Affirmative action in Brazil: the challenges of racial classification

It’s old news that Brazil is enacting social quotas – both socioeconomic and racial – for public higher education. In my earlier post, I detailed the impact this sort of policy could have on the quality of higher education.  However, before I had the chance to write a follow-up to that post, a new piece of legislation began being drafted to introduce affirmative action to the civil service.

This is not the first policy of its kind in Brazil. Yet, it is too soon to discuss the implications and effects of this law. Regardless of the final shape the bill takes, any affirmative action will have to grapple with the basic issue of identification of the beneficiaries.

In Brazil, racial classification has always been a contentious topic. For many decades, the government refused to even collect racial information, arguing that race was not a salient issue on this side of the Americas.  However, even if one agrees that there is racial discrimination in Brazil, and that part of the country’s huge inequality hinges upon race and not only class and education, the issue of racial classification is not something to be quickly dismissed. A recent New York Times  forum, for instance, shows very different perspectives.

On the one hand, Peter Fry, a leading anthropologist, argues: “[…], unlike the U.S., the majority of Brazilians do not classify themselves neatly into blacks and whites. In Brazil, therefore, eligibility for racial quotas is always a problem.”

On the other hand, Antonio Sergio Guimarães, a leading sociologist fights back:

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Brazil is the temptation to introduce a systematic verification of self-declared color or race to prevent fraud in affirmative action programs. Race and color are social constructs. It is impossible to define their borders scientifically. Passing is something inherent to this kind of classification. It can be motivated by selfish economic protection or by political altruistic reasons. The fear of fraud must be restrained to give a chance to these programs to flourish.

Ultimately, these scholars seem to be discussing an empirical and methodological issue of racial classification with wide implications for redistribution. Despite the known complexities of racial classification, much analysis relies on a single self-classification based on fixed, mutually exclusive, choices.

Bailey, Loveman and Muniz (2012) present an interesting analysis of Brazil’s racial make-up and racial inequality, taking different racial classification schemes into consideration:

They demonstrate that very different pictures of Brazil’s racial make-up are created depending on which scheme is followed. Comparing the most extreme cases, Brazil could be either 70.4% or 40.7% White. Beneficiaries of affirmative action could either comprise 29.6% or 59.3% of the population. These are hugely different percentages.

Furthermore, these different measurements are not necessarily robust.  Even if more than one measure is used, there is still a lot of incongruence.

In their paper, they go on to convincingly show that different measures also imply different mappings of income inequality between those groups. Their findings do not necessarily challenge the finding that Blacks are, on average, worse off than Whites, but they do bring more precise, rigorous, and contextual evidence to support that claim. In any case, these findings do not mean that race should be disregarded and that it does not influence social interactions in Brazil. They argue that these different measures provide more evidence that race is a multi-dimensional social construct and should be analyzed as such – there is no “true race” to be measured.

But, what do these findings tell us when discussing redistributive policies based on race? Do these inconsistencies hinder any systematic implementation of affirmative action? Or are inconsistencies (and, to some extent, fraud) a “lesser-evil”, with affirmative action a good idea despite these issues? The recent policies seem to have embraced affirmative action despite these problematic measurement issues. The consequences of these choices are still to be fully understood.

The Return of Israeli Moderation?

Not too long after the Israel-Hezbollah war, George Packer wrote an excellent profile of Israeli author David Grossman for the New YorkerGrossman is an Israeli author who, along with several of his liberal cohort, has been engaged in a full-front assault on Israel’s hawkish foreign policy. Packer describes, in detail, how Grossman’s political opinions have evolved, like that of many Israelis, over the past few decades:

[At the time of the Yom Kippur War], his political views were conventional: Israel, surrounded by enemies, was destined to fight an eternal war, and the only imperative was survival. In 1967, the year of his bar mitzvah, Israel won the Six-Day War and occupied Gaza, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. In “The Yellow Wind,” Grossman wrote of his generation, “The surging energy of our adolescent hormones was coupled with the intoxication gripping the entire country; the conquest, the confident penetration of the enemy’s land, his complete surrender, breaking the taboo of the border, imperiously striding through the narrow streets of cities until now forbidden.” At the beginning of the occupation, Jewish families used to drive through the West Bank and Gaza on weekends, on tours organized by transportation companies like the one where his father worked; they would buy Arab kaffiyehs for next to nothing and wear them triumphantly in the streets of Hebron and Jericho. The Palestinians were crushed, and the Israelis were seduced by what Grossman calls “the temptation of strength, the temptation of arbitrariness.” At thirteen, he felt unambivalent pleasure about Israeli power. As he grew older, though, he became troubled by it; when friends or Army comrades urged him to join an outing to the occupied territories, he refused, saying, “They hate us, they don’t want us there. I cannot be like a thorn in the flesh of someone else.”

