Media Center



November 28, 2005 - Washington, DC

Ms. Tanya K. Hernández, Professor of Law & Justice, Frederick Hall Scholar, Rutgers University School of Law, Newark: “Discrimination and Education in Latin-America”

I. The Racial Disparities in Education

Despite the fact that the vast majority of Latin American countries and Spanish speaking Caribbean countries provide a constitutional right to education, / extensive racial disparities exist in the access and provision of educational opportunities. The greatest inequality in education in Latin American is between rural and urban settings. / But the distinctions between rural and urban have great racial import when one considers that most rural students are indigenous or of African ancestry. / Categorically, rural schools are inadequate in the following manner:

- they are staffed by poorly prepared teachers
- children oftentimes do not attain basic literacy skills
- Tend to be one room, multi-age schools. /

As a result, performance by students of African and indigenous ancestry across the region barely reaches the minimum expected passing scores in language and math. /

Just by way of example of the entrenched racial disparities that exist across the region, I shall draw upon the more readily available detailed data from the Brazilian context. A Brazilian study holding per capita family income constant showed that (1) non-Whites have a lower rate of schooling than Whites, (2) non-White students have a higher likelihood of falling behind in school than White students, and (3) non-White students attend schools that are apt to offer fewer classroom hours than schools attended by White students. / Students of African descent achieve educational levels consistently inferior to those achieved by Whites from the same socioeconomic level, and African-descended students’ returns to education are disproportionately lower. / The cumulative effects of these educational racial disparities are reflected in illiteracy rates for non-Whites, which were double the rates for Whites in 1980, and also in Whites’ seven-fold greater likelihood of completing college than non-Whites. /

The Latin American statistical racial disparity in levels of education is paralleled by the racial segregation of Latin America’s educational system, in which students of African descent are relegated to underfinanced, public schools for primary and secondary education, while economically privileged White children attend private schools. / As one study of education throughout the region states: “[al]lthough no generalization can be made about the behaviour [sic] of all educational systems in Latin America some tendencies can be observed. . . . In mixed societies, from the ethnic point of view the ‘white’ schools do better than those for children of mixed or ‘pure’ ethnic origins” and access to universities is restricted by race. / Indeed, “[m]ost of the best schools in the region are private and many of them are on par with the best schools world-wide,” but more than eighty percent of students are forced to attend underfunded public schools, a difference that “reinforces inequality, poverty, and poor economic performance.” / This schooling disparity results in a racially segregated public university setting as well because the public primary and secondary schools fail to prepare their students for the public university entrance examination. / In contrast, the White children whose parents are better able to pay the fees for the racially exclusive private primary and secondary schools, are then better trained for the public university entrance examination. This all results in having the free, elite, and well-funded public universities disproportionately attended by White students. This pattern of racial segregation is replicated throughout much of Latin America and the Caribbean. / Because elite populations continue to shape institutions and policies and this is clearly shown in the low level of support for basic education contrasted with generous financing for universities where the children of the elite attend. / Indeed, there is a large disparity in the distribution of public expenditures across educational levels. /

Why does this educational racial segregation exist if there was never explicit state-sponsored Jim Crow de jure segregation in Latin America? Certainly, the convergence of African/indigenous ancestry and poverty is a factor that supports de facto segregation. But, there is evidence that social class is not the only factor contributing to the racial segmentation of the educational system. Studies have shown that differential access to school for Whites and persons of African descent persists even after controlling for socioeconomic status. Furthermore, as family income decreases, the differential disadvantage in access to schooling between students of European and African ancestry increases. / Despite expectations to the contrary, economic development has not improved racial disparities in the educational system. / Thus, it seems that being poor in Latin America is not the same experience for people of African descent as it is for Whites. In short, socio-economic status alone cannot explain the persistent existence of racial disparities in education.

II. The Racial Discrimination in Educational Racial Disparity

Despite the persistent existence of racial disparity in education, the plight of Afro-descended children is largely ignored as a policy issue and is not mentioned in any official discussion of education. / These inequalities are consistently reproduced because the political structure and the veil of secrecy in which race relations has been shrouded has created an inner system, which is hard to change. The inegalitarian ideologies and belief structures are so entrenched that institutions are slow to change and eventually stagnate. /

Government officials devote public funds to maintaining the excellence of the racially exclusive university settings while simultaneously abdicating any responsibility toward providing a quality education in the public primary and secondary schools attended by people of African descent. This abdication of responsibility occurs despite the fact that the multitude of constitutions in the region declare that education is a right for all, and that it is the duty of the state to provide free education. /
The racialized significance of this seemingly benign neglect is amplified by the racialized treatment of students in the public schools.

