singh's efforts to enforce affirmative action quotas led to mass dissension from upper castes faced with shrinking seats in government and educational institutions. Some students even immolated themselves in protest.

Today, the political power of lower castes in India, both Hindu and non-Hindu, is burgeoning. The nation's first-ever Dalit, or "untouchable," chief minister -- Mayawati, who uses only one name -- came to power recently in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Worldwide, countries may be may be slowly realizing that correcting legacies of injustice and discrimination may involve preferential programs based on both race and class, not race alone.

J. Prakash in Malaysia, Marcelo Ballve, and Sandip Roy contributed to this story. Pueng Vongs is an editor of New California Media, an association of California's ethnic and in-language news media and a project of Pacific News Service.