Much time have passed since this profile and since Grossman began his campaign. For years, it seemed, to those of us on the outside, that such pleas for moderation fell on deaf ears. While the settlements issue is not resolved, it appears that the Israeli “consensus” on a hardline against Iran is far from unassailable. Israel’s policy is already shifting away from military action. In a recent editorial in the New York Times, Graham Allison and Shai Feldman argue that the change of policy comes as the result of internal divisions within Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, primarily between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Indeed, several prominent Israeli political figures, including President Shimon Peres, have spoken out against unilateral military action. Moreover, as Allison and Feldman point out, the Israeli military establishment has unified in its opposition to military strikes.

Several obstacles remain, however. Most pressing, perhaps, is the possibility of a re-emboldened Netanyahu emerging from the January elections. Possible permutations of center-left coalitions consistently poll lower than Netanyahu’s coalition. In the last elections, in 2009, Netanyahu was able to form a rightist coalition despite receiving the second-most seats in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature. The centrist Kadima party, which received the most votes in 2009, was unable to form a governing coalition. It is unclear whether they will be able to unify various other centrist parties in order to succeed at this task in January. Much hope rests with Ehud Olmert, the former embattled Kadima Prime Minister. However, as Judy Rudoren argues in a Times op-ed, he faces many complicated challenges–some political, some legal, some moral–in his attempt to become prime minister once again. The titular question then can only be answered by a cautiously optimistic “maybe.”

No matter the outcome, these developments emphasize the non-unitary nature of Israeli domestic politics and foreign policy. In many ways, this mirrors a critical analytical hurdle that the field of International Relations faced several decades ago. As a recent “state-of-the-field” review article in the Annual Review of Political Science by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith argues, IR has more or less overcome this crutch. Scholars have made countless important contributions to our understanding of international politics by exploring domestic political developments explicitly.

Perhaps nowhere is this domestic turn in IR more clear than in John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s controversial work on the US Israel lobby. Moreover, this analysis more or less reflects the public view of US foreign policy-making, whether true or not. It is not clear why this understanding has not extended to Israeli politics, which continues to be black- boxed in public discourse. Whatever the result of the next few months’ debate and politicking in Israel, the critical lesson for the rest of us should be not to essentialize Israeli foreign policy positions based upon the hard line it has taken so far.

For more of his thoughts on developments in Israel, follow William on Twitter.

Election’s Outcome is Huge News for Georgian Democracy

By Daniel F. Wollrich

On October 1, Georgia held parliamentary elections that were sure to be a victory for President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party. Except they weren’t. In fact, challenger Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition—“a group of progressive opposition forces in the Republic of Georgia”—prevailed and will enjoy a parliamentary majority. Even before all the ballots had been counted, President Saakashvili gave his concession speech, overtly accepting the shift in governmental control. The symbolic power of the election and the results’ acceptance by the leadership, however, is far more important and indicates a strong Georgian embrace of democratic governance.

Georgia, a post-Soviet state located in the historically conflict-ridden Caucasus region south of Russia and north of the Middle East, has a short democratic history. With two centuries of explicit Russian dominance (save a few years following the violent collapse of the Russian Empire and during the early consolidation of the Soviet Union), Georgia only reestablished its independence in 1991. While not immediately embracing a democratic institutional framework like the Baltic States, Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze—former Soviet minister of foreign affairs and Georgian head of state from 1992 to 2003—experienced a mild improvement over the Soviet regime. The country’s politics were marked by stuttering liberalization and weak, often merely symbolic, democratic institutions. Fraud and corruption continued to mar the country’s government, sparking the Rose Revolution following the fraudulent November 2003 parliamentary elections. Shevardnadze was cast out and the Saakashvili era began. This marked the shift to a truly post-Soviet Georgia, establishing enough democratic institutions to earn the title “democracy” from Western observers (even if not a “full democracy”).

