Printer Friendly

Brazil recognizes the right to self-determination for African descendants: is it a path the United States could follow?

Brazil and the United States had the largest slave populations in the hemisphere, and, as a result, comparable institutionalized racism and inequalities. At least until the recent "congressional coup" and move to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil had taken major steps to face its heritage of genocide. Under the Workers' Party governments (2003-2014), Brazil has adopted national quota systems and antipoverty programs aimed at reducing inequality and opening opportunities for education, health care, and housing. In addition, geography, history and culture led to very different migration patterns for African descendants in Brazil, where thousands of black fugitive slave communities (quilombos) arose, and still exist. They have now won rights to their historic lands, giving them autonomy and the right to self-determination. How can cities like Ferguson or Detroit learn from Brazil?

Keywords: racism, African Americans, Brazil, quilombos, self-determination Rights and Reintegrating Deported Migrants for National Development:


I wrote this article in the spring of 2014. With the recent "congressional coup" and move to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, acting President Temer has already eliminated many of the programs and antiracist structures put in place by Presidents Lula and Dilma. The "new" government has shut down the commissions, stopped some of the poverty programs, and increased the assault on African descendants. Of course, people who have won rights have long memories when they are taken away. Some of the lessons or models created under the Workers' Party governments continue to be relevant: for example, recognition of genocide, establishment of self-governing and sustainable communities for African descendants, affirmative action and quotas for education, government support for housing, and apprenticeships and health care.

BRAZIL'S NEW POLICIES AGAINST RACISM ARE MAKING THE RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION and autonomy for communities of African descendants a sustainable alternative to integration. These communities are known as quilombos, established either as fugitive slave communities before the end of slavery (1550-1888), or post-liberation fugitive communities for African descendants unable or unwilling to settle in urban areas or to continue working as slaves on former plantations. Quilombos are historic communities, over a century old, dating anywhere from the 17th to the early 20th century.

Most quilombos are rural, isolated, and poor, although some have become surrounded by new or e panding cities. Historically they have been centers of resistance against exploitation and oppression. (1) Today they battle spreading urbanization and transnational corporate land takeovers, which regularly threaten their survival, in Brazil and throughout Latin America.

As of 2006, there were close to 3,000 quilombos on record in Brazil (INCRA 2012, 58). According to government data, however, it is estimated that there are up to 1.17 million quilombos throughout the country (Portal Brasil, December 5, 2013). In 1850, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in Brazil, the government passed a law (601,Lei de Terras) that made it impossible for blacks to own land, assuring their continued vulnerability and resistance. Beginning in the 21st century, however, the government began to certify quilombos with the objective of supporting their autonomy and sustainability.

Recognizing quilombos has been the most recent step in Brazil's very long road toward justice and equality for African descendants. This initiative is unique in its implementation, although other Latin American countries have moved in the direction of returning or certifying lands for indigenous and African-descendant populations. Many countries in the hemisphere have large populations of African descendants; Colombia, for example, has over 10 million. Through occasional programs of agrarian reform, lands have been set aside or earmarked for indigenous and African-descendant communities, but, with the recent exception of Brazil and Venezuela, (2) these governments have not stopped corporations from seizing their lands for mining or agriculture. (3) Brazil, in contrast, is taking seized land and returning it to the original occupants.

Can Comparisons Be Made between the United States and Brazil?

Brazil and the United States have the largest African-descendant populations in the hemisphere, but throughout the 20th century historians, sociologists, and African descendants have fiercely debated whether these two countries are comparable. (4) Geography, culture, and history created very different migration patterns and realities for fugitive slaves, freed slaves, and African descendants in Brazil compared to the United States, but what it did not create in either country is a "racial paradise" or a "racial democracy" (Larkin Nascimento 2003; Telles 2004; Marino de Azevedo 2003). That is the consensus today, but from the 1930s through the 1970s, Brazilians argued that their strategy for dealing with "freed slaves" produced forms of social integration that led to conflict-free race relations. This myth of "racial democracy" grew out of the works of Gilberto Freyre, a well-known sociologist. (5) US historians and sociologists adopted his vision, often without any independent research or supporting data (Telles 2004, 6-9).

