SAO PAULO, Brazil -- This is a country that clings to the image of itself as a "racial democracy," insisting that discrimination is by income or class but not race, and technically the elevator rules preserve this distinction.
One elevator carries a placard marked "social," for residents and their guests, while the other is marked "service," reserved for maids and workmen, or residents trailing sand, sports equipment or animals.
Such an arrangement would not seem out of place in any Fifth Avenue co-op in New York. But blacks in Sao Paulo, whether servants or doctors, say they are routinely steered toward the service elevators while whites, including servants, end up in the social elevators.
A bill recently introduced by the Labor Party in the Sao Paulo City Council would ban what the press here is calling discrimination by elevator.
It would prohibit barring people from elevators on the basis of "race, sex, color, origin, social condition, age, handicap or illness." And because social pressures can linger long after laws are changed, the bill would require buildings to post the new law by the elevators.
However, Paulistas appear far from a consensus on whether elevators should stop being vehicles of discrimination. A recent series of comments in the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo featured a model who said that differences in status were natural and should be accepted, an advertising executive who said, "It's not a matter of discrimination, but of respect," and a businesswoman who said that it was not a matter of race, but "of knowing how to behave."
Only one woman surveyed, an actress and businesswoman, said she was against discrimination and considered the separate elevators "absurd."
Aldaiza Sposati, the councilwoman who introduced the bill, said she had received letters and proposals from associations representing condominium owners suggesting ways to get around the intent of her bill. None of them say outright that it is a matter of race.
Sonia Maria Nascimento is a well-tailored professional who is black and who invariably gets sent to the back elevator. For all her irritation in entering apartment buildings in Sao Paulo, only one doorman ever told her that his orders were not to allow blacks into the residents' elevators. The others told her it was because she was a stranger to the building, or because she was carrying a plastic bag at the time.
Ms. Sposati said she does not expect racial discrimination to end with her bill, but she hopes to at least "part the veil" on a subject that most people preferred to avoid -- a discussion she feels is long overdue.
"The French Revolution was a process that addressed the question of equality, but no process addressed this question in Brazil," said Ms. Sposati, who is white.
"Everybody behaves as if inequality doesn't exist. It's therefore much worse, because unlike in the United States, we've never faced it directly. It's disguised."
Adjaine Felicidade, 53, is black and has been working as a maid for more than 30 years. She remembers going to an employment agency and hearing the counselor speak to perspective employers on the telephone. "They asked, 'Is she very pale? What kind of hair does she have, is it frizzy or very straight?' " she said.
Looking across the desk at the card the employment agency kept on her, Ms. Felicidade said, she noticed that such details had been filled in.
Ms. Felicidade, a director of the Sao Paulo Union of Housekeepers, has been waging a lone battle to use the front door of her employer's building, instead of having to enter through the back, past the garbage cans, to get to the service elevator.
But so far, she has been unsuccessful. Once, she said, when a family was using the service elevator to move, Miss Felicidade was not allowed into the residents' elevator, but had to walk the six flights up to her employer's apartment. "If I were dirty I could have understood it, but I was clean," she said.
Hearing this, Noemia Correia, also a director of the housekeepers union here, shook her head and smiled ruefully. Ms. Correia, who is white, said that in all her 34 years of working as a maid, she had never been forced to use the service elevator.