Of course, Georgian democracy has been far from flawless. Saakashvili, elected president in 2004 and re-elected in 2008, had seen his popularity wane in the past few years. Accusations of authoritarian rule had sprouted, derived from the strong hand he has played in instituting changes to Georgia’s political landscape. Saakashvili’s most overtly disturbing move, at least internationally, was his attempt to remove his challenger, Ivanishvili, from the political scene by revoking his Georgian citizenship. A law was invoked—driven by Saakashvili—that forbids Georgians from maintaining multiple citizenships. Since Ivanishvili was also a citizen of Russia and France (he has since renounced his Russian citizenship), he was stripped of his status as a Georgian citizen. A constitutional amendment introduced in May, however, may pave the path for a non-Georgian citizen (under certain conditions) to become prime minister. The legal battle remains unresolved, and when—or whether—Ivanishvili can become prime minister is yet to be determined.

More recently, the scandal surrounding abuse in Georgia’s prison system has deeply tainted the carefully cultivated righteous image of Georgian leaders. The torture, taunting, and sexual assault of prisoners sparked angry demonstrations, resulting in the resignation of recently appointed minister of interior Bacho Akhalaia. Moreover, defense minister Dmitri Shashkin was minister of penitentiaries after 2008, indicating the depth—and height—of the scandal in the government. The Georgian regime was struck at its heart, immediately prior to elections, and the evident overstretch of high-level governmental power suggested that Georgian authorities might reveal themselves unwilling to play by rules of fairness and democracy, should they lose the popular vote.

Yet, a warmer light shined upon Georgia’s future this month. The election’s winner was the democratic process. When Saakashvili conceded in spite of expectations that his party would prevail, he showed by action what his words had claimed for years: his rule was for bringing democracy to the Georgian people. In 2008, Georgia held what the Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe called the “first genuinely competitive post-independence presidential election,” and this year, the country enjoyed its first democratic change in power.

Predicting where this leads is difficult. One key challenge not yet discussed here concerns Georgian sovereignty over its entire claimed territory and relations with its northern neighbor, Russia. Throughout his rule, one of Saakashvili’s primary goals has been shoring up the country’s autonomy and establishing territorial integrity, noting that he inherited autonomous or semi-autonomous regions in the northwestern Abkhazia, the north-central South Ossetia, and the southwestern Ajaria. Although he quickly and successfully reintegrated Ajaria, stoking optimism for the remaining two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia would prove more resistant. These difficulties stemmed in large part from these regions’ mighty benefactor to the north. This territorial problem continues to haunt Tbilisi, with no apparent solution. It will disrupt Georgian efforts at reconciliation with Russia, regardless of Ivanishvili’s desire to warm relations, and it will obfuscate any paths to NATO membership and official alliance with the West.

Domestic problems also trouble Georgia’s immediate political future. Opposition rallies have continued beyond the election and threaten domestic tranquility and the peacefulness of the transition, in spite of Ivanishvili’s calls for their end. In addition, as discussed above, the question of Ivanishvili’s citizenship and whether he can even become prime minister presents a peculiar and unfortunate case of domestic institutional  manipulation interfering with democratic system processes. Regardless of who assumes the role of prime minister, the probability of political wrangling and the possibility of stalemate between the Georgian Dream coalition in parliament and Saakashvili and the United National Movement in the presidency until next year loom threateningly.

Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the power of commitment to an idea and especially, as in this case, democracy. Although Saakashvili and Georgia’s political future once seemed intimately intertwined, the president’s prompt and willing concession suggests that Georgia’s governing ideology is not Saakashvili-ism but rather democracy and the rule of the people. Going forward, numerous factors must be watched: Will the Georgian Dream be a dream of democratic consolidation? Will the press be open and liberated and will transparency infiltrate the government?  How will the new government relate to the West, Russia, and its other immediate neighbors? Will the dilemma of South Ossetia and Abkhazia prove obstructionist to international integration and domestic stability? These and other questions illustrate the challenges before Georgia’s new government. But the peaceful, legitimately democratic change of power in Kutaisi bodes well. This election is indeed huge news for Georgia’s democratic endeavors.

Editor’s note: Daniel F. Wollrich is a PhD student at the Ohio State University and a guest contributor for the Smoke-Filled Room. 

Do Policymakers Heed the Advice of Academics?