The United Nations was so taken with Freyre's arguments that in the late 1950s UNESCO recruited a second Brazilian sociologist, Florestan Fernandes, to seek out the data and check the veracity of the vision. Fernandes's research documented the arguments Afro-Brazilians had been making for over a century: racism was as widespread in Brazil as in the United States, and despite the very different approaches of the two countries, the outcomes were similar. (6) Segregation in Brazil was and is like segregation in the North of the United States: not legally mandated, but effectively maintained. Exclusion from the labor force and from unions was comparable up to the 1960s, and overall poverty and marginalization had and continues to have a black face in both countries.

As Afro-Brazilian leader Abdias Nascimento observed in the 1990s: "Blacks lack everything to obtain equality promised by democracy. Where are the Black people? Only in shantytowns ... because they have nothing: no work, no housing, nor effective health care, and no education that equals that of whites" (Mikevis and Flynn 2005). By the 1970s, with the organizational efforts of black leaders like Nascimento, the paradigm shifted from "racial paradise" in Brazil to institutionalized racism and genocide. (7)

Outlining Key Differences

What then were the major differences? Brazil imported Africans as slaves as early as the mid-1550s, earlier than the United States (1700s), and maintained the cross-Atlantic slave trade until 1850, a half-century after the United States and Europe had outlawed it. Eleven times more Africans were brought to Brazil than to the United States (Telles 2004, 1), When Brazil finally ended slavery in 1888, it came not through civil war but through a decree. Many states had already liberated slaves, knowing they had nowhere else to go and would continue to work on the plantations. The African-descendant population was larger in Brazil, and, at the time of abolition, still maintained customs and close linguistic, religious, and cultural ties to the African homelands. There were still first-generation Africans living in Brazil (Marinho de Azevedo 2003).

Geography contributed to the large number and survival of fugitive slave communities (quilombos) in Brazil, due to their extreme isolation from the dominant institutions and culture. Slaves fled into the largely uninhabited interior of the country, especially the mountains and Amazon region. A few such US communities, known as maroon communities, had settled in the South, sometimes near plantations as freed slaves, while most, as fugitives, settled in less-accessible places such as the Everglades, the Georgia Sea Islands, or the Great Dismal Swamp that crossed Virginia and North Carolina. With the overthrow of Reconstruction in the United States, most of these communities were brought under white control. (8)

Many black urban settlements that resulted from the Great Migration had similar insularity and density to a quilombo, but were never able to achieve any independence or self-governance. They became ghettoes inside or on the periphery of larger northern and southern cities, similar to the slums or favelas of Brazil.

Finally, culture and ideology, too, led to dramatically different approaches toward former slaves. Although forms of segregation continued in both countries, the definitions of race diverged significantly, based on color in Brazil and ancestry in the United States. At the turn of the 20th century, the Brazilian government sought European immigration for two purposes, to occupy industrial jobs and to lighten the population. Intermarriage was not just legal; it was encouraged. The term used was "whitening" or "embranquecimento" (Telles 2004; Larkin Nascimento 2007). The goal was to eliminate the African visage through miscegenation, so that Brazil would be a more attractive destination for European immigrants. Immigration was closed to blacks.

"One drop of white blood," Brazilians still argue, "makes you 'not black.'" Since greater advantages came to those who were "not black," many people chose to identify as anything but "black." Brazilian census figures included terms for black, brown, and yellow, provided for individual self-identification, and distinguished between black mixture (mulatto) and indigenous (caboclos) That was quite a contrast to the "one drop" US practice that barred any other identification but black. (9)

The government policy of miscegenation was partially responsible for a very large mixed or mulatto population that resisted identification with black movements and that led to the popularized myth that Brazil was "a racial paradise." Another important factor had to do with the colonization itself; the Portuguese sent mainly single men. The English came with families. A lot of intermarriage began very early on in Brazil. It was not the case in either country that European immigrants intermarried with blacks or browns. In both countries, race mixing was primarily the result of rapes of black women by slave owners or overseers.

What Edward Telles emphasized is that colonial intermarriage, along with the Moorish ancestry of many Portuguese, contributed to the large mulatto population and the appearance of "social" or horizontal integration. (10) It did not, however, eliminate race and class stratification.

