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Brazil’s Congress is left wanting on racial equality issues

. Dec 01, 2020
racial equality congress brazil Senator Paulo Paim of Rio Grande do Sul, one of the few black members of Congress. Photo: Wilson Dias/ABr

Racism has become a prominent issue on the Brazilian congressional agenda since the November 19 brutal murder of 40-year-old black man João Alberto Freitas at the hands of white security guards at a supermarket in southern Brazil. Several lawmakers publicly condemned the incident, including the heads of both congressional chambers, Rodrigo Maia and Davi Alcolumbre. The lower house went a step further last week by establishing an external committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding Mr. Freitas’ death.

The following day, the Senate approved a change to Brazil’s penal code to increase sentences for racially motivated violent crimes, which will now be analyzed by the House of Representatives.

</p> <p>However, despite the public outcry and quick reaction from Congress in the wake of Mr. Freitas&#8217; death, Brazilian lawmakers have been historically lax in addressing structural racism in the country.</p> <p>In any democracy, three of Congress’ most important duties are representation (representing a country’s society), lawmaking (crafting public policy), and oversight (acting as a watchdog for policy implementation). When it comes to combating racism, Brazil&#8217;s legislative branch has fallen short on all three counts.</p> <p>In representative terms, despite <a href="https://biblioteca.ibge.gov.br/visualizacao/livros/liv101681_informativo.pdf">over half of the Brazilian population self-declaring as either black or multiracial</a>, only 20 percent of Congress identifies as such.</p> <h2>Racial equality not atop the agenda</h2> <p>Lawmaking efforts to address and prevent racism have been timid at best. Data from the Comparative Agendas Project presented below show that between 2003 and 2014, Congress has passed fewer than six bills, supplementary bills, and constitutional amendments related to civil rights issues in any given year. Meanwhile, legislative proposals on the topic gather dust on the desks of Congress. There are currently 227 active bills in the House of Representatives and 13 in the Senate that pertain to Brazil&#8217;s black population.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/4516718"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>Congress’ oversight record is only marginally better: a recent <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/noticias/709406-relatorio-aponta-corte-em-verbas-federais-para-combate-ao-racismo/">report</a> sponsored by the lower house’s Human Rights Committee highlighted that the Jair Bolsonaro administration has failed to implement many of the programs intended to curb racism and violence against black and multiracial people in Brazil.&nbsp;</p> <p>The report indicates that some programs targeting racial equality issues have been discontinued, while others have not been fully implemented.&nbsp;</p> <p>There are several ways that Congress can course-correct. To begin with, it must hold the federal government accountable for suspending or not implementing existing policies aimed at combating racism. The lower house&#8217;s Human Rights Committee should summon bureaucrats to explain the government’s lack of attention and funding to address the issue.&nbsp;</p> <p>Secondly, legislators should work to approve bills related to racism and civil rights issues. For instance, among the bills lying dormant in the House of Representatives are several proposals focused on allocating funds from the public electoral fund to black and multiracial congressional candidates.&nbsp;</p> <p>Proposals such as this should be at the top of the legislative agenda for any Congress that truly wishes to fight racism.

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Beatriz Rey

Beatriz Rey is a research fellow at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University and a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

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