Brazil: the fall of a 'racial paradise'.
Since the country ended slavery in 1888, Brazilians have not officially accepted the existence of racism. For three centuries, Brazil prided and touted itself as a country that has avoided racial tensions, by embracing the concept of "racial democracy". But in the past decade, cracks started showing, revealing that this epitome of "racial harmony and equality" is not what black Brazilians have always been made to believe it is.
Conceived by an anthropologist, Gilberto Freyre, in 1930s, the carefully crafted ideology of "racial democracy" has stipulated that Brazil is composed of a single race forged through the harmonious mixture of its African, European, and indigenous ancestors.
But despite this deliberate strategy, the uncomfortable reality is that there has always been widespread social prejudice against black-skinned people in Brazil, the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery.
In contrast to the situation in the USA or South Africa under apartheid, where race was defined by ancestral background, in Brazil what has counted for all these years is one's hue. For example if one's skin appears white, looks white-ish or somewhere in between, then they are white. As simple as that.
This blurred vision of racial identity has for generations made it difficult for black Brazilians to develop a positive image of their African heritage or to see racism in their midst, let alone to fight it. Because of the "racial democracy" myth the country didn't even see the need to be ethnically specific. Yet Brazil has more people with black ancestry than any other country outside Nigeria. Today, more than 76 million of Brazil's population of 180 million is of African descent.
With over 300 years of denial, practising "racial democracy" meant eclipsing deep-rooted state policies of racial discrimination. But Brazil is, thankfully, finally coming to terms with its long-ignored history of racism and exclusion. Today, innovative policies and national attention to racial disparities are being plugged--led by Affirmative Action programmes and quota systems--albeit grudgingly in some elitist quarters.
But it is President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula), who will go down in history as the crusader of racial equality for black Brazilians. Among many other policies, his government has established the much-hailed Secretary for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR), a cabinet level ministry that coordinates efforts to promote opportunities for Afro-Brazilians, racial minority groups, as well as to work towards strengthening Brazil's ties with Africa.
However, there are disturbing reasons behind this change of heart in government policy. According to Brian Fried, of the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, Brazil is riven by socioeconomic inequality. Darker skin colour is disproportionately associated with lower levels of education, poorer healthcare and inferior remuneration. "Racism causes much of this inequality and until recently, however, Brazilians regarded the mention of racism as taboo," Fried says.
Ironically, racism in Brazil is constitutionally banned and punishable by imprisonment. Fried explains that historical suppression of discussions of race and research into racism contributed to the sentiment that racism never existed, that government support in the past of efforts to describe Brazil as a "racial democracy" further contributed to Brazil's traditional discomfort with attributing inequality to racism. "Not only do those of darker skin tend not to identify themselves as Afro-Brazilian, they also deny that racism has affected them personally," Fried adds.
But historical facts and figures speak for themselves: Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. Initially, the Portuguese enslaved indigenous Brazilians, but when the natives began dying from European diseases and the demand for workers exceeded available numbers, the Portuguese looked to Africa. Over the next three centuries, Brazil brought approximately eight million African slaves to work on sugarcane plantations--37% of all Africans sold into slavery. The country has had a history of racial division since those days when Africans from all over the continent, including those from well-developed cultures such as the Yoruba from Nigeria and Benin, the Akan from Ghana and the Mende from Guinea were brought to Brazil between 1549 and 1850. Thanks to their labour, Brazil flourished into a prosperous colony.
Today, Brazil has the second largest black population in the world after Nigeria. Nearly half of its 180 million citizens claim to be black or mixed-race. A large percentage of whites also have African ancestry, raising the number of Brazilians with African descent to over 100 million. Yet, black Brazilians make up over two-thirds of the country's poorest.
The wealthy white or light-skinned elite monopolise all the best institutions of learning, while illiteracy among black Brazilians is undeniably rampant. However, slavery in Brazil was not like slavery in America where slaves were totally debased to the extent that every effort was made to destroy their African languages, culture, religions and intellectual capacity. Brazil retained many aspects of African culture.
