SAO PAULO — Brazil’s top court has backed sweeping affirmative action programs used in more than 1,000 universities across the nation which has more blacks than any other country outside Africa yet where a severe gap in education equality between races persists.

The Supreme Court voted 7-1 recently to uphold a federal program that has provided scholarships to hundreds of thousands of black and mixed-race students for university studies since 2005. Its constitutionality was challenged by a right-of-center party, The Democrats. Three justices abstained from the vote.

The court ruled a week earlier in a separate case that it was constitutional for universities to use racial quotas in determining who is admitted.

Stark Inequality

Education inequality in Brazil is stark despite economic advances that have seen 20 million people pulled from poverty since 2003. A woeful public education system is considered a weak link as the country tries to build on recent economic gains and become a global powerhouse.

There are shortages of trained labor in several key areas, such as engineers to help the nation develop its massive offshore oil reserves, the biggest finds in the Western hemisphere in three decades. Supporters of affirmative action say it will help the country fully tap into the potential of Brazil’s entire population.

The Brazilian government’s statistics agency, using data from the 2010 Census, reported that, in 2009, just 4.7 percent of black Brazilians over the age of 25 held a university degree, compared to 15 percent of whites. A decade earlier, 2.3 percent of blacks and 9.8 percent of whites had degrees. Similar inequalities are seen at all age and education levels.

Historic Wrongs

While those figures show the gap between whites and other races in Brazil has actually widened, supporters say the gain in the percentage of nonwhites getting a university education is the more important statistic.

Backers say the use of scholarships, quotas and other policies aimed at getting more blacks and mixed-race Brazilians into universities is needed to right the historic wrongs of slavery, centuries of stark economic inequality and a society in which whites are overwhelmingly in leadership roles in government and business, despite Brazil having more citizens of African ancestry than any nation other than Nigeria. Fifty-one percent of Brazil’s 192 million people are black or of mixed-race.

Opponents say the idea of quotas is itself racist and that Brazil has no need for them, arguing there is little social tension among the races and the nation lacks the overt racism seen in many other countries.

Racial Policy

“Racial policy, even in good faith, is state therapy for a disease that does not exist. We don’t have a racial identity,” Jose Ferreira Militao, a black activist and lawyer in Sao Paulo, wrote recently in the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.

He argued that what’s needed are policies aimed at social, not racial, problems in Brazil, programs that use economic need as the criteria for university spots and scholarships. That, he said, would assist black and mixed-race Brazilians, who comprise 70 percent of the poorest 10 percent of the nation.

Brazil’s Supreme Court justices strongly voiced opinions that affirmative action is the best means of combating inequality that has lingered for centuries.

“From this decision onward, Brazil has one more reason to look in the mirror of history and not blush with shame,” Supreme Court Justice Carlos Britto said after the 10-0 vote supporting racial quotas.

His colleague Carmen Lucia Rocha added: “It’s better to have a society in which everyone is free to be whatever they want (to be).

Quotas are one step in a society where this doesn’t naturally occur.”

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who ushered in most of the federal affirmative action programs during his eight years in office starting in 2003, applauded the rulings.

“I’m certain that the policy of racial quotas, which the Supreme Court unanimously endorsed, will help make access to higher education more just,” Silva said during a speech he gave after he received honorary degrees from five Rio de Janeiro federal universities.

The Supreme Court was also expected to rule soon on a motion filed in 2009 by a white student who argues that although he scored high on his college entrance exam for the Federal

University of Rio Grande do Sul, his spot was taken by a student who scored lower but was admitted based on a racial quota.

Associated Press writer Stan Lehman contributed to this report.