A Brazilian cosmetics company decides to air a Father’s Day commercial displaying a goofy dad playing with his kids, having dinner with his family and saying that being a father is sometimes hard but worth the effort. It’s the sort of fictional ad that has been produced countless times throughout the world. Except that this one portrayed a black Brazilian family, and got over 17,000 dislikes on YouTube within a couple of days, with internet users complaining in the comment section about a ‘lack of diversity’ in its all-black cast of actors.
A rather bizarre outcry in a country where over half of the population self-declares as black or brown, but reportedly 8 percent of actors working in telenovelas are black. The online negative reaction against the 30-second video made news in major Brazilian news outlets, prompting an official reaction from the cosmetics company and mobilizing over 120,000 people to give the commercial piece the thumbs-up on YouTube.
Offline, things get a lot more complicated.
Last year, official census data counted a Brazilian population of around 207 million citizens, of which almost 47 percent are self-declared brown and over 8 percent are self-declared as black. A private consultancy enterprise released data demonstrating that even though higher-income social classes have shrunk in 2017, there has been a 5-percent rise in the number of black and brown Brazilians within these same high-income brackets.
And while the percentage of white political candidates running for office in 2018 has decreased in comparison to 2014, this year’s general elections will have more black and brown postulants than four years ago, representing 46 percent of all those running for office.
Meanwhile, 64 percent of the 13 million Brazilians that are unemployed in 2018 are black and brown people, representing an unemployment rate above the national average. Black and brown workers in the country generally earn a little over half the mean income of white workers.
According to Unicef, among the 32 million boys and girls that are in some way affected by poverty in Brazil, black children have less access to fundamental rights such as education and basic sanitation than white children. Black people in Brazil are statistically more afflicted by avoidable diseases such as leprosy and tuberculosis.
Illiteracy rates amid black and brown people are more than double the percentage among white people – 9 and 4 percent, respectively. And lastly, recent data shows that young black and brown men living in poverty-stricken areas are the most frequently targeted by homicide and police violence – of all Brazilians murdered in 2016, around 70 percent were black or brown, representing more than twice the rate of white people who were victims of the same crime.
But you probably won’t hear most of this by watching Brazilian presidential debates on TV this year.
Brazil: a racial democracy?
So far, none of the candidates have declared any concern over the current state of race relations in the country during televised peer-to-peer exchanges. One of them even declared during a public event that racism doesn’t exist in Brazil – the same candidate who is accused of racism by the Federal Prosecution Office, and awaits a Supreme Court decision on whether or not he’ll face trial.
“We’ve spent practically the entire 20th century benumbed by the idea that we live in a racial democracy,” argues Nelson Inocêncio, a professor at the University of Brasilia specialized in Communication and Race Relations and who has coordinated the institution’s Center of Afro Brazilian Studies for over 10 years.
“The effect of this phenomenon is frightening. Placing this myth alongside the high level of depoliticization of Brazilian society when it comes to racial matters contributes to this social misconception, this idea that we are a fraternal country which knows how to deal with differences,” he says, claiming that Brazilians have been trained to overlook local manifestations of racism while focusing their attention towards racist experiences in other countries, such as South Africa and the United States.
“And then there is the subject of miscegenation. People think that, because we are the result of intense racial mixing, there is no point in talking about racism here. We tend to forget that what matters the most when it comes to racism is not your [genetic] origins, but what you look like.”
Historian Flávio Gomes, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro specialized in colonial and post-colonial history, explains that the roots of current racial inequality can be traced back to slavery in many ways, considering that Brazil was the last American nation to officially abolish the practice, doing so in 1888.
“The main repercussion of slavery in Brazil is that it has built an unequal, violent, highly hierarchical society based on different dimensions of violence against bodies. We had more than 300 years of slavery in Brazil. Almost 5 million people from African societies were forcibly brought here, and many Brazilian cities developed and grew during that period. Brazil had the biggest and most influential slave-based cities in the Americas, with labor in the urban services sector extremely racially stratified.”