The Portuguese slavers in Brazil also accepted and encouraged the concept of miscegenation--the intermixing and intermarrying of different ethnic group--which, according to some observers, has led to the difficulty in finding a workable definition of what "black" means in Brazil. However, after slavery was abolished, the white Brazilian elite began a countrywide programme called "branquemento"--meaning "whitening"--intended at making the people and population of Brazil more white, and less black.
To achieve this, the then rulers deliberately encouraged white immigrants (mainly European) into Brazil who they enticed into marrying black Brazilians. The aim of these inter-marriages was to "whiten" the population and to eventually have a more or less white country (as in Argentina and Uruguay).In 1923, one Brazilian congressman declared that "Black Brazilians will disappear within 70 years". A renowned author, Afranio Peixoto in one of his writings said: "In 200 years, the black eclipse will have passed entirely."
According to the journalist Lourdes Teodoro, in 1945 the Brazilian immigration policy declared the need to "develop within the country's ethnic composition, the most convenient characteristics of its European descent".
In 1966, adds Teodoro, a Foreign Ministry leaflet proclaimed that the Brazilian population was white with a minute population being of mixed blood. Just as recently as 1988, the country's white elite was discussing deliberate sterilisation among black women to stop blacks from becoming a majority.
When Nelson Mandela visited Brazil in 1998, black activists presented him with a document that claimed that millions of black women had been sterilised. Indeed, more measures were put in place to "whiten" the country's history and culture by completely forsaking Afro-Brazilian history, which until 2003, was never taught in schools.
As such, describing the colour of one's skin in Brazil has always been profoundly confusing due to the range of skin tone begat from miscegenation. But what is more disturbing is how the various shades among Brazilians rank differently on the social status ladder! One is higher on the ladder depending on how lightly-hued the tone of their skin is! So engrained in the psyche of Brazilians are such notions that today they see lighter skin colour as more superior.
There is ample evidence in many Brazilian black quarters to the words of Malcolm X, who once said "the worst thing that the white man ever did was to make black people hate themselves". Many black Brazilians (like many African women worldwide) openly wish their hair was straighter, their skin lighter, their noses sharper, and lips thinner.
And who can blame them? For many years, various Brazilian governments have excluded race as a category in the country's censuses of 1900, 1920, and 1970--which meant the results lacked numerical data on the black population and hence effectively erased their identities from the public record. Following strong lobbying by black activists, race was finally placed on the census form during the 1980 census--but even then black people were grouped in no less than 136 colour categories, which included bizarre shades such as: burnt white, toasted, cinnamon, white coffee, etc. But when the census results showed that 45% of the Brazilian population was black, yet only 0.87% of them had a college education, many woolly eyes began to open to the fact that discrimination and racism were very much in their midst and even institutionalised!
No wonder, in the 1990 census, the government reduced the race categories to just five--white, black, pardo (mixed race), Asiatic and Indian. The economic and social plight experienced by many black Brazilians today cannot be removed from their historic roots. After abolition, the situation for freed slaves was compounded further through the severe economic hardship and discrimination, made worse by lack of land ownership. Most freed slaves were forced into becoming homeless, jobless and penniless, as many were denied jobs which were instead reserved for white immigrants.
This yawning social and economic disparity existed into the 21st century, but Brazilians continued to deny that race affected everything even when today some employers still blatantly advertise job opportunities to those with "good appearance" (a euphemism for lighter skin). But hoodwinked by the environment of "racial democracy", black Brazilians never really thought about developing a positive image of their African heritage, let alone begin to mobilise themselves against racial discrimination.
However, the new millennium saw an invigorated civil rights awakening which is rightfully and increasingly putting racism on Brazil's national debate. As a result, some black Brazilians are now becoming more assertive, forming their own black organisations to fight discrimination at all levels.
It is now not a rare sight to see them proudly adorning T-shirt emblazoned "100 per cent Negro" or "I am black and proud". One rarely sees media articles lauding "racial democracy", but people on the streets of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo will openly admit they now believe racism exists.