Contemporary Comparisons, New Developments

Brazil's new Constitution of 1988, the result of years of battle by newly formed and powerful social movements against the military dictatorship (1964-1985), opened the door to change. Before its passage, blacks had no standing under the law to make claims on the land they had historically occupied. It was the first major policy achievement of the growing black movement that had gained a strong sense of rights from contemporary African liberation struggles. From the late 1950s through the military dictatorship, African-descendant organizations and publications changed the conversation on race, working independently and then in coalition with other social movements. (11)

Together with these movements, Afro-Brazilian activists helped to form the Workers' Party (PT) in October 1980, a broad coalition of progressive forces that challenged the neoliberal governing consensus. In 2002, the PT accomplished the incredible, taking over the national presidency for the next four terms. The support and programs of two national PT presidents--Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2002-2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-?)--have provided legal recognition and concrete economic support for African-descendant communities and new opportunities for Brazil's poor. The relative strength and autonomy of the social movements have made these changes possible. Without the protests and pressures, the PT would not have been able to meet its goal of reducing misery.

Under Lula, the national government instituted specific quotas and affirmative action plans for education and public employment. (12) He introduced specific policies for university education. (13) Only 2 percent of university students were black, even in public universities. The greatest resistance to quotas came from the northern states, where most African descendants lived and poverty overall was the highest. Non-blacks, in particular, argued for quotas based on income, not race or color. For a while, applicants had their photos taken in front of a white board, in order to judge color, since that was the main criterion. If you looked black, then you would be treated and excluded as black.

Ultimately, the PT government shifted to a different standard, demanding that 40 percent of all admissions into public universities go to students from the public school system. Only the poor rely on the public schools, which includes the vast majority of Afro-Brazilians and indigenous peoples. (14)

Lula and Dilma have initiated a growing list of programs to eliminate misery and hunger in Brazil, reducing extreme poverty by one-third. (15) They set up government agencies and departments and funded and staffed them to be able to track antiracism efforts. Racism is now considered a crime under Brazilian law. Then, the government took up reparations through the certification of quilombos.

Brazil's advances, still modest, stand in sharp contrast to the devastating realities for African Americans in the United States. While Brazil has been implementing affirmative action, including quotas, courts in the United States have dismissed the need for affirmative measures, as demonstrated in the Supreme Court's decisions, beginning with McDonald v. Santa Fe Trail Transportation Co., 427 US 273, 96 S.Ct.2574 (1976). (16) The Court found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act equally covered "majorities," i.e., white workers who alleged that they had been "disadvantaged" by affirmative action policies. The Court thus redefined affirmative action as a form of "reverse discrimination."

Demands for reparations in the United States have been scattered and unsuccessful, due largely to widespread white opposition to any kind of collective remedy. Dominant right-wing forces and white supremacist ideology dismiss collective remedies for African Americans today by refusing to acknowledge any legacy from slavery. The wealth, housing, health, and income gaps between black and white families, as well as the incarceration and death rates for young African Americans, are wrapped in social Darwinist arguments, holding the victims individually responsible for their status.

Recent police killings, as in Ferguson, Missouri, or the state takeover of cities as occurred in Detroit, Michigan, are reminders of the ongoing neocolonial power relations between white and black in most US cities. (17) Important differences exist between Brazil and the United States, but the need for collective and individual remedies are critical in both nations. Brazil is setting an example by promoting a collective remedy.

Brazil's Innovative Approaches

In 1995, pressure from the black movement compelled the neoliberal government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso to establish a Department on Colonization and Rural Land Reform (INCRA). INCRA would oversee the rights of farmers, peasants, indigenous, and Afro-Brazilians in their struggle for land. The status of the quilombos also fell under INCRA's scrutiny, but almost nothing was done to secure their lands under Cardoso.

Only when Lula took office in 2003 did the government enable complaints and land occupations. Land takeovers of abandoned latifundios multiplied, most often led by the Movement of Landless Workers (MST). Using the process adopted by the Solidarity Economy to create worker-run cooperatives in agriculture and industry, hundreds of land occupations became worker-owned farm cooperatives. In these land occupations, the government intervened to declare the land "a social interest," or public interest, before "selling" it to the occupiers for the price of the landowner's debts to the state, somewhat like eminent domain in the United States.

In his first term, Lula identified Brazil's historic approach to "managing" former slaves/Africans as genocide; "whitening' was just another way to eliminate blacks. He established a Commission for the Elimination of Racism, appointed Afro-Brazilians to cabinet and court positions, and launched a national education campaign to counter deeply rooted inequalities and longstanding beliefs in racial harmony.