An unpaid historical debt
Professor Gomes points to the effects of slavery on black people’s access to electoral rights, which he argues were restricted until the Constitution of 1988. “The last electoral reform during Brazil’s imperial period came in 1881, seven years before the abolition of slavery. And after that reform, illiterate people were forbidden to vote. Most illiterates were certainly the children of slaves, second or third generation of descendants.
This prohibition was only permanently abolished with the Brazilian Constituent Assembly of 1988, determining the optional vote for illiterates. So you can say that during a historic period of around 100 years, a substantial part of the black population was not able to vote after abolition,” he explains. A constitutional amendment approved in 1985, during Brazil’s period of democratization, reinstituted that right, but the Constitution of 1988 made it permanent.
Lawyer Indira Quaresma, member of the Federal District’s Sectional Council of the Brazilian Bar Association, believes that black people are still treated as second-class citizens to this day: “The probability of young black men having crimes that lead to their deaths be investigated until the end and have the perpetrators arrested is infinitely smaller than in cases where young white men are the victims.”
She represented the University of Brasília in a legal case that led the Supreme Federal Court to unanimously decide, in 2012, in favor of the constitutionality of racial quotas in Brazilian universities, a landmark decision that paved the way for other higher education institutions to adopt similar policies of affirmative action – one of the few subjects related to racial matters that have been intensely debated in Brazilian politics over the last decade.
Dr. Quaresma thinks that an important consequence of racial inequality is the low representation of black and brown people in all spheres of power, including not just universities, but also the judiciary: “The low number of black judges, prosecutors and lawyers leads to an unequal application of the law. Penalties against black people are noticeably more severe.”
Lawyer Irapuã Santana agrees: “There is a lack of black representation in the judiciary and in the State as a whole.” He works as an advisor for Supreme Federal Court´s minister Luiz Fux, and worked with him during the judge´s recent tenure as president of the Superior Electoral Court.
Police brutality and racism
Dr. Santana is also a consultant for Educafro, a civil rights organization, and is concerned about the safety of black people in Brazil, including when it comes to police harassment: “Black people know that we have to carry our ID with us at all times, that we are going to be regularly stopped by police while driving our own cars, that we will be approached by police while walking in fancy neighborhoods.” He mentions a landmark legal decision by São Paulo´s Court of Justice that ordered the state to pay compensation to a 13-year-old black teenager who was a victim of abuse by the Military Police – the first decision of this kind in Brazil: “the State has to stop abusing and killing young black people every day”.
Anthropologist Peter Fry, emeritus professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, acknowledges that there is plenty of racial discrimination in Brazil, but believes race-focused analyses of data end up missing relevant points: “We all know how social mobility in Brazil is made more difficult because of the extremely low quality of public education in deprived areas.
This suggests that before putting everything down to discrimination, which undoubtedly exists, one should also pay attention to social class. For example: we know that high percentages of ‘pardos’ [brown people] and ‘pretos’ [black people] are the majority of people killed in favelas. Many see this as racial genocide. Yet we should need to know whether such homicide rates have as much to do with poverty as race, since ‘pardos’ and blacks are often a majority in poverty-stricken areas.”
Professor Fry believes that the solution for racial inequality in Brazil will not come from racial quotas. “The State should have steered clear of putting race on the state book. Instead, it could have instituted class-based quotas to institutions of higher education,” he argues. “The continual production of figures on inequality that concentrate on race and ignore class tends to mask the importance of social and economic inequality as a whole.”
Sociologist Luiz Augusto Campos, researcher at the Group of Multidisciplinary Studies in Affirmative Action at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, is in favor of racial quotas, which he sees as “particular in their procedures,” but with “universalist ends”: “I frequently say that racial quotas in higher education are self-destructive policies: their success results in their unnecessity. We will know if affirmative action is successful when it is no longer necessary. In that sense, it has universal ends. But it is very difficult to make penetrate this kind of reasoning into political elites and Brazilian society as a whole.”
