This study investigates the role of race, family background and education in earnings inequality between whites and the African descendent population in Brazil. It uses quantile Mincer earnings regressions to go beyond the usual decomposition of average earnings gaps. Differences in human capital, including parental education and education quality, and in its returns, account for most but not all of the racial earnings gaps. There appears to be greater pay discrimination at the higher salary jobs for any skill level. Returns to education vary with the gradient of skin color. While returns are similar for white and mixed race workers at the top of the adjusted wage scale, mixed race workers at the bottom are rewarded similar to blacks. Thus, while equalizing access to quality education is key to reduce racial earnings inequality in Brazil, specific policies are also needed to facilitate equal access of non‐whites to good quality jobs.