By analyzing the Brazilian government's surprise endorsement of affirmative action in 2001, this article explores how the state constructs race in society and how ideas drive policy change. After decades defending the myth of "racial democracy," the state admitted to racism and endorsed an extreme form of affirmative action—quotas—for Afro-Brazilians in government service and higher education. Based on fieldwork conducted in 2002, this article explains the recent policy turnaround as a dialectic between social mobilization and presidential initiative framed within unfolding international events. The presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso nurtured a transformation in political action on race at the same time that the president himself initiated major shifts in official discourse; later, preparations for the World Conference on Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, provoked national soul-searching on racial inequalities. The conference itself provided an occasion, and a moment of reckoning, for Brazil to jettison past policies and embrace a new approach. I conclude that ideas emerging from social networks, made salient by presidential interest, and legitimized by international agreements may account for discursive policy change, but that implementation of affirmative action will require attention to material interests and electoral incentives.