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Sidney Chalhoub: “Meritocracy is a myth that feeds inequalities”

By approving the principle of ethnic-racial quotas, Unicamp aligned itself with the great universities of the world, such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia, which adopt diversity as a criterion for the admission of their students.

Sidney Chalhoub
Sidney Chalhoub

  • Andre Sampaio

By approving the principle of ethnic-racial quotas, Unicamp aligned itself with the great universities of the world, such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia, which adopt diversity as a criterion for the admission of their students. The assumption of these institutions is that diversity improves quality. The statement is made by historian Sidney Chalhoub, a collaborating professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH) at Unicamp and professor at the Department of History at Harvard University (USA). In the interview that follows, given to the Journal of Unicamp, Chalhoub stresses the importance of affirmative action as a mechanism for repairing and promoting social justice and contests arguments used by critics of quotas, such as the need to preserve meritocracy. “Meritocracy as a universal value, outside the social and historical conditions that mark Brazilian society, is a myth that serves the eternal reproduction of the social and racial inequalities that characterize our society. Therefore, meritocracy is a myth that needs to be fought both in theory and in practice. There is nothing to justify this Darwinian meritocracy, which is the law of survival of the fittest and which constantly promotes the exclusion of sectors of Brazilian society. This cannot go on,” he argues.

Jornal da Unicamp – Who is afraid of ethnic-racial quotas?

Sidney Chalhoub – When this subject began to be discussed in Brazil, still in the 1990s, there was great resistance among intellectuals and academics who considered that the adoption of this system would provoke racial tensions in Brazilian society. However, what was seen, as these policies were adopted, first in isolation by some state universities, and then in several federal universities, until federal legislation on the subject was approved, was that the quotas were very well received in the interior. of institutions. Today, what is seen at Unicamp is the defense of quotas by the student movement. Defense is not restricted to the black movement. Based on the experiences of state and federal universities, there was an understanding that the diversity of the student body contributes to academic quality and to the production of knowledge in universities. Those who are afraid of quotas are the sectors that have had access to public and free universities as a prerogative of theirs, for many decades. They are people who go to private schools because they have greater purchasing power and who defend exclusive access to public, free and quality universities. This is a big distortion in Brazilian society.

However, it is not possible to generalize. Today you have a large contingent of Unicamp students who are white and from affluent classes and who also understand the importance of quotas to promote diversity in the student body and to promote different perspectives on the issues addressed by the university. This new contingent of students will challenge several of the university's habits. It will force a questioning about the importance of the existence of the public university, who it should serve and what kind of knowledge it should produce. This experience is most welcome. Resistance to quotas is louder than widespread. The country lives well with the idea of ​​quotas. The engagement of Unicamp students in general shows receptivity to the idea. Opinion polls show that most of the Brazilian population is in favor of affirmative action policies and the Federal Supreme Court itself unanimously approved the need for these policies to combat racism and its consequences in Brazilian society.

JU – Is the principle of quotas a new topic?

Sidney Chalhoub – Not. The theme is far from being a Brazilian original. The best universities in the world, those that Unicamp itself uses as a reference to qualify its activities, have adopted diversity in the admission of students for a long time. Harvard, Yale and Columbia, to name just three examples, adopt aggressive policies to promote student body diversity. Failure to do so would leave Unicamp against the grain of history. The University Council's decision to approve the principle of quotas was very welcome.

JU – Currents against ethnic-racial quotas argue that this type of policy can compromise the quality of education, by allowing “unprepared” students to enter academic life. How do you analyze this type of justification?

Sidney Chalhoub – The first observation in this regard is that, as I mentioned earlier, the assumption of the world's great universities is that diversity improves quality. It forces a contrast of points of view. While the university exists as a prerogative of the same social class, of the same race and of the same sectors, it is not open to the type of questioning and tensions that are creative, arising from the need for social and racial groups with different perspectives to coexist. The second point is that, in practice, all existing research clearly demonstrates that the performance of quota students is equal to or superior to the performance of non-quota students in state and federal universities that have adopted this type of affirmative policy. This is easy to understand.

