Black women in Brazilian politics face a thick glass ceiling

Black women in Brazilian politics face a thick glass ceiling Marielle Franco street sign protest in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Salty View/Shutterstock

Messages urging Afro-Brazilians to support black candidates filled social media in the run up to Brazil’s municipal elections on November 15. “Don’t forget your mask, your ID, a pen, and that you are BLACK!!!”

“This Sunday my vote will be black.”

Black and multiracial people make up 56 percent of Brazil’s almost 212 million population. In terms of official census data, these two Afro-descendant racial classifications are lumped together

as the &#8220;negro&#8221; population, a term which does not hold the clear racist connotations that it does in English-speaking countries, but is equally frowned upon by Brazilian black rights movements — for which the preferred classification would be &#8220;black&#8221; or &#8220;Afro-descendant.&#8221;</p> <p>However, while representing a majority of the population, Afro-descendant Brazilians <a href="">only hold 17.8 percent of seats</a> in Congress. This gap is narrowing gradually, as black political participation is surging in Brazil, particularly at the local level of government.</p> <p>Some 250,840 Afro-descendent Brazilians ran for city council this year, up from 235,105 in 2016. When the winners take office on January 1, black officials will comprise a promising 44 percent of city council seats nationwide.</p> <p>Afro-Brazilian women also saw significant firsts in the 2020 election, winning 14 percent of city council seats, up from just 3.9 percent in 2016.</p> <p>While black candidates are <a href="">increasingly winning space</a> in municipal politics, there is a marked glass ceiling for Afro-descendant women when it comes to federal or executive positions. Just 13 of the 513 representatives in the lower house of Brazil’s Congress are black women, while Eliziane Gama is the only Afro-descendant woman in the 81-member Senate.</p> <p>But winning is not necessarily the prime objective for Afro-Brazilian women hitting the campaign trail.</p> <h2>The Marielle effect</h2> <p>Political participation of black women has soared in Brazil since the <a href="">2018 assassination of Marielle Franco</a> in Rio de Janeiro. Ms. Franco was a black lesbian city councilwoman who devoted her political career to improving conditions in Rio&#8217;s impoverished favelas. The quantity of black Brazilian women taking to politics since 2018 has been described in the local media as &#8220;the Marielle Effect.&#8221;</p> <p>“Marielle’s murder could have had a chilling effect upon black candidates, [but] instead it inspired a wave of black candidacies,” writes Afro-Brazilian scholar Dalila Negreiros in the NACLA Report on the Americas magazine.</p> <p>While inspiring an entire wave of black Brazilian women to enter politics, Marielle Franco herself was encouraged by the success of a number of pioneers that came before her. The highest profile trailblazers include Benedita da Silva, who briefly served as the governor of Rio de Janeiro in 2002, and Janete Pietá, who represented São Paulo in Congress from 2007 to 2015.</p> <p>I interviewed Ms. Pietá and several other black women politicians in Brazil between 2004 and 2007. This period came during <a href="">Brazil’s economic boom</a>, under the administration of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Most of the women whose campaigns I studied were from Lula’s center-left Workers Party, while one — Eronildes Carvalho — was a right-leaning Evangelical.</p> <p>I found that the women often used race and gender in their campaigns to mobilize voters, especially in predominantly black cities.</p> <p>When running for Congress in 2006, Ms. Pietá told me she wore bright colors and symbolic hairstyles, with short braids in the front and longer braids in the back, to show pride in her African ancestry, “even though it looked like a joke” to some.</p> <p>“A large part of the Brazilian population [&#8230;] has African origins. Nevertheless, some of them are not conscious of this,” said Ms. Pietá.</p> <p>Olivia Santana also put her race and gender front and center when running for city council in the northeastern city of Salvador in 2004. She proudly introduced herself as the <em>“negona da cidade,”</em> or the big black woman of the city.</p> <p>“It was a slogan that was more about the history of elections, of black participation in elections,” Ms. Santana told me in 2006. “My campaign made the black racial question visible.”</p> <p>While city council members may see their race and gender as an asset, there were other Afro-Brazilians running for federal office who did not believe racial appeals would be helpful.</p> <h2>More than a campaign</h2> <p>I was unable to find reliable polling data on national perceptions of black women to verify whether the candidates’ perceptions were backed up by data. However, it is well documented that Brazil’s relationship with race is fraught with injustice and prejudice.</p> <p>While the country was long mythologized as a “<a href="">racial democracy</a>,” the reality in Brazil is more black and white.</p> <p>As in the U.S., black Brazilians generally have worse health, employment and economic outcomes than white people. They are 40 percent more likely to die of Covid-19 than whites and — despite some affirmative action policies — face higher unemployment. Black men are disproportionately targeted by police violence, especially during patrols of Brazil&#8217;s many poor and predominantly black neighborhoods.</p> <p>Inequality continues even for those Afro-Brazilians who are able to climb the social ladder. White college graduates earn 45 percent more than their Afro-Brazilian peers.</p> <p>And crucially, Brazilians&#8217; perception of racism is astonishingly low. When João Alberto Freitas, a black man, was beaten and killed by two white security guards at a supermarket in Porto Alegre on November 19, President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed any racial motive behind the attack, saying “everyone has the same color.” Vice President Hamilton Mourão echoed this sentiment, claiming “racism doesn’t exist” in Brazil.</p> <p>And while Brazilians largely disagree with Mr. Mourão&#8217;s affirmation, the percentage of those who can identify racism in Brazil is desperately low.&nbsp;</p> <p>A <a href="">survey held by Atlas Político</a> days after João Alberto&#8217;s killing showed that 90 percent of the population acknowledged racism exists in the country, but less than 53 percent believed that his murder was racially motivated.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft is-resized"><img loading="lazy" src="" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" width="300" height="24" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w, 2000w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 class="has-text-align-right">Originally published on<br><a href=""><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <img loading="lazy" src="" alt="The Conversation" width="1" height="1" style="border: none !important; box-shadow: none !important; margin: 0 !important; max-height: 1px !important; max-width: 1px !important; min-height: 1px !important; min-width: 1px !important; opacity: 0 !important; outline: none !important; padding: 0 !important; text-shadow: none !important" /> <p>

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Gladys Mitchell-Walthour

Associate Professor of Public Policy & Political Economy, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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