This article is part of the Leaders of Social & Political Change series from the Fall 2012 issue of Americas Quarterly. View the full special section.
The redemocratization of Brazilian society in the 1980s has meant the widening of the political sphere for a whole new set of social actors. But not all sectors have benefitted equally. This is particularly true for Brazilians of African descent. Inequality is clearest in education, though it exists in almost all sectors. Currently, only 8 percent of Brazilians of African descent between the ages of 18 and 24 attend institutions of higher learning. If we take only public universities into account—which, in Brazil, are usually the best—the percentage falls to below 3 percent!
In Brazil, dark-skinned individuals are systematically excluded from the means that would allow them to secure social rights, attain upward social mobility and gain public visibility for their cause. This exclusion is not the result of specific laws, but rather of social, cultural and political patterns that reinforce the notion that it is natural for people of African descent to be relegated to subordinate roles and to be paid low wages with little job security.
During its five decades in Brazil, the Ford Foundation has opened spaces for reflection and action in combating racism and overcoming racial inequality. The foundation’s efforts have not been based on a model of philanthropy, but rather on strategic action to support leading players in this process.
More recently, the Ford Foundation was instrumental in advancing affirmative action policies. Their initiatives have expanded access to public institutions of higher learning in Brazil by guaranteeing slots at the best universities for poor students and those of African descent.
Because of its efforts to advance racial equality, the Ford Foundation has become a target of criticism in Brazil. Many still believe that the Brazilian model of race relations should be defended because it represents a symbol of national identity. The symbol, though, ignores the profound levels of race-based social, educational, political, and economic inequalities and injustices that exist even today.
The Ford Foundation and other international organizations forced Brazilians to confront the myth of racial democracy in Brazil. And in doing so, the Ford Foundation’s influence has extended far beyond our times. Its name is inscribed on the very pages of Brazilian history.