By Lynn Walker Huntley
Director, Comparative Human Relations Initiative of the
Southern Education Foundation, Atlanta, Georgia

Brasilia, Brazil

September 21, 2000

Good afternoon. I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to participate in this historic meeting. It is good to see old friends and familiar faces and to make new friends. I especially wish to thank Sérgio Martins of the National Office of Zumbi of Palmares and Iradj Eghrari of the Bahá'í Community for the kind invitation to make remarks. I am glad to share what I know but also eager to listen and learn from you and the many other illustrious persons who will be speaking or have spoken at this event.

What Type of Nation Does Brazil Aspire to be in the 21st Century?

Sergio has asked me to say a few words about the practice of affirmative action. I am pleased to do so. I remember the meeting not too many years ago when the President of Brazil, the Honorable Fernando Enrique Cardoso, stood before an audience in Brasilia such as this and challenged Brazilians to face up to the fact that Black and Brown citizens of this country are often subject to racism and discriminatory treatment that retards their integration and full participation in the national mainstream. He also urged Brazilians to use their unique experience and creativity to come up with solutions to the problem of discrimination that would free Afro Brazilians from violations of their human rights.

Today, we are gathered to assess to what extent this nation has lived up to the challenge put before it by its President and codified in its Constitution and National Programme on Human Rights. We have important, necessary questions to ask of this great nation as it stands on the doorstep of the world's new millennium:

In short, what type of nation does Brazil want to become in the twenty-first century and how will it effect its transformation?

These questions about the type of society that Brazil aspires to be in the 21st century have brought us together. They are similar to the questions being asked by international human rights activists and supporters about Brazil. Part of the concept of international human rights is that we all are citizens of the world and must help each other to overcome human rights abuses wherever they are found. I am not Brazilian, but I care about what goes on in Brazil and so does a growing international community.

These are the type of questions that Americans are asking our government and ourselves. I have just returned from South Africa's National Conference on Racism, where that nation's Black and White people were asking similar questions. They are the questions that people from around the globe will be asking at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance in South Africa in 2001.

Such questions must be asked if there is to be accountability and transparency in the delivery of services and fulfillment of constitutional requirements by our governments. They are questions that must be asked if we are to ensure respect for and compliance with international human rights laws and standards. Let us hope that when we leave this place we will have a better understanding of the challenges that lie ahead and firmer resolve to surmount them.

As an African American who has for many years worked as a civil and human rights advocate in a variety of places, I have seen the problem of racism and discrimination dressed up in many different national, cultural and historical garments around the world. But whatever the disguise, however clever the rationalization for color-coded inequality, however strong the mechanisms of denial, wherever racism and discrimination are present, the consequences are always the same. Racism deprives nations of unity and the cooperation of all of their people in pursuit of the common good. It wastes talent, productive capacity and lives and contributes to inequality and human suffering. It fuels disparities in power, encouraging abuse and exploitation of vulnerable groups and individuals. It undermines democratic governance, retards economic development and sets conflict in motion as groups or individuals struggle either to preserve or resist changes in an unfair status quo.

We can't afford to ignore racism and discrimination. Racism and discrimination have serious damaging effects on the lives of people and the welfare of nations. It is time to take bold steps to leave this vestige of antiquated thinking based on ideologies of White supremacy in the scrap heap of history. If Brazil, if South Africa, if the United States are to thrive in the globalizing economic order of the 21st century, each must find ways to reduce poverty and racism among their people. Facing up to racism and finding ways to invest in improving the plight of poor Black and Brown Brazilians is not, therefore, just a matter of fairness or altruism. Rather, it is in the economic and national interest of Brazil and all Brazilians.

Let us look for a moment at Brazil's profile among the world community of nations.

My purpose in citing these statistics is not to embarrass or condemn Brazil. Clearly there are many worthy efforts underway in this nation to address aspects of these shortcomings. Nor am I suggesting that the United States has all of the answers to questions such as these. To the contrary, the United States has many significant problems related to diversity and inequality. I cite the statistics only by way of reminding us at the outset of the urgent nature of the racial inequality and poverty in your nation. I cite the statistics to tell you what others see when they look at Brazil.

Affirmative Action: Part of a Needed Response to Racism and Discrimination

Let me now turn to how the practice of affirmative action in the United States came into being, how it is implemented in contemporary society and the results. I hasten to add that affirmative action type efforts are only one means, by no means the sole way of combating racism, discrimination and inequality. In order to combat racism and discrimination fully, affirmative action is necessary but not sufficient to the task. It must be part of an overall and comprehensive approach to improving the status of groups subject to discrimination that includes compensatory investments in education, training, health care, housing, employment and other measures.

