Five Strategies to Combat Racism the United States Should Learn from Latin America

By Celeste Kauffman*


Black people in Latin America and the United States share many impacts of entrenched racism and structural discrimination: higher poverty rates, exclusion from higher education, employment discriminationhigher incarceration ratesracial profiling by police, and low or non-existent political representation. However, the US response to racism has been to adopt a color-blind approach to racism, the public policy and legal equivalent of an ostrich burying its head in the sand, hoping that ignoring race will make it go away. At the same time, the Latin American myth of racial equality has begun to crumble, leading to a litany of race conscious measures designed to promote racial equality by addressing entrenched racism and discrimination. Indeed, Colombia alone has more than 40 laws and decrees regarding racism and inequality.

These five race conscious lessons from Latin America are important for the US to learn if we hope to overcome racial inequality. No country has perfectly implemented these measures, but they represent a legal step in the right direction.

First, ignoring race doesn’t make racism disappear. Race blind measures like those adopted in the US perpetuate discrimination and entrenched inequalities, while blaming individuals for their failure to flourish, obscuring the fact that society is designed to prevent their success. By contrast, affirmative action, such as the measures encouraged by the Constitutional Court of Colombia, recognize the situation of social marginalization of the black population, and take measures to overcome that situation and achieve social equality.

Second, celebrating difference is key. Many constitutions in Latin America celebrate the multicultural nature of their countries. This means that not only are all cultures, ethnicities, and races considered equal, but they also must be respected and permitted to flourish. Thus, while US states ban ethnic studies classes, Colombia and Brazil have issued national decrees to encourage schools to develop courses and activities promoting the culture, history, and identity of black citizens, including the creation of Chair of Afro-Colombian Studies in all schools.

Third, affirmative action in education works. Two years agoBrazil designed an innovative affirmative action mechanism, in which 25% of public university openings are reserved for low-income students. Additionally, racial minorities must be present at the same rate as their weight in the area’s population. After 10 years of less stringent systems, the percentage of mixed race university students has already increased from 2.2 to 11%, while the percentage of black students has increased from 1.8 to 8.8%. By contrast, the number of black college students in some US universities has dropped by more than half, due to the dismantling of affirmative action programs.

Fourth, bidding preferences for minority business enterprises (MBE) helps overcome economic barriers. Set-asides for MBE in public biddings have been all but abolished, while economic opportunities for black Americans continue to flounder. However, for over 10 years, the Brazilian government has used a quota system to address the traditional exclusion of black Brazilians (as well as women and those with disabilities) in government positions. Thus, since 2001, the Ministry of Justice has set aside 20% of positions of trust for black applicants. Additionally, the Ministry of Agricultural Development also requires companies responding to public bids include at least 20% black employees.

Fifth, equality requires political participation. In the United States, only three states have ever elected a black senator, while half have never elected black congressmen, in spite of black people making up 12.6% of the country’s population. 50% of Brazilians are black, but only 8% of congressmen are. Similarly, less than 2% of Colombia’s congressmen are black, while making up 10-20% of the population.


However, while the US has left black political representation to the vagaries of gerrymandering and the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, and indeed opposes race conscious political representation, Colombia has taken several steps, including 14 laws and decrees, to ensure political representation of black Colombians in government. Colombia guarantees two seats in the House of Representatives for black Colombians, and reserves seats on various national councils and consultative committees. While black representation is still low, the table below shows that before such measures, black representation in the national government was literally null.

Source: Richard André, et al (2012) “Political Representation & Social Inclusion: Colombia Case Study”

Rather than addressing inequality, the dismantling of race conscious and affirmative action policies in the US has further entrenched it, leading to increased povertylower home ownership, and lower university enrollment of black Americans. It’s time we learn from Latin American countries and tackle structural racism and entrenched inequality using race conscious and pro-black strategies.


*Celeste Kauffman is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia)

Photo credit: Flicker, Elvert Barnes.