On March 21, 2003, the Day for Elimination of All Forms of Segregation, Lula announced the establishment of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR). Together with the NGO Palmares Cultural Foundation (Fundacao Cultural Palmares), INCRA and SEPPIR set in motion the long process of certifying African-descendant communities.

By May 2013, 154 land titles had been secured, creating 217 registered quilombos, including 13,145 families (INCRA 2012, 13, 16). Since almost all of these communities are rural, they still faced poverty and isolation. After certification, each family could qualify individually for the social programs set up by the Workers' Party. (18) Beyond economic support, they started education and vocational programs in poor areas, bringing health care and computers into poor communities. Quilombos and African descendants are at the top of the eligibility list, and have been able to access dozens of support programs (Ferreira 2013).

President Dilma Rousseff stressed the importance of financial resources in securing quilombola rights. "Creating conditions to overcome not only social exclusion but also racial exclusion characterized the history of these communities. It is the objective of any nation that wants to construct a democracy to root it in a foundation of diversity with the construction of equal opportunities for all." Expropriating land taken for quilombos, she added, is an advance in recovering our history. "Brazil is a country of many colors, races and cultures. We have the mission of constructing a country of opportunities for all, without discrimination" (Portal Brasil, December 5, 2013).

How has the PT implemented policies toward this goal? Local leaders and activists have brought to the quilombolas many federal, state, and local programs that are designed to improve health care, education, computer literacy, housing, and diets. The plan Brazil without Misery, for example, announced it was investing seven million Brazilian reals ($2.1 million) for 2,900 quilombola families in dire poverty in three states. In addition to food, the government provided 40 technicians to offer courses and assess needs (Portal Brasil, September 30, 2013). The Ministry of Education set up training for teachers and provided sites and materials (PortalBrasil, January 23, 2010). Computers were delivered for 50,000 students as part of the program "Digital Inclusion" (December 5, 2012). Dilma's social housing initiative, My House, My Life, built housing for 1.7 thousand rural families, and the National Program for Rural Housing invested $13.09 million for additional homes (PortalBrasil, September 3, 2013).

The Certification Process

Today, INCRA has 1,167 open appeals for certification at various phases of a nine-step process. The first step requires technical intervention by anthropologists, who draft the report describing and verifying the community's historic roots and development (Relatorio Tecnico de Identificacao e Delimitacao, RTID). Then all the families are registered and assigned an ID card (cadastro). The card enables people to apply for social assistance as individuals. With the second step, the report is published. Step three sets up a period that allows any parties to contest the findings. If no other claim is recognized, then the African-descendant families are certified as an historic quilombo.

A published decree then recognizes the territory (step four), followed by another decree that labels the land as a "social interest." The government takes initial possession to protect the quilombola community. In step five, the government clears the land of all other occupants or settlers. During step six, the government determines how much to compensate those removed from the land; it is usually a small and contested sum. The last three steps complete the process. Step seven records the land deed; with step eight, the government issues the land titles. In the final step, the new land titles are registered and the quilombo is fully certified.

Quilombos are collectively owned and administered. The land can never be subdivided or sold. It belongs to the community as long as one descendant is living there. In addition, according to the Government Report of 2012, "the size of the territories guarantee the physical reproduction of the quilombola families, as well as their economic, social, environmental, cultural and political sustainability"(INC RA 2012, 17). "Guaranteeing the right to land is guaranteeing the rights to exist for the quilombolas." This right to exist as a people with land, culture, schools, health centers, and self-government most dramatically distinguishes Brazil's approach from that of the United States.

In the United States, neither fugitive slave communities nor freed slave communities survived into the 21st century. A few all-black towns remain, such as Mound Bayou in Mississippi and the Georgia Sea Islands, but most black communities exist within white-dominated cities such as Ferguson or have black leadership struggling to exist in neocolonized cities such as Gary, Indiana, or Detroit. Black mayors have not been able to respond to the needs of impoverished black neighborhoods, given the financial and corporate control of local economies. There is neither autonomy nor self-determination; instead, we have high unemployment and poverty.

Of course, reality in Brazil is quite complicated and riddled with obstacles and contradictions. Neoliberal economic development dominates globally and affects Brazil and many African descendants. (19) To paint a picture of the range of conditions in quilombos, I will tell the story of two of them: one in the far North, named Evaristo, and one in the far South named Chacara das rosas (rose-covered country home). I visited the first in December 2013 and the second in January 2014. The differences were striking.