Traditionally, the archetypal image of American political science has been that of scholars locked away in a proverbial ivory tower, far removed from Washington, literally and metaphorically. This image is crumbling. I would cite examples of recent works in political science that accomplish the always-difficult task of outlining the real-life policy implications of the research findings but our servers would crash from the sheer amount of text I would have to devote to this post (I would also never finish my dissertation, but that’s another matter). Yet, politicians still make policy as if extensive political science research on the matter has not been conducted. If academics really are reaching out to these policymakers, then what’s going on?

There is plenty of reason to believe that, in 2012, it is now policymakers, not academics, who are the cause of the storied disconnect between academics and policymakers. In a recent piece in the New York Times, David Leonhardt suggests that the fatal economic mistake of the Obama administration was underestimating the severity of the financial crisis, against the advice of academic research, in particular that by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.

…By late 2008, the full depth of the crisis was not clear, but enough of it was. A few prominent liberal economists were publicly predicting a long slump, as was Mr. Rogoff, a Republican. The Obama team openly compared its transition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and, in private, discussed the Reinhart-Rogoff work.

So why didn’t that work do more to affect the team’s decisions?

Do policymakers heed the advice of academics? I’m not so sure.

Three points can and should be mentioned in the defense of policymakers. The first is that the vast majority of policymakers must take into account domestic considerations when weighing policy options. Although practitioners and academics are both accountable to their respective audiences, the former deal with much higher stakes on a practical level (i.e., they could lose their jobs in the next election). One clear-cut yet public example of a politician agreeing in substance to one policy but choosing another for electoral reasons came earlier this spring when President Obama assured Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that a new missile defense deal could only be struck after his presumed re-election. Such considerations must obviously factor significantly in the decision-making process of elected officials. Academics are, by design, exempt.

To make matters more difficult for politicians hoping to incorporate academic know-how, the academic community is often divided, with research from similar sources producing contradictory advice. For instance, Leonhardt is quick to emphasize that the voices arguing that the recession would be longer than expected, albeit influential, were a minority. This makes policy-making a lose-lose proposition. Whatever the choice, if the choice leads to an undesirable outcome, there will almost certainly exist academic research arguing against it. This is a fair point. Indeed, this process reflects the perhaps most difficult aspect of making policy.

Moreover, we only witness the outcomes of whatever deliberation process results in the formation of policy. In reality, practitioners must weigh several options, of which academic advice might be one. Sometimes these deliberations result in the formation of policy that resembles political science conventional wisdom, majority opinion or even consensus. Other times it might not. To conclude that policymakers never heed academic advice because of the existence of the latter would be to select on the dependent variable and, in the process, make a fundamental inferential error. In other words, the mere fact that politicians make decisions with which many academics would disagree should not lead us to believe that they ignore political science research. But even if they don’t ignore it, do policymakers heed it? Although we cannot know definitively, political scientists testifying in Congress, public deliberation of policies, and government white papers and memos citing academic findings lend credence to the argument that they do consider academic opinions in the decision-making process.

Consideration aside, one wonders how seriously academic voices are taken. The notion that domestic considerations or disagreements within the academic community prevent politicians from making policy in accordance with academic advice relies on this point—that policymakers do indeed take academic opinion seriously behind the scenes. For instance, consider the lively debate around Kenneth Waltz’s controversial argument, published in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, that a nuclear Iran would be a force for stability in the Middle East. Thus far, the United States has taken a relatively hawish stance toward Iran, with some people—chiefly conservatives—promoting an even harder line that emphasizes military strikes. Is Waltz really taken seriously in policy circles?

It is an ongoing mission of academics to make their research speak to the policy community. The extent to which political scientists accomplish this task is, admittedly, up for debate. However, the entire enterprise is premised on the assumption that when political scientists talk, someone will listen. Recent history casts doubt upon whether this is always the case. Even more disconcertingly, the decision-making process itself often does not appear to consider research that is considered important and impactful within academia, disagreements notwithstanding. Since politicians establish the bounds of public discourse on policy, this can have the unintended consequence of making important political science seem out-of-touch, extreme, and, at worst, irrelevant.

All is not lost, however. As I have suggested here, there exists a great degree of variance of academic incorporation across Presidential administrations, Congresses, and policies. And indeed, many policies–especially on a day-to-day basis–do ostensibly integrate the advice and research of political scientists. Moving forward, academics must continue to reach out to policy community as we increasingly have over the past couple of decades. Policy-makers may not always come calling but when they do, we should be ready.

