We Need Latin American Style Affirmative ActionTanya Hernandez in The New York Times, October 19, 2012
Tanya Katerí Hernández, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, is the author of "Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law and the New Civil Rights Response."
While the public conversation in the United States has only recently broached the concern that income inequality is an obstacle to economic growth, the rest of the Americas have been much more cognizant of the deleterious effects of income inequality. In fact, because Latin America has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world, its efforts to address inequality offer a useful comparison. Notably, part of the growing Latin American discussion about income inequality has been the observation that the social exclusion of persons of African and indigenous ancestry has inextricably linked race and class in ways that impede economic growth. Indeed, the Organization of American States has stated that the pervasive existence of racial discrimination in the region will hinder the ability to meet the objectives of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for 2015, which each nation committed to in 2000 as a precise and measurable manner of reducing extreme poverty.
The U.S. could benefit from policies that address both race and class barriers to economic growth.This has led some Latin American countries to institute national policies that overtly address the intersection of class-based and race-based inequality. For example, in August 2012 Brazilian legislators enacted “The Law of Social Quotas” which requires public federal universities to reserve half of all new admission spots for public high school graduates who meet the socio-economic threshold requirement. In addition the law requires that the 50 percent quota reserve spots for Afro-descendants and persons of indigenous ancestry in number proportional to their relative populations within each state.
The race requirement in the legislation is an acknowledgement that solely a class-based approach to racial disparities (as some U.S. scholars have proposed in their lobby for a unitary class-based affirmative action policy) cannot fully resolve the income inequality that results from the continued conscious and unconscious racially biased decision-making across all sectors of the society. Another Latin American context like Cuba serves as the example of how unitary class-based equality policies are an incomplete remedy for the continued unequal status of many Afro-Cubans.
In short, Latin America provides a useful comparison for the United States to consider the importance of reducing its own income inequality in ways that can effectively address the combined race and class barriers to economic growth.