In the sierras, the mountains, in the interior of the state of Ceara, and in the far North, there are indigenous and African-descendant communities. Evaristo sits at the top of a steep hill, outside the city of Baturite. The narrow dirt road, with its rocks, huge craters, and hairpin turns, is barely drivable. The community uses an old set of trucks for transport and protest. They have gone en masse to the mayor's office in Baturite to demand that the road be paved, but the city's leadership is conservative and uninterested. The PT has a very limited presence in the region. Evaristo has its own school that teaches black consciousness and a small cultural center. The families live in small homes. (20)

The history of this quilombos certification reflected multiple occupations and relocations of more than one community of color that shared a common ancestry. Aided by the Catholic Church, beginning in 1985 members came together into a community in search of land. They had lived near a plantation where their ancestors had worked, but moved to a hard-to-reach mountaintop to escape racist policies. At one point the group tried to purchase land near the plantation, but was denied. The government bought the plantation, but then turned the land over to peasants who had settled on the land, excluding the quilombo population.

The group declared its identity as a quilombo in July 2007 as UNEGRO--Union of Black Men and Women for Racial Equality. Documenting their community based on the preservation of cultural forms (dance, rituals, and artisan work), continued isolation, and their spirit of struggle, the Palmares Cultural Foundation facilitated its certification in February 2010 with the passage of this statute:
   Formed by indigenous and blacks who in the XIX century sought
   refuge in areas of difficult access, to five in liberty, fleeing
   the colonial plan established in what would become the municipal
   center of Baturite, the community Kolping da Serra do Evaristo
   recognizes itself as a Quilombola Community, dedicated to the
   preservation of cultural values whose origins go back to the
   earliest families of the community. (21)

Evaristo has two residential sections. The first is the one I visited at the top of the hill. Surrounded by palm and banana trees, the village looks out on the surrounding valleys. This community has engaged in commerce and cultural exchanges with nearby populations, which include many people of mixed heritage. As a result, some outsiders have become insiders and the community is very diverse in color.

In contrast, as the leader of the upper community explained, the second community fives down a hillside in the mountains, and is isolated by choice. The inhabitants are noticeably darker and avoid contact with outsiders. She did not provide any explanation for the differences, but they affect the culture, politics, and economics of each section. The top community has a strong black consciousness culture. They go to war with the city to get needs met; the other families do not participate in protest and their leader speaks one-on-one with the mayor if they have a request. They do not have a school of their own, and, as a result, send their children up the path for education.

In the course of leveling a soccer field, the residents discovered an indigenous civilization under their feet, dating back 300 years. They had built their community on top of an ancient Indian burial site. Evaristo has since constructed a museum with a growing collection of pottery and relics. Young men and women are researching this indigenous population and they are learning the arts of restoration to preserve what they uncover. Their fight for their rights includes preserving knowledge of the indigenous people who preceded them. Nonetheless, Evaristo remains poor, relatively isolated, and with very limited support from nearby conservative governments. The lack of a PT presence has contributed to an antigovernment position among leaders and a strong commitment to direct mass action.

Ceara is one of the poorest states in Brazil, home to many large latifundios and plantations. The overall poverty of the region has created fairly strong resistance among European descendants to taking action against racism or supporting quilombos. Cearas European descendants have not abandoned the "racial democracy" myth. The Workers' Party has held some leading positions, such as mayor of the largest city, Fortaleza. However, it has lost many of those positions in recent elections. The area where Evaristo is located is more dominated by old landowners and agribusiness interests. The quilombos in the North do not have the social movement support and political allies typical of the southern states in Brazil. Without outside help, families in the quilombos do not easily find out about many federal social assistance programs, and there are few state or municipal programs. Baturite is not a PT stronghold and its mayor has blocked efforts to support or bring improvements into Evaristo.

Quilombo Chacara das Rosas

Quilombo Chacara das Rosas is surrounded by high-priced homes and apartments in the middle of a city, Canoas. Located in the farthest southern state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul, this community has 24 families, an average of five per family. Once rural, this quilombo became urban as the city of Canoas grew around it. This state was the industrial heartland of Brazil, with a very large German and Italian immigrant population.