Contrary to the malicious propaganda that is made, the adoption of quotas has nothing to do with the exclusion of merit. It has to do with using selection criteria that promote competition among students who have had similar educational opportunities up until the time they apply for university admission. In this way, the black and indigenous students who will be selected will represent a fraction of those who applied for a place at the university. They will therefore be the best among them. The tendency is that they are excellent students, as well as non-quota students. Finally, the university evidently has the challenge of dealing with any difficulties that may exist among students in general. Both the difficulties of socioeconomic origin and the academic and pedagogical ones. None of this, however, prevents the quota policy from being implemented. This is a debt owed by public universities to the Afro-descendant population. Obviously, student stay programs are just as important as creating admission opportunities. This is a challenge that Unicamp will have to face.

JU – In one of the public hearings held in 2016 by the University to discuss the principle of quotas, a university professor of indigenous origin said that indigenous people no longer just want to be studied by the academy. They also want to contribute to the construction of science…

Sidney Chalhoub – These new subjects who enter the university represent an important displacement of blacks, indigenous and poor populations, who are the object of academic studies, but who rarely have the opportunity to become subjects of knowledge. This too is a fundamental and epistemological experience. This decentralizes knowledge and allows different perspectives to become part of the university scenario. A subject in which the university is quite lacking concerns a joint reflection on what kind of knowledge it should produce and for whom this knowledge is for.

Should the knowledge that the university produces in the area of ​​energy, for example, be geared to the needs of the market or should it prioritize the needs of preserving the planet? To what extent does the knowledge generated in the medical field prioritize the well-being of society as a whole? Cutting-edge knowledge can be produced on several fronts. The choice of which fronts will be prioritized is an issue that needs to be politicized at the university. It cannot be assumed that knowledge must necessarily meet market needs. There needs to be debate about the reasons why the institution should invest on this or that front. In my opinion, the fundamental criterion is to produce social welfare. This is a topic that the university rarely discusses.

JU – You mentioned the issue of merit in a previous answer. Currents against quotas claim that the model disregards meritocracy, which would generate injustice. What do you think about this type of argument?

Sidney Chalhoub – The key is to question the idea of ​​meritocracy as an abstract universal value that justifies the existence of some common measure of human aptitude and intelligence. It seems that meritocracy started from an abstract definition, excluded from the social and material circumstances of people's lives. The university, being public, belongs to the whole society. The ideal would be that all those who have intellectual conditions and interest in entering the university, obtain a place. As there is no prospect that our politicians will prioritize access to university education, it is necessary to make some sort of selection. The selection must ensure that the society is represented in the university's student body. You can't just have a certain race or social class at the university.

Since admission cannot be universally, society must be present, then, through representation. This was the principle approved by Consu. It is not possible for all candidates to compete for vacancies as if there had been an ideal equality of opportunity between them. A black, poor student who studied in a public school located on the outskirts of Campinas cannot be made to compete on equal terms in a standardized test with students whose parents attended university, have high purchasing power and have high access to symbolic capital. The university needs to seek to balance this dispute.

Thus, when there are reservations for blacks and low-income people, competition takes place between them, between equals. So, there is no exclusion of merit. It is a way of having merit qualified by the candidates' social and economic conditions, and not a competition that has always excluded some segments of society. So, the idea of ​​meritocracy as a universal value, outside the social and historical conditions that mark Brazilian society, is a myth that serves the eternal reproduction of the social and racial inequalities that characterize our society. Therefore, meritocracy is a myth that needs to be fought both in theory and in practice. There is nothing to justify this Darwinian meritocracy, which is the law of survival of the fittest and which constantly promotes the exclusion of sectors of Brazilian society. This cannot go on.

JU – Do ethnic-racial quotas constitute a policy of reparation or social justice?

Sidney Chalhoub – Both. If you think about the history of São Paulo, where Unicamp is located, the prosperity of the State, mainly from the expansion of coffee, in the 30s of the 7th century, took place through two illicit acts practiced by the owner class in an abusive way. for decades. She benefited from the smuggling of Africans. The Brazilian law of November 1831, 750, had prohibited the African slave trade, but coffee farming in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo was formed through the continuation of the slave trade. A contingent of XNUMX Africans was brought to Brazil illegally, under inhumane conditions. These blacks were enslaved and so were their descendants. In addition, the formation of large coffee farms occurred through land invasion. Labor and land were obtained by the ruling class in defiance of the law. Therefore, reparation is an issue that must be taken seriously. If it is not taken seriously from a legal point of view, it should at least be taken seriously from the point of view of promoting social justice that is due to this population whose presence in the country was due to crimes committed by coffee growers.

