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How Brazil’s anti-racism agency became part of the problem

. Jul 06, 2020
racism palmares foundation bolsonaro brazil "Stop killing us. The favela resists." Photo: Andre MA/Shutterstock

Despite an unprecedented global pandemic that has reshaped life as we have grown used to, voices echoing from all corners of the world calling for social justice and the end of systemic racism have filled streets, government buildings, and social media networks alike with equally unprecedented force. 

Following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the U.S. — adding to the growing tally of 250 black people killed by the American police in 2019 — the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has renewed nationwide debates over the need for institutional and public policy change to address police brutality and other forms of institutionalized racism. 

In Brazil, the BLM movement — under the Portuguese name “Vidas Negras Importam” — also took to the streets under anti-racism and pro-democracy banners. Yet, the movement was mostly sidelined, failing to receive broader public support on the national stage amid myriad health, economic and political crises.

</p> <p>In fact, the latest headlines involving racism in Brazil did not stem from civil society dialogues advancing the BLM cause, rather the topic reached the national spotlight after the president of the Palmares Cultural Foundation Sérgio Camargo referred to the Brazilian Black Rights Movement as “<a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/03/brazil-sergio-camargo-black-rights-movement-scum-recording">bloody scum</a>” on June 2.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Palmares Foundation is a government organization set up to promote and protect black culture and heritage in Brazil, and unsurprisingly Mr. Camargo&#8217;s comments were received with vehement criticism from society-at-large.&nbsp;</p> <p>However, given his track record, Mr. Camargo’s remarks hardly come as a surprise. A self-entitled &#8220;right-wing black activist,&#8221; he has a long history of controversial quotes denying racism in Brazil and abhorring the country&#8217;s black movement. In the past, Mr. Camargo has vowed to end Brazil’s annual Black Consciousness Day and has <a href="https://entretenimento.uol.com.br/noticias/redacao/2019/11/27/novo-presidente-da-fundacao-palmares-nega-racismo-e-ataca-negros-famosos.htm?cmpid=copiaecola">referred to slavery</a> in Brazil as “a lucrative business for both Africans, who enslaved [others], as well as Europeans who dealt slaves [into Brazil].”</p> <p>“Everything Sérgio Camargo says is contrary to the position of the Palmares Foundation. He attacked the black movement, saying it was ‘bloody scum.’ He, as a black person himself, denies the black movement and the very pillars upon which the Palmares Foundation was built,” says Maria Machado, a history professor at the University of São Paulo specialized in the social history of slavery and race in Latin America, speaking to <strong>The Brazilian Report. </strong>“[Sérgio Camargo as the Palmares Foundation president] is truly a paradoxical situation.”&nbsp;</p> <h2>An “axis” in the fight for equality</h2> <p>As the last Western nation to officially abolish slavery in 1888 — after 350 years and enslaving nearly 5 million people — Brazil has <a href="https://brazilian.report/guide-to-brazil/2017/10/15/slavery-brazil/">often struggled to come to terms</a> with the intertwined legacies of the slave trade on society. The advent of the racial democracy myth in Brazilian society allowed many governments — and the nation as a whole — <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/09/05/racism-brazil-politics/">to brush off racism</a> as an outdated problem, &#8220;solved&#8221; by Brazil&#8217;s abolition of slavery.&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, in 1988, as part of the civil revolution that saw Brazil break away from its dictatorship period and adopt <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/10/05/threat-brazils-constitution-30-years/">its current constitution</a>, the creation of the Palmares Foundation — named after a famous slave resistance — marked a watershed moment in addressing Brazil’s history of slavery.</p> <p>For the first time, a federal institution was created to recognize and protect the Afro-Brazilian perspective as a fundamental part of Brazil’s history. The Brazilian state was finally admitting the consequences of slavery and its own role in cementing some of these consequences, such as systemic racism.&nbsp;</p> <p>“When Congress approved the creation of the Palmares Foundation, it was the biggest victory ever for the black Brazilian community in the sense of [achieving] recognition for the need for public policies in promoting racial equality in Brazil,” Zulu Araújo, former Palmares Cultural Foundation president (2007-11) and black activist for over 40 years, told <strong>The Brazilian Report.&nbsp;</strong></p> <p>“We considered [the Afro-Brazilian] culture as the element that enabled the survival of the black population in Brazil. It is the great unifier of the Brazilian black community, not politics, religion, nor economics. What unites the Brazilian black community is its culture … thus, the Palmares Cultural Foundation is a very important axis in promoting racial equality in the country.”&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <h2>Digression under Jair Bolsonaro </h2> <p>Sérgio Camargo’s nomination to the Palmares Foundation in November 2019 was in line with President Jair Bolsonaro’s track record of appointing far-right radical figures, akin to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/06/18/world/americas/18reuters-brazil-politics-weintraub.html?auth=login-google">recently-removed</a> <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/04/09/education-minister-economist-abraham-weintraub/">Education Minister Abraham Weintraub</a> and <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/12/07/damares-alves-minister-human-rights/">Minister of Human Rights Damares Alves</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>A strategy often regarded as an attempt to validate his personal beliefs throughout his government, even at the cost of reverting long fought progress in social causes if need be.&nbsp;</p> <p>With the Palmares Foundation and the racial debate in Brazil it is no different. In Sérgio Camargo, Mr. Bolsonaro found a like-minded representative to further his rhetoric at the head of the Palmares Foundation. Rather than being the source of the problem, Mr. Camargo is viewed as the symptom.