Different studies conducted between 1999 and 2006 reveal similar statistics which bear out serious racial inequities: Black Brazilians have the highest unemployment rate, many do not make it through to high school, they are more likely to work in menial jobs that pay an average rate of less that US$80 per month, only two per cent of blacks make it to university compared to over 10 per cent of whites. More than half of the black Brazilian population is illiterate, black infants are twice as likely to die before their second birthday than their white counterparts. But for years, such statistics were frowned upon and never accepted as an indication of racial injustice but rather that the situation was due to black people's poor economic status.
On the political level, there are only a handful of black members of Congress, government ministers, and governors. Most of the blacks you see in corridors of power are waiters, chauffeurs and cleaners just like in scenes common in Brazilian movies where black people are mainly seen as maids, criminals or labourers.
Therefore, from slavery in the 18th century, to racial quotas and affirmative action today, Brazil's journey has been confounding. Fortunately, Affirmative Action programmes are changing the rules of the game and bring hope to many. In 2001, during the preparations for the World Conference on Racism, the Brazilian preparatory committee adopted a position that endorsed the introduction of an Affirmative Action plan and the system of quotas. Many colleges and universities now reserve at least 20% of their admissions for Afro-Brazilians. Enter President Lula. Since coming into office in 2002, Lula has made Africa an important part of his foreign policy, declaring that Brazil owes a lot to Africa. He is always stressing how most of Brazil's wealth was created by black slave labour, and he feels Africa should get a better deal from this past legacy. To prove his commitment, he has visited Africa several times during his term of office. Black Brazilian activists and other liberals are now taking advantage of Lula's unflinching commitment to racial equality to put anti-discriminatory measures legally in place, in case Lula's successor in three years time does not show the same enthusiasm.
To prove his commitment, in 2003 Lula declared that every 20 November would be celebrated as "Black Consciousness Day" which also commemorates Zumbi, the 17th century leader of the Palmares (the runaway slave community in the forest of Brazil).
On 20 November 2007, true to his word, Lula launched a two-billion-reals programme to develop the remaining Quilombos (the communities of freed--and escaped--African slaves founded in the country's forests who often acted as resistance groups, leading rebellions and plantation raids). Today, some black communities view themselves as carrying on the fight against injustice by continuing to live in the Quilombos, maintaining their traditions and fighting for their land rights.
Most Quilombo residents still live in mud houses, grow their own crops, hunt, fish and make their own instruments, but the loss of land and accompanying urban migration have put a strain on the communities.
Unlike the United States, where slavery is too often relegated to the shadows of history, in Brazil's Quilombos the memory is still alive and is a constant reminder to modern-day Brazilians about the country's past. There are almost 1,000 Quilombos across Brazil.
Many liberals, noting the extent to which income gaps reflect levels of education, agreed that an educational quota system or "reserved seats", had to be introduced in Brazil as a way of reducing the education gap. A law has now been enacted which sets aside 50% of entrance places into universities to black-Brazilians, indigenous people, and those from disadvantaged socio-economic and educational backgrounds--who happen to be black anyway. The law also makes coursework in African Studies a requirement. In 2003, Afro-Brazilian history and African history were made compulsory in the Brazilian public school system and a special curriculum was created to encourage a year-long study on the contributions of Africa towards the building of Brazil.
Lula's Secretary for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR), has been pushing a number of new legislation to support the inclusion of people of African descent in different political and social spheres.
The Foreign Service, known as Itamaraty, also has a quota system that sets aside spaces for Afro-Brazilians to study diplomacy.
There is, however, valid scepticism on whether the quota system and affirmative action, in education and employment, will genuinely improve and reduce the disparity in wages. Many doubt that the new measures will lead to black Brazilians receiving the same income as equally qualified whites.
Critics in fact say both affirmative action and the quota system are bad for black people because they are separating people by colour and, hence "creating a racist country".
But hope comes in the very realisation and growing acceptance among Brazilians that racism and discrimination have been part of their lives from the 18th century slavery to today's quota system--what matters now is to face the problem and combat it.
But with 300 years of slavery, another 100 of living a lie, is racist discrimination really over in Brazil? Time will tell. But for now, it's comforting to know there is no more racism denial.