5460 - The Diffusion of Affirmative Action in Latin America: A Co-Evolutive Approach

Yet, in the 21 st century, ethno-racial groups in Latin America continue being underrepresented in positive indicators of equality (literacy rates, access to education and health, housing, political participation, etc.) and overrepresented in negatives (diseases, poverty, incarceration, etc.). These inequalities have a transnational origin, as they are rooted in the colonial past. Several studies have suggested that the socio-economic conditions of these groups can be improved because policy-influenced variables such as education and occupation are largely responsible for earnings differences. Therefore, increasing attention has been paid to the implementation of State-centered measures in form of preferential policies for disadvantaged ethno-racial groups, including affirmative action (AA).  

But AA is a complex instrument to deal with ethnic inequalities. AA raises the inherent contradiction of aiming to tackling racial discrimination through race-conscious regulations and policies in favor of determined target groups, the elaboration of statistics with racial/ethnic distinctions, and the establishment of preferential mechanisms in the access and enjoyment of social services for those ethno-racial groups that, according to such statistics, are disadvantaged. Some scholars have questioned the theoretical use of such categories arguing that it could be complicit in the reification of racial difference (see e.g. Gilroy 1998). This is particularly levelheaded in contexts were former legal discrimination ruled, like in the United States. After centuries of direct discrimination through law, the American society became very distrustful regarding racial and ethnic classifications, to the extent that the U.S. Supreme Court applies strict judicial scrutiny, stating that they are presumed to be invalid and are allowed only if they serve a “compelling” public objective that cannot be accomplished in other way.  

But the question is also relevant for Latin American countries that for long time neglected racial discrimination and only recently have recognized the persistence of colonial-rooted ethno-racial inequalities. Concern on the introduction of race-conscious measures is not restricted to the historical differences of racial discrimination in comparison with the U.S., but rather with the form in which this introduction is taking place. Some scholars (see e.g. Bourdieu/Wacquant 1999), under the label of “Americanization” of global anti-racism, have questioned that an instrument developed under the conditions of clear-cut racial borders as in the U.S., when vertically disseminated to Latin America (characterized by the historical mixing of different racial and ethnic groups) could accentuate social conflict and derive in new inequalities. Following this argument, the diffusion of AA (and its consequent racialization of social matters) could be described as an imperialist promotion/imposition of inequalities.  

Several publications (especially from Brazil) defend a competing narrative. It is argued that the diffusion of AA, rather than a vertical emulation of U.S. policies, is the expression of certain inclusive and democratic consensus in the public deliberation on the relevance of combating structural discrimination and the need to cut the social advantage of the dominant group to favor the disadvantaged groups.  

The paper attempts to offer an alternative assessment on how AA spreads throughout the region. Rather than exclusively vertical or horizontal, it can be better described as a co-evolutive process, characterized by increasing horizontal and vertical interactions between national legal systems and international organizational platforms and several horizontal and polyarchic interactions among national legal systems of the region, with the participation of multiple state institutions and private actors.

Keywords: Affirmative Action, Latin America, Americanization, ethnic inequality

Author: Gongora-Mera, Manuel Eduardo (Lateinamerika-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany / Deutschland)


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