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is important to understand that [Sérgio Camargo’s] message is not new. This is a rhetoric that comes from colonial times. [However, now] this rhetoric reaching the public from an authority figure legitimizes much of the racist discourse that had been progressively opposed in many legislative struggles at improving and protecting the rights of this part of the population,” University of Brasília’s cultural anthropology professor Juliana Dias told <strong>The Brazilian Report.</strong>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Consequently, it affects progress [against racism] that had been arduously built in the country since, at least, 1988. This [retrograde] perspective had been somewhat camouflaged up to this point, but it is now being openly publicized [by the government] without mincing words. I believe this is the biggest difference now.”&nbsp;</p> <h2>Rewriting black history </h2> <p>On June 15, the Palmares Foundation removed the biography of many influential activists and leaders to the Black Movement from its website. As reported by newspaper <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ilustrada/2020/06/fundacao-palmares-censura-biografias-de-liderancas-negras-historicas-em-seu-site.shtml">Folha de São Paulo</a>, members within the foundation revealed the removal was a direct order from Mr. Camargo in an attempt to deny the historical importance of these figures, especially those dubbed as “leftist symbols.”</p> <p>In May, Mr. Camargo had already <a href="https://twitter.com/sergiodireita1/status/1265362222387265538?s=20">announced the creation</a> of a certified “not racist” seal to be issued by the Palmares Foundation to protect individuals against being wrongfully labeled as racists. The seal set a dangerous precedent for diminishing black testimonies against racism and further providing institutional backing to racist rhetoric. The Federal Prosecution Service warned the Palmares Foundation <a href="https://g1.globo.com/rj/rio-de-janeiro/noticia/2020/06/16/mpf-notifica-presidente-da-fundacao-palmares-sobre-selo-nao-e-racista-e-conteudo-de-site.ghtml">about the use of the “not racist” seal</a>. </p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet tw-align-center"><p lang="pt" dir="ltr">&quot;Você não é racista&quot;: Fundação Palmares lança selo para proteger vítimas de racismo reverso<br><br>Saiba mais: <a href="https://t.co/dZ6MEVEznF">https://t.co/dZ6MEVEznF</a> <a href="https://t.co/QLQKZhPbJF">pic.twitter.com/QLQKZhPbJF</a></p>&mdash; Mundo Negro (@sitemundonegro) <a href="https://twitter.com/sitemundonegro/status/1265683125297909761?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">May 27, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>Among the profiles of black writers, philosophers, athletes and activists removed from the foundation’s webpage, which composed one of the website’s main features in a Brazilian black history mosaic, was the biography of Zumbi dos Palmares – leader of the Palmares slave resistance and adopted as a symbol of the fight against racism in Brazil.&nbsp;</p> <p>Prior to taking office in the foundation, Mr. Camargo <a href="https://entretenimento.uol.com.br/noticias/redacao/2019/11/27/novo-presidente-da-fundacao-palmares-nega-racismo-e-ataca-negros-famosos.htm?cmpid=copiaecola">likened Zumbi</a> to a modern-day “thug” or “thug supporter.”</p> <p>“This is obviously an attack against the black community and the black movement. This dismantling and attempt to erase our affirmative history is very much a characteristic of governments with fascist predispositions, in denying the real history of the people and constricting a narrative completely opposite [to reality],” said Olivia Santana, the only black female state representative in the history of the state of Bahia, the state with the largest black population in the country.<strong>&nbsp;</strong></p> <p>“However, [black history] will not be erased by this offense. Yet, we need to achieve a real transformation of this government as a whole. [Mr. Bolsonaro’s government] serves neither the nation nor the people. It attacks us in all the dimensions of social, economic and political life … We cannot talk about social justice, liberty, and equity while keeping negationist practices like this one. The Bolsonaro government is absolutely insensitive to the [BLM] agenda. It is an impenetrable wall.”</p> <p>The Palmares Cultural Foundation and Sergio Camargo did not reply to interview requests made by <strong>The Brazilian Report </strong>to<strong> </strong>clarify the institution’s latest actions.</p> <h2>Deadly negligence</h2> <p>If the current management of the Palmares Foundation may be described as a symptom of a larger denial of racism within the government, figures of police brutality against black people around the country come as a wake-up call.&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2019, the Brazilian police killed 5,804 people in total, of which 75 percent (4,353 individuals) were black or multiracial — a figure <a href="https://www.poder360.com.br/internacional/policia-brasileira-matou-17-vezes-o-n-de-negros-do-que-a-dos-eua-em-2019/">17 times higher than the number of black Americans killed</a> by the U.S police (250) over the same period. The trend continues in 2017 and 2018 as well, with black and multiracial people making up 75.4 percent of police killings, according to data from the <a href="http://www.forumseguranca.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Anuario-2019-FINAL_21.10.19.pdf">Brazilian Public Security Forum</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>On May 18, teenager João Pedro Matos Pinto, 14, was<a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/internacional/en/brazil/2020/05/14-year-old-boy-killed-at-home-during-federal-police-operation-in-rio.shtml">&nbsp;shot dead at home</a>&nbsp;in Rio de Janeiro during a joint operation by the Federal and Civil Police. He was playing at home with his cousins when the police fired over 80 times at his house. The public outcry in Brazil following his death paled in comparison to the worldwide BLM public commotion following the murder of George Floyd.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Brazilian society, particularly its progressive sectors, needs to be sensitized and see this extermination of black youth occurring in the country, not as something that only concerns exclusively the black and poor. This concerns everyone. It cannot be considered just a number,” said Zulu Araújo. “We need to take the initiative to say that the fight against racism is not just for black people. The fight against racism is for everyone that wishes for a better society.”

 
Rafael Lima

Rafael is a Communication student at Wake Forest University, and a student fellow of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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