Chacara, however, is not isolated, because the social movements in this region of the South have been radical, activist, and solidaristic among themselves. In Canoas, the Workers' Party coalition is controlled by the left, or radical wing, of the party. So, for example, the movements in Canoas succeeded in electing a radical mayor in 2009, gaining a majority of city council seats, which has made it easier for the quilombo to gain access to the many federal, state, and municipal programs available to the poor. (22) With the direct help of the Metalworkers Union (SNM), the Central Federation of Labor (CUT), and the Landless Workers' Movement, as well as community organizations, this quilombola was transformed from huts lacking water or electricity into a community with housing for every family, thanks to "My House, My Life," the federal social housing initiative developed by President Dilma Rousseff

The Secretary of Social Development for Canoas, Eunice Wolf, worked alongside the quilombo's leadership to push forward the process of certification. She had worked with this community since the military dictatorship, first as a rank-and-file steelworker, later as the Workers' Party state coordinator for the Solidarity Economy, and now as a city official.

Once INCRA certified the community, the Canoas City Council passed a resolution waiving monthly payments for the housing, because of their ownership of the land. Under strong female leadership, very common in African-descendant communities, Chacara has gained access to education and training programs, health care, and more. The matriarch of the community is Dona Carme; her grandparents were the first settlers on the land. On my most recent visit in January 2016, I interviewed her and she expressed deep concern about the lack of interest among the youth in their African-descendant history. Isabel, the organizer, has become ill, leaving a vacuum. The number of families has increased to 28 and the land set aside for a garden is now being used for additional housing.

Their well-to-do neighbors had denied their children access to the school, but not any more. The families receive the bolsa familia (biweekly food and staples), and while I was there, the Secretary of Social Development who accompanied me was signing up young people for special education and apprenticeship opportunities.

In their cultural center, community members still practice African-based religious rituals. Families go back many generations and carry their history in their memories and pass the stories on. To help in their self-sufficiency, they have allotted a large land area to be developed as a garden. Unemployment is very high among the residents, but every person of employment age is in school or in a special work program. This quilombo has a future that it is building.

Final Reflections

These policies are a critical aspect in the larger effort of quilombos to address the systematic discrimination and institutionalized racism in Brazil. African descendants in Brazil have gained the right to self-determination in their historie communities, with the backing of numerous government agencies, and, in particular, INCRA (National Institute of Colonization and Land Reform), FCP (Palmares Cultural Foundation), and SEPPIR (Secretariat for Policies Promoting Racial Equality).

African descendants, rooted in ancestral lands, have waged a battle for centuries to achieve their rights as a people. Gaining legal stature and new opportunities have transformed the struggle against racial discrimination into a broader, more profound movement for liberation and justice. Integration into mainstream Brazilian life through "whitening" was just a mask for genocide. Autonomy within quilombos gives them the right to self-identify, live in their own self-governed community, and still have equal access to opportunities. In addition, the government's reliance on quotas has contributed to some leveling of the playing field, mainly in education.

Can the United States learn from Brazil? The policies and validation that followed the recognition that the post-slavery strategy to deal with African descendants amounted to genocide were critical to the establishment of far-reaching policies against discrimination and for the right to self-determination. Without forms of self-determination, urban ghettoes, whether in Brazil or the United States, reflect the institutionalization of inequalities, the criminalization of race, and a growing police state in the communities. (23) Cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, or Detroit, Michigan, Rio de Janeiro or Salvador, Bahia, for example, remain clear reflections of neocolonial oppression. A black mayor or black president cannot guarantee in any way greater voice or equality; neither does it eliminate the trappings of neocolonialism.

The way in which integration and "whitening" were conceptualized and carried out in the United States and Brazil perpetuated and solidified the inequalities. Without expanding democracy and providing autonomy or self-determination to African American communities, the United States continues to deny its history: the creation of enormous wealth through slavery and internal colonization of former slaves. The militarization of police forces and restriction of voting rights together threaten to repress even further African American struggles for equality in the United States. In Brazil, preparations for the World Soccer Cup and the Olympics have allowed urban police forces to rampage through favelas and to treat the black population as criminals.