For more of his attempts at reaching out to the policy community, follow William on Twitter

‘It Is Our Soul’: The Destruction of Aleppo, Syria’s Oldest City

Editor’s note: the following is a piece by The Smoke-Filled Room contributor Lionel Beehner that originally appeared in The Atlantic

Parts of Aleppo’s historic souk, or marketplace, have been burnt to the ground. The storied Sissi House, one of the region’s finest restaurants and famous for its tasty cherry lamb kebabs, has reportedly burnt down. Dar Zamaria, part of a wave of chic boutique hotels being carved out of Ottoman merchant houses (and which I reviewed for the New York Times in 2009), has also reportedly been destroyed. We are witnessing a sectarian civil war, and the dreadful human carnage that comes with it. We may also be witnessing the destruction of a way of life that’s evolved over centuries around one of the Arab world’s architectural treasures.

If the West is not going to intervene in Syria, it should at least do more to prevent this UNESCO-protected site — a city that lays claim to being among the world’s oldest — from becoming a 21st-century version of Dresden.

Aleppo is arguably the most enchanting city in the Middle East. Awash in mosques and minarets, the city is also stuffed with Armenian churches, Maronite cathedrals, and even a synagogue, a consequence of its unique position at the crossroads of Ottoman, French, and Jewish influences. Its maze-like souk and massive citadel on a hill are remarkable enough. But throw in hospitable people, trendy rooftop restaurants whose waiters sneak alcohol in teacups to Westerners with a wink and a nod, and the welcoming aroma of underground shops lined with tasty sweets and pistachio nuts, and Aleppo would seem to be custom-built for vacationers seeking a relaxing setting to kick back and nibble on mezze (appetizers).

I traveled to Aleppo, or Haleb as it is known in Arabic, during the holy month of Ramadan back in 2009. Turkey had just opened its borders so that its merchants could cross the nearby border visa-free. And the United States was making overtures toward the Assad regime to repair its sour relations. It was muggy when I visited. But a calm in regional tensions meant that several thousand Westerners began pouring into the city’s famed labyrinthine souk to snap up olive soaps, to peruse its gardens, and to bathe in the local hammam, or bath house. I remember the patio of the city’s famous, if slightly musty, Baron Hotel, where Agatha Christie once resided, was crammed with loud Europeans smoking late into the night. Across town in Al-Aziziah, Syrian students huddled in front of large screens to watch bad soap operas, smoke water pipes, and sing karaoke.

Like Prague in the early 1990s, Aleppo felt like it was on the verge of discovery, an idyllic (and safe) place for Westerners to sample the best of Arab culture and cuisine. Expatriates would revel in Al Jdeida, an Armenian district of quiet squares and quaint restaurants. This part of the Old City holds a kind of mythical draw for outsiders. Its tangle of narrow cobblestone streets and tucked-away courtyards full of jasmine and citrus trees are a pleasure to peruse; the inlaid wooden doors of its storefronts as ornately carved as the back of a backgammon board. But you can also find austere modernist high rises and wide Soviet-style boulevards (a towering Sheraton hotel in the middle of town looks like it was lifted from Moscow). Perhaps this is what drew a wayward Muhammad Atta, the 9/11 hijacker, to write his thesis on preserving Aleppo’s Old City. When I was there, I met with a team of prim German urban planners hired by the city to make Aleppo’s districts more livable, less congested, and less ugly.

Aleppo’s cultural treasures, including its Grand Mosque and centuries-old souk, are in danger of being permanently damaged by war. The city of Hama just to the south, famous for its wooden waterwheels and aqueducts, was flattened when government forces massacred tens of thousands in 1982. Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, then purposefully left open the main highway that ran through Hama so that everyday Syrians could see the devastation wrought on the city and be cowed into docility. The current government has done much the same, stepping up its use of indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets in urban areas. Authorities appear prepared to turn Syria’s commercial hub into rubble to root out rebels hiding in its souk.

The loss of Aleppo’s historic edifices fills residents with as much grief as any human casualty. “It is our soul,” a local doctor told The New York Times.

Aleppo is surrounded by sweeping plains dotted with olive groves and “dead cities,” abandoned ruins from the Byzantine age. They serve as vivid reminders of what happens to once-prosperous trading centers left abandoned. The international community owes it to Syrians to defend UNESCO-protected sites like this one. Syria does not need any more dead cities.