In the United States, prior to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, it was lawful to exclude people from jobs due to race or color or gender. It was legal to pay women or African Americans less money for doing the same work as White men. It was legal to deny to African Americans and Latinos promotions that Whites with fewer qualifications received. Harassment of Black or Brown or female employees in the workforce was widespread and permissible. The second class citizenship of Black and Brown people was reinforced by educational policies implemented by state, local or the national government that often invested less money in the education of Blacks than Whites or screened women or Blacks or Browns out of certain institutions.

As a result of these and other practices, some sanctioned by law, others, as in Brazil, accepted in practice, Whites had a stranglehold on opportunity. Millions of productive women, Black and Brown people, were pushed to the economic margins of the society. The United States was organized largely around the principle of exclusion, rather than inclusion. Formally and informally, White supremacy was the accepted order of the day among elites, as was reliance on a narrow band of the American talent pool to drive the national economy and dominate national life. Sound familiar?

The American civil rights movement of the 1960s effected significant change by bringing into being a set of civil laws and policies that barred discrimination in the workforce based on race or color, provided administrative remedies for people who were victimized by discrimination, and required employers of a certain size to report on the composition of their workforce annually to a federal agency, the EEOC, especially created to monitor compliance with the law. The government also required institutions of education that received public funds to implement efforts to integrate their institutions' student bodies and faculties. Labor unions were also required to integrate their membership so as to open up opportunities to groups that had heretofore been excluded. The government and private parties both got into the business of enforcing the anti-discrimination laws.

In addition, compensatory public policies--such as America's War on Poverty-were enacted to broaden the productive economic base of the country. A host of policies and programs to promote small business development by women and Blacks and Brown people in the United States came into being. Some were implemented by the government, others by non-profit organizations, and others by the business or educational communities themselves.

Some people and institutions embraced change and others resisted it. But at the end of the day, access to educational and economic opportunities was expanded and extended to more Americans, irrespective of color or race or ethnicity or gender, than ever before.

For almost 36 years, the United States business and educational communities have operated under these laws and policies. There have been major lawsuits by people who have been discriminated against by educational institutions or employers and monetary damages and court ordered hiring and promotion policies have come into effect to ensure that people who are victims of discrimination are made whole. There have been a lot of changes in corporate culture and practice. And the change is continuing still.

One of the ways that businesses and educational institutions have been transformed is through use of affirmative action-type efforts. What is affirmative action as I use the term?

Affirmative action is not one particular approach or practice. It is an umbrella concept, a broad concept, that includes many different types of efforts to ensure diversity and overcome discrimination. President John F. Kennedy first used the term "affirmative action" in Executive Order 10925 in 1961 when he suggested that the nation must take (affirmative) action to seek to overcome the present effects of past discrimination.

Affirmative action then is a catch phrase, a means of helping groups that have been subject to discrimination or suffer from disadvantage. As United States Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun has said: "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take race into account." This means that resources must be targeted to meet the needs of the groups and individuals that have been subject to discrimination.

Affirmative action measures may take the form of recruitment, specially targeted employment, training or educational programs, creation of special incentives to encourage small business development among underrepresented groups, targeted contracting and procurement policies, mentoring programs, and other managerial efforts to make the workplace or the educational institution hospitable to groups that have heretofore been excluded. Affirmative action is a solution to a specific problem. The form it takes depends on the nature and magnitude of the problem the effort is designed to solve.

Affirmative action is a flexible remedy that may be ordered or voluntarily adopted to promote diversity. It may be needed in response to intentional and unintentional discrimination against discrete groups or individuals since the effect of discrimination on its victims is the same whatever the intention of the perpetrator of the discriminatory act.

The Four Component Parts of Affirmative Action

Let me now walk you through a brief exploration by way of example of how employers, public and private, in the United States use affirmative action. Bear in mind that affirmative action efforts are also used in education and other areas. Here is what they do:

First, they take a look at their workforce and ask themselves whether it includes the full range of different groups of people that one would expect it to have in light of the composition of the place where the business is operating. If a business is operating in a city that is 50 percent Black and there are no Blacks in the workforce, that may suggest to the employer that his/her company is doing something wrong because if the system were fair, one would reasonably expect to see some Blacks in the workforce. So, having done a workforce audit, if the employer finds that there are groups that are not included in the workforce, that signals a potential problem.

Second, the employer investigates its recruitment, hiring, training and promotion practices to find out why the workforce does not resemble the community or nation in which the company does business. Sometimes companies find that they have employees who don't like people different from themselves and are discriminating against them formally or covertly. In such instances, the employer may have to train or fire that employee.

Sometimes, the business may find that its recruitment policies are "word of mouth" and result in a narrow selection of like people or nepotism. It may have to either advertise in diverse media to reach groups that have historically not been in its workforce, send recruiters to schools where members of racial groups not in the workforce are concentrated, or hire people of color to find other people of color to work in the business.