In the case of São Paulo, affirmative policies were also adopted in favor of immigrants. At the end of the XNUMXth century, policies were adopted to subsidize the immigration of white Europeans, initially Italians. The arrival of these immigrants was subsidized by the treasury of the Province of São Paulo and later by the State of São Paulo, which favored the adaptation of these people to the country. It was a policy of social inclusion that never existed for the black population until recently. Therefore, Brazil has already adopted an affirmative action policy for white Europeans and their descendants. In this way, there is nothing to be seen as a reparation for the policies of quotas for blacks and indigenous people.

Furthermore, it is important to think that, in the case of the black population, when there was an acceleration in the process of slave emancipation, in the last two decades of slavery, there was a change in the electoral law, in 1881, which prohibited the vote of illiterates, which did not exist before. This, in a situation where there was no primary school for blacks. Due to the lack of access to education, in the first decades after emancipation, the black population was excluded from formal politics. This was another important movement of disadvantage of this population in the fight for rights in the history of the country. I understand people rant when they lose privileges. But the historical, social and philosophical reasons in favor of quotas fully justify the measure. There is no possible future with this profile of inequality reproducing over time. It is everyone's mission to overcome this inequality.

JU – Taking advantage of this reflection, how harmful have these postures linked to our slaveholding heritage been for Brazil?

Sidney Chalhoub – When people are amazed to see that corruption in Brazil is so widespread, it is pure historical ignorance. As I mentioned, the greatest example of corruption in the country's history was perhaps the illegal importation of hundreds of thousands of workers through the African trade. This was in the period of formation of the national state, in the 20s and 30s of the XNUMXth century. This state was largely organized to defend the interests of smugglers and coffee growers. Corruption is at the heart of the formation of the Brazilian state. Any simplistic and messianic solution to this problem makes no sense. It is necessary to recognize the complexity of the issue, which can lead Brazilian society to overcome this chronic corruption that exists in the country. This has to do with slavery. Slavery was, I insist, the cornerstone of the formation of the national state. Corruption is capillary in Brazilian society and this capillarity was linked to slavery itself in the XNUMXth century.

JU – In the context of approving the principle of ethnic-racial quotas, Unicamp announced the creation of the Secretariat for Affirmative Actions, Diversity and Equity. What is the importance of this instance to promote reflection on these aspects that you addressed?

Sidney Chalhoub – Quotas will involve many things. Curriculum changes will be involved, so that subjects related to the history of racism and black and indigenous thought are disseminated, so that the density of this type of knowledge is recognized. There are a number of movements that point to a receptivity in relation to quotas. But you have to be vigilant. There will be attempts to cheat in the entrance exam. There will be attempts at gratuitous aggression, such as that of the professor of Medicine, who fortunately does not represent the thinking of the college community. It is necessary to follow up on these matters. It is necessary to welcome newcomers, offer conditions for inclusion to actually occur and ensure that the knowledge that these people will bring to the university is recognized and disseminated. All this requires close monitoring. Thus, the creation of the secretariat, which will have this attribution, is welcome.

Brazil is ready for quotas. Unicamp is ready, yes, to adopt quotas. And the community is mobilized in that sense. I think the new administration of the Rectory, which inherited the discussion from the previous administration, is off to a good start, including to try to ensure governance at a difficult time for the university, by embracing a cause that is quite popular among students, staff and most professors. . The Consu, which is the university's parliament, has already approved. It remains to apply the policy in the best possible way and ensure student permanence. In a few years, we will finally have high-level doctors, engineers, physicists, historians and biologists graduated from one of the best universities in the country. People who will serve as an example and inspiration for the transformation of Brazilian society into a racially fairer society.

Read more about: The intellectual elite had to share their privileges

Text originally published by Jornal da Unicamp

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