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Brazilian President Inaugurates Racial Equality Program - 2003-03-21

In Brazil, President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has inaugurated the Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality, as part of an effort to end racial discrimination in the South American nation. The move is part of an overall effort to promote racial equality and harmony.

In creating this new government office, President da Silva says he hopes to not only promote racial equality, but to strengthen democracy. He says democracy requires the participation of all citizens regardless of their racial background.

President da Silva, known to most people here by his nickname "Lula," has made the fight against discrimination a priority since he took office on January 1. The government is promoting affirmative action plans to give people of African or Indian descent help in entering universities and in finding government jobs.

But the Brazilian president says the problem goes well beyond legal remedies.

He says this problem is much greater than something that can be solved by creating a new government office. He says racial discrimination has its roots in the history of the nation and that it will take many years to change attitudes.

Mr. Da Silva notes, for example, that Brazilians tend to think that only white-skinned people should be bank presidents or government officials. He says this attitude is a large part of the problem.

Brazil is considered to have the largest black population outside Africa, but the terms used for racial groups here make it difficult to determine the exact number of people who claim African descent. There are more than 300 terms used here to designate skin color. In the last Brazilian census, conducted last year, only six percent of people identified themselves as "black." Some 40 percent, however, described themselves as "mulato," "mestico" or some other term indicating a mixture of European and African ancestry.

Racial equality advocates note that the average income of whites is more than double that of blacks and other persons of darker skin color. They also note that only about two percent of Brazil's 1.6 million college students are black.

Opponents of affirmative action and other government programs aimed at promoting greater equality say they fear social divisions will deepen rather than ease as a result of the government actions. They argue that the income and opportunity gap between racial groups has more to do with class than race. But President da Silva and his supporters say the only way to improve the lot of the black and darker-skinned people who live in poverty is to provide them with more opportunity.