Sometimes the business may find that it has a bad reputation among people of a certain group as being an inhospitable place to work and that is why women or people of color are not applying for jobs. The business may then target philanthropic resources to reach out to those communities or market to the people in the community to make them feel welcome. This is why so many ads in US papers say "Equal Employment Opportunity Employer." This signals to readers that the employer welcomes diverse applicants for positions and that it values diversity. An employer in the United States would never run an ad requiring "good appearance" which every Black or Brown Brazilian knows means that they need not apply.

Sometimes the employer may find that the employment tests it uses are unfair and screen out people based on non-job related criteria. That signals the need to re-do the test so as to ensure that it measures better and more accurately the skill mix required to do the job.

Suppose the employer conducts a review, finds under-representation, studies the area labor pool and learns that there are no women or Blacks with the skill mix or education needed for the job. In such a case, he or she could conclude that there is no discrimination in his firm, but there may be discrimination in the educational system.

Third, employers develop a plan of action to remedy the problems that they have discovered. This plan of action is a tool, a guide, to help managers in the business reform the practices, policies and assumptions that have resulted in the employer not having a diverse and inclusive workforce. Sometimes the plan of action will set goals or targets. It may say-"In five years, we would expect to have 20 percent women in particular positions or 40 percent Blacks, taking into account workforce growth projections, turnover and the available labor pool."

This latter point about the labor/talent pool is very important. Affirmative action plans do not require employers to hire people who do not have the qualifications for the job. What it does require is that the employer identify the real qualifications needed for jobs and not inflate them in order to screen out particular groups or individuals. In some instances, employers may develop specific training programs for people who do not possess the necessary skills in order to help them qualify for jobs. The point is that good managers diagnose the problem, fashion a plan to solve it and then work on implementation.

Finally, employers implement the plan and monitor outcomes, modifying their approaches to meet changing circumstances. Like any other business decision, in the United States the research shows that the single most important thing any employer can do to achieve workforce diversity is to send a signal to his/her managers and staff that their pay and performance assessment is tied to effective implementation of the plan. When I worked in the US Department of Justice, for example, my performance appraisal included consideration of the extent to which I had recruited and managed well a diverse workforce of attorneys in my trial section. The employers monitor what progress is being made, what problems emerge along the way, and make their intentions known that discrimination or exclusion of people due to color or gender or other superficial and non-job related characteristics will not be tolerated.

Successful employers understand that once they set off a change dynamic in the way they do business, some employees will resist; others will have difficulty adjusting to change. That is why in the United States, employers often talk about "managing change" or "managing diversity." That phrase suggests that one must, as in all business decisions, work to ensure that plans are implemented effectively and efficiently and that corporate policy is understood by all.

In the United States, we still have a long way to go to fully eliminate racism and discrimination in the workplace, the training place, the educational institution and other venues. But affirmative action does work. In a space of a few decades over one third of the African American population has moved into the middle class due to enhanced opportunities made available by, among other efforts, affirmative action programs that have improved education, training and employability. Women, especially White women, have been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action efforts.

Some people in the United States oppose the implementation of affirmative action programs because they work! They may be fearful that undeserved benefits that they derive from the status quo will be taken away once a real merit-based system -- affirmative action -- is put into force.

While there is resistance to affirmative action, it is also interesting that many American businesses firmly support and embrace affirmative action voluntarily. There are several reasons why:

  1. They are looking at demographic trends. They know that in the next few decades, people of color will constitute an ever-larger percentage of the workforce on which national economic growth, productivity and wealth generation rests. These people of color are and will be a growing percentage of the nation's consumer base, and the workers from whose earnings social welfare programs, such as pensions, will be financed. In the United States, there is a growing consensus that the country cannot afford to marginalize the huge percentage of its productive capacity embodied in people of color and women. Creating a virtual monopoly on jobs and quality educational opportunity for Whites may be the way to keep them privileged in the short term, but it is no way any longer to advance the economic development and growth of an entire nation. Thus, planning ahead, American businesses and our government know that their growth and national prosperity are tied to the country's ability to identify, nurture and develop the talent of its historically excluded people.
  2. Here is another interesting point -- many of the nation's leading companies are resisting efforts to undo affirmative action programs. They know that in a world of diversity, brought together by globalizing forces, having people of different cultures, perspectives and experiences as employees, is a marketing, planning and workforce management benefit. The American business community knows that it is an advantage to be able to draw on insights of people from consumer markets it is trying to reach. Diversity is tied to profitability.

In the July, 1999, issue of Fortune Magazine, there is a lead article called, "Where Diversity Really Works." Among other things, it says:

When a company decides to become a good place for minorities, it eventually discovers that doing so creates a self-reinforcing cycle, in which good minority job candidates join the company because they see minority workers doing well there. "If you become known as a great place for women or Blacks or Asians, you'll attract the talent," says Maria Lagomasinco, who heads global banking at Chase.