Social class, ethnicity, national origin, and gender are dealt with as socio-cultural categories frequently associated with low learning achievement and in many cases with so-called disruptive behavior. When children’s school failure is explained almost exclusively by family and neighborhood characteristics, social responsibility is implicitly transferred from the school context and society to individuals. This may be an expression of the prejudice and discrimination deeply rooted in Latin American tradition. /

For instance, with Brazil as a case example, social scientists have documented that the majority of Brazilian teachers view Afro-Brazilian students as lacking the potential to learn. / As one such teacher states, “They can’t learn, they’re not disciplined, they’re lazy and they give up too soon. All they want is soccer and samba. It’s in the blood.” / Racialized attitudes are also manifested in the textbooks children are assigned, in which Black people are consistently depicted as animal-like, as socially subordinate, and in other stereotyped manners. / When Black children are targeted with racist behavior by classmates who have internalized the societal bias against those with dark skin, school authorities condone the behavior by characterizing it as harmless teasing and joking. / These racialized attitudes may in turn help explain the reasons for the neglect of public education by Latin American governments, / and may also help explain why Latin American educational specialists observe that the “benefits of ‘universally’ designed programs to improve educational outcomes do not reach the poor adequately.” / Therefore, inasmuch as the entrenched racial disparities are condoned and facilitated by a racially influenced governmental abdication of responsibility toward children of African descent, one can construe the racial disparities as caused by racial discrimination.

III. How Might an Inter-American Convention Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance Assist in Ameliorating Racial Discrimination in Education?

Because an Inter-American Convention Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance could be designed to perform research functions to promote the awareness of existence of racial discrimination, it could perform a significant role in demonstrating the racial disparities in education throughout the region. At present many non-governmental organizations that are concerned with the existence of racial disparity in education are hampered by their inability to conduct the kind of social science research necessary to thoroughly document the existence of racial disparities. With the Inter-American Convention Against Racism as a vehicle for providing technical assistance and publishing studies on discrimination, a valuable resource could be provided to those seeking racial justice in education. For instance, empirically sound data concretely illustrating the existence of racial disparity in education could be used to help support government action to institute affirmative action programs. The data could be used to justify affirmative action programs to remedy the racially exclusive public university settings created by racially-biased government education funding policies.

The monitoring function of an Inter-American Convention Against Racism could also be used to keep track of how governments allocate their educational funding. This could be done for the pragmatic purpose of publicly pressuring governments to reallocate funds to better address the lack of access and quality available to students of African-descent in the public primary and secondary schools. But it could also be done to help facilitate the mounting of lawsuits seeking to enforce the constitutional right to education. / A natural consequence of this federal constitutional right, should be the notion that an impoverished education is a denial of education. / A large portion of children of African descent aged seven to fourteen, for whom education is compulsory, receive no formal schooling, and many of those who do enroll in school eventually drop out due to the precarious physical condition of the schools, limited teacher preparation, and the poor quality of the education provided. / One can logically equate this government neglect to a denial of the constitutional right to education. The longstanding government diversion of funds to the racially exclusive university setting and subsidization of private and religious primary and secondary schooling of the elite speak to government involvement in the racial segmentation that exists / despite the constitutional mandate to give priority to providing compulsory education when distributing public funds. Government actors look particularly complicit in the racial segmentation of the educational system when one considers that the government’s states are responsible for controlling the expansion of private schools at the secondary level. /

Thus, by identifying people of African descent in the Americas as specific subjects of rights, an Inter-American Convention Against Racism will help facilitate the important struggle to have nation-states understand and respond to racial disparity in education not simply as an unfortunate consequence of color-blind socio-economic stratification. With the Inter-American Convention Against Racism nation-states can be more effectively called upon to acknowledge and respond to educational racial disparity as a problem of both racial discrimination and socio-economic stratification. The advantage of directly employing the data about racial segregation in education to assist the efforts of educational reform rather than simply lobbying for color-blind equal financing is that, as examples in the United States have shown, equal funding does not necessarily equalize opportunity. /
Indeed, even in Cuba where educational opportunities have been available on an equal basis since the closing of private schools in 1961 and significant investment in education has been made, racial disparities continue to exist. Blacks are not proportionately represented in university programs. / A color hierarchy in education is apparent in the greater representation of Whites in the better schools of higher education, while mixed-race Mulattos/Mestizos predominate in technical vocations schools, and Black Cubans dominate in the junior high schools. / Cuban education experts also note that the quality of teaching and equipment are superior in the elite high schools where White Cubans predominate. /

Severing race from class in the analysis and consideration of policies to the persistent social exclusion of people of color inherently hampers the construction of an adequate policy solution. / That is why it is necessary to analyze the public school context as a problem of both race and class. Merely seeking additional funding and resources for public schools leaves unaddressed the ways in which racialized reasoning can continue to inform financing priorities and the resulting construction of racially exclusive institutions of higher learning. Engaging in a holistic race and class analysis can provide a more accurate picture of the social problem and hopefully lead to a more effective solution than one based solely in a race-neutral class analysis.

Assessing the impoverished education of public school students, who are predominantly Black, as a form of segregation via racist financing priorities seeks not only to improve the schools for the benefit of students of African descent, but also to erode the notion that students of African ancestry do not deserve a quality education or to be better prepared for civic life. A class-based discourse alone cannot erode such pervasive and problematic assumptions about the capabilities and social roles of people of African descent. Even if additional funding were provided to the public schools, the absence of a race-based analysis would permit the continuing racial segregation between public and private schools to create a culture of racial hierarchy and subordination. In turn, the racial segregation of racial hierarchy results in the denial of an effective education. And as a former Brazilian president José Sarney succintly stated, “Without access to education, blacks are condemned to segregation.” / With an Inter-American Convention Against Racism the efforts to provide access to effective education to children of all races will be greatly enhanced.