He thinks that the cognitive association between ‘blackness’ and poverty is a fundamental aspect of racism in Brazil. “Racist reasoning believes it is OK to discriminate against a black person because he or she ‘tends’ to be poor and to have less means to react against prejudice. When you start including marginalized people in spaces of power, you start undermining this association between marginality and ‘blackness’ and the fundamental structure of racism in Brazil.”
Professor Campos argues that the intersection between race and politics has been very marginal within political discourse until very recently: “This link has only started being more debated after the tragic assassination of councilwoman Marielle Franco. Before that, in Brazilian history, even though race relations as a theme has advanced in other spheres such as education, quotas, and violence, it has only recently become more present in public debates.”
Lack of political representation
He believes, however, that it remains a political taboo among presidential candidates: “We have one ‘non-white’ presidential candidate, and still this fact is not enough to engage presidential postulants into this sort of debate. None of the candidates have mentioned race relations in debates, and everything indicates that they probably won’t.”
Anti-racism activist and member of the National Coordination of Quilombola Communities (Conaq), Dr. Givânia Silva, argues that the lack of debate over racism in presidential politics is also a consequence of ignorance: “This idea that we are a racially democratic country was sedimented for a long time not only in our communications but in our teaching material in schools and universities. As much as intellectuals and scholars have worked in recent years to debunk this assertion, it seems that it is comforting to us to believe in this myth.
There is a lack of information due to the silence that the State has promoted over this subject for centuries.” She thinks that the way the State interacts with communities of slave descendants in Brazil – called quilombos – is an example of this dismissive behavior: “For the Brazilian State, quilombola communities have existed only from 1988 onwards, since the signing of our current Constitution. State institutions have denied our existence for centuries as communities composed of citizens, entitled to equal rights and recognition under the law.
“That is why we say there is institutional racism in Brazil. Our identities as quilombolas and property rights over land should be further recognized, but there is a strong movement in our National Congress, mainly due to rural caucus members, to deny us our constitutional rights.”
Dr. Nadine Gasman, UN Women representative to Brazil, suggests that the consequences of racism and racial inequality in the country are self-evident when it comes political representation: “We know that Brazil has the second biggest population of African descent in the world. And that less than 10 percent of Brazilian congressmen are black. Only one of them is a black woman. There is a tremendous lack of representation. The same pattern can be seen in city councils.”
Through her work, she concluded that racism is also a barrier against black women’s economic empowerment in the country. “In general,” she argues, “women all over the world receive smaller salaries [than men] for the same work. And in Brazil, what you see is that the gender pay gap is generally of around 30 percent. Further analysis shows that black women receive 42 percent less than men in Brazil. So you can see that the topics of political participation, economic empowerment and racism have a very strong impact in the lives of Brazilian women.”
Dr. Gasman is also concerned about the levels of violence towards black people in the country: “Work needs to be done to engage with the police force and with society as a whole when it comes to human rights violations.”
The federal intervention that is taking place in Rio de Janeiro, where the military was put in charge of public security and police operations until the end of this year, was a topic of concern among some of the interviewees. The Intervention Observatory of Rio’s Candido Mendes University has reported that, since the intervention started around six months ago, 736 people have been killed by the police, and police forces have also suffered casualties.
Before the intervention, between January of 2016 and March of 2017, data obtained by the local press shows that for every ten people killed by the police in Rio, nine were black or brown. Many worry that increased militarization of public security could worsen this pattern.
“There needs to be a cultural change in Brazil,” says Dr. Indira Quaresma. “There were over 300 years of slavery here, and 130 years later I still have to listen to people saying that Brazilians inherited ‘trickery’ from African people and ‘indolence’ from indigenous people,” she protests, referring to a phrase uttered by one of Brazil’s current candidates for the vice-presidency.