Ralph Bazhoaw, Luna's president, says: "you never know. You may miss hiring a talented person if you don't recruit from as many sources as possible."

The article concludes:

Bottom line: You can be as tough and skeptical as you like-CEO's face hard decisions and easy decisions and trying to become one of America's best companies for minorities is looking like the easiest decision of the week. Safe prediction for the future. Some companies will still be better than others for minorities. Lots of companies will try hard to be among the best. But hardly anyone will wonder why.

Articles like this are proliferating in the United States. They and reports such as the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission Report or the Economic Report of the President, or the reports of my project, Beyond Racism, Embracing an Interdependent Future, all underscore that having diverse and inclusive workforces is a key to enhanced productivity, competitiveness and profitability.

The United States is not the only country that uses affirmative action. India, Israel, a growing number of European countries, and South Africa, all use affirmative action type approaches to improve and broaden their nation's economic bases and workforce productivity. Affirmative action is both sanctioned and required by international human rights instruments promulgated by the United Nations to which states-parties have committed themselves. Affirmative action is about promoting inclusion rather than exclusion. It is about developing the talent and productive capacities of marginalized groups so that they can contribute in a positive way to supporting themselves, their communities and making their nations strong.

Sometimes I wonder how anyone can really oppose affirmative action. It seems so obvious that all of our countries would be stronger if their people -- the true wealth of nations -- helped contribute to the common good. So don't be apologetic for promoting affirmative action. Don't view it as special pleading. When you press for affirmative action, you are not just trying to secure a benefit for Black people or for women or for indigenous people or others who have been excluded from the social and economic mainstream. You are being patriotic and trying to help your nation achieve the full measure of its promise.

Brazil at the Crossroads

What does all of this mean for Brazil? Several things. You know your country far better than I could pretend to know it, but I will venture a few observations.

The most important observation I can make relates to Brazil's economic growth. Although your nation has begun to embrace free trade and is increasingly engaged in the global economy, Brazil's share of world trade is still relatively tiny, accounting for only nine-tenths of a percent of the worlds' exports. Mexico, with an economy about half the size of Brazil's, accounts for two percent of the world's exports. While exports of goods and services account for six percent of Brazil's gross domestic product, they represent 26 percent of the GDP in nearby Chile. In the global information age into which the world is moving, Brazil must find ways to improve and broaden opportunities for half of its population -- Black and Brown people -- if it is to be able to expand its exports and utilize sophisticated modern technologies in industry.

Investors do not want to put their money at risk in nations where disease which knows no barriers has a holiday due to poor health care, or where crime and violence by desperately poor people lead to police repression, kidnappings, human rights abuses, and a proliferation of private security guards and more gated communities. Capital does not flow long to places such as this or where workforce shortages in high skilled, high technology fields are foreseeable because the mass of people receive an inferior education that ill equips them to compete in the global marketplace. Tourism will not expand when growing numbers of African Americans and Africans increasingly voice discomfort because they see a pronounced color line in Brazil. Foreign governments, including the United States and South Africa, will expect to see a genuine racial democracy in Brazil and will not feel comfortable forging close ties with nations known for their racism and poverty.

Dear friends, your great country is at risk of becoming more and more associated with the denial of human rights and racial discrimination because of the existing pattern of underinvestment in the health, education, training and employment of Black and Brown people. The multinational companies and multilateral agencies that do business here are under increasing pressure from groups in the United States and elsewhere to stop doing business and having relations with countries whose practices violate ethical non-discriminatory principles and standards. The government of the United States and others are increasingly being pressured by human rights groups to make the discrimination documented by the Special Rapporteur from the United Nations, Maurice Glele; the Organization of American States; Human Rights Watch, my organization and others an issue in government to government relations. These developments may not yet be palpable to you, but they are gaining force.

In the work in which I have been involved for the last 5 years, I have come to love the energy and talent of Brazilians. It is out of that love that I appeal to you to act in your own best national interest and embrace in a serious and sustained way efforts to promote the inclusion of Black and Brown people in the societal mainstream.

The world is getting smaller. The winds of change, of globalization, of global competitiveness, of international human rights are blowing ever stronger. The spotlight will be on Brazil at the World Conference Against Racism. It is my fondest hope that Brazil will in preparation for that World Conference enact some bold public policy measures to show the world that it really aspires to be a "great racial democracy," not in words but in deeds. Brazil, the world needs your energy and leadership to combat human rights abuses around the world, but first, you must look within. Ask the question: what type of nation do we aspire to be in the 21st century? Then work with determination to put in place what is needed to transform your country.

Brazil stands at a crossroads: Will it move toward inclusion or continue exclusion? That is the question.

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