In the United States today, viewing reparations as individual claims will not change the structures of control. Had Reconstruction continued, providing black families with "40 acres and a mule," or support and autonomy for fugitive communities, the outcome may have been different. Brazil's recognition that equality requires a distribution of power and opportunities, as well as the promotion and support of a solidarity economy and of autonomous black areas, built through cooperative organizations, has begun to change the status of Afro-Brazilians. Rich or poor, African Americans in the United States continue to be second-class citizens, at best.


(1.) Palmares, the largest and most famous quilombo, was founded in the 17th century (1630-94). It brought together a number of fugitive slave communities, was multiracial, and self-sufficient. By the 1690s, Palmares numbered 20,000 inhabitants. Between 1680 and 1686, six Portuguese expeditions attempted to conquer Palmares and failed. Finally, the governor of Pernambuco engaged an army of bandeirantes (bandits) that defeated the forces of Palmares on February 6, 1694, putting an end to the republic (Gomes 2005; Portal Brasil, November 8, 2012).

(2.) I am not able to include Venezuela in this comparison, which has addressed the conditions of its African descendants. The Brazilian and Venezuelan governments face right-wing attacks.

(3.) The process of allowing multinationals to seize reserved lands intensified with the Free Trade Agreements. See Needleman (2013, 51-59) and Garavito, Sierra, and Adarve (2009). Brazil is not consistent, with the government promoting major water projects, for example.

(4.) Comparative studies over the 20th century were heavily influenced by the Brazilian sociologist Gilbert Freyre, beginning with Casa Grande e Senzala in 1933. His work gave rise to the perception of a "racial democracy" in Brazil, which was adopted by other Brazilian and US writers. Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (1972), by Carl Degler, was one widely read example. In the absence of timely translations, many US writers continued to accept this distinction, when, in fact, Brazilian authors had long since disproved the theory. Afro-Brazilians have long contested the myth of "racial democracy," but their voices were marginalized until the United Nations funded a more in-depth study, hoping to discover the reasons for peaceful race relations in one country compared to the violence and hostility in others, namely the United States. The UN chose Brazilian sociologist Florestan Fernandes (2007), whose work statistically disproved the myth of a "racial democracy." Edward Telles (2004) recounts the history of the debate and suggests his own theory of why the differences between the United States and Brazil led to the misconception of racial harmony. Another good summary appears in Celia Maria Marinho de Azevedo (2003). See also de Azevedo (2008), Fry (2005), Santos and Palmira da Silva (2005), Hanchard (1999), and Daniel (2006). From the standpoint of African descendants, see Movimento Negro Unificado (1988) and Larkin Nascimento (2003).

(5.) Freyre's most famous books include Casa Grande e Senzala (1933), and Nordeste: Aspectos da Influencia da Cana sobre a Vida e a Passagem do Nordeste do Brasil (1937).

(6.) Two collections of Florestan Fernandes's work are currently available: O negro no mundo dos brancos (2007) and Sociologia Critica e Militante (2004).

(7.) See, for example, Nascimento (1950, 1978).

(8.) See Price (1979).

(9.) The Spanish and Portuguese colonists and conquerors, moreover, were not averse to intermixing. It is important to remember that for 800 years before the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from the North African Moors, a peaceful, integrated society dominated. It was in the late 15th and early 16th centuries that Jews and Moors were driven out of the peninsula. Many fled to Brazil and other Latin American countries as colonial subjects. Many were part North African. This issue of self-identification delayed the development of the black movement in Brazil. See Nascimento (2002) and Nascimento and Larkin (2004).

(10.) Telles also makes clear the important role of violence and rape in producing the mulatto population.

(11.) The other social movements include the Unified Labor Central (CUT) and the Landless Workers Movement (MST), the two largest nationwide. In addition, there were Catholic base communities, squatters' organizations, and women's organizations.

(12.) Guilherme C. Delgado points to a few initiatives in "Desigualdade Social no Brasil," in Magalhaes et al. (2010, 413-18) and Renato Ferreira, "Dez anos de promocao da igualdade racial: balancos e desafios, in Sader (2013, 361-75). The latter article has more detailed information. It is worth noting that both articles appear at the end of each anthology.

(13.) The public universities, both federal and state, are free, but acceptance had always been based on "merit." As a result, 2 percent of university students were black. Most of the accepted students had attended expensive private schools that were unavailable to Brazil's millions of poor families. At first, affirmative action was based mainly on skin color, which proved very tricky and highly contested. Everyone, it seemed, could point to a black grandparent or great grandparent. So the government took pictures of applicants against a white background. Many European descendants argued vehemently that everyone in Brazil had mixed heritage, and that geography would be a better indicator. The North had always been poorer than the South; slavery predominated in the North, and industrialization began in the South. Now they have some affirmative action for blacks, indigenous, and poor, and the universities are required to accept 40 percent of their students from public schools.

(14.) See, for example, Marcal (2012).

(15.) One of the first was Bolsa Familia, which sought to provide food and household goods for the poor, as long as they kept their children in school and had them vaccinated. Family income must be below three times the minimum wage. Unemployed adults must enter an education program. Another important initiative involves certifying occupations for benefits and pensions. The government now classifies jobs such as domestic service, so that employers must pay into social funds. For a more extensive fist and discussion, see Magalhaes et al. (2010).

(16.) The Department of Labor singles out the following cases: (1) McDonald v. Santa Fe Trail Transportation Co., 427 US 273, 96 S.Ct. 2574 (1976), in which two white employees and one black employee were charged with stealing property from their employer. The two white employees were fired while the black employee was retained. In the first big reverse discrimination case, the Court decided that Title VII is not limited to discrimination against minority persons, but includes discriminatory actions against majority persons as well. (2) Middletown v. City of Flint, 92 F.3d 396 (6th Cir. 1996), cert, denied 117 S.Ct. 1552 (1997) is a challenge by white police officers passed over for promotions because of voluntary affirmative action plan involving a 50 percent set aside of promotions to Sergeant for racial minorities. The Court found the plan to be an "unnecessarily drastic remedy." (3) In Police Association of New Orleans v. City of New Orleans, 100 F.3d 1159 (5th Cir. 1996), the city's race-conscious promotions violated the Equal Protection Clause because they were not narrowly tailored. (4) Hopwood v. Texas, 78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1996), cert, denied, 518 US 1033 (1996), strikes down the race-conscious admissions program of the University of Texas Law School. The school used lower minimum criteria for African American and Mexican American candidates than for other candidates. The Court held that obtaining a racially diverse student body is not a compelling interest under the 14th Amendment. (5) In Harding v. Gray, 9 F.3d 150 (D.C. Cir. 1993), the DC Circuit required an additional showing for white plaintiffs in reverse discrimination cases over and above what would be required by minority plaintiffs. The court held that, because racial discrimination against white persons is so rare, to establish the necessary inference of discrimination white plaintiffs must prove "background circumstances" that "support the suspicion that the defendant is that unusual employer who discriminates against the majority." This can be done by showing that the plaintiff was better qualified than the minority applicant whom the employer selected. (6) In Lucas v. Dole, 835 F.2d 532 (4th cir. 1987), the Fourth Circuit refused to adopt the DC Circuit's "background circumstances" requirement and instead applied the McDonnell Douglas test in the same way to white and black plaintiff. The white plaintiff satisfied her burden in this case when she showed that she was more qualified than the selected minority applicant, that the interviewing process was too subjective, that the minority applicant had received irregular acts of favoritism, and that other employees believed that race was a factor.

(17.) Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow studies the mass incarceration of minority youth and the recent outrage against police murders of black youth. It reinforces the argument that slavery still shapes life and culture for African Americans.

(18.) Rousseff has followed closely in Lula's footsteps in creating dozens of programs to end poverty and isolation. A recent one, Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life), was negotiated by Dilma with socially conscious organizations, companies, and banks to supplement the government's part. People who had lived in huts with dirt floors suddenly had a house, with two bedrooms, a bath, and a living/kitchen area. Quilombola families, the whole community, can apply for this program and many have. For any of this to work, social movements, workers' parties, and radical unions must fight for it, design the program, and then help to implement it. Quilombolas have leaders, often the oldest organizer/woman, and those leaders must fight hard to shake the programs loose or have allies in government. See also Rego and Pinzani (2013), Antunes (2013), and Batista and Novaes (2011).

(19.) Economic development has made many of the antipoverty programs possible. At the same time, however, there are development plans for major dam projects and alternate use of lands in the Amazon that threaten indigenous and African-descendant communities.

(20.) A professor from Baturite who worked for more than a decade with the families in Evaristo brought me into the quilombola and set up talks and a tour with community leaders.

(21.) "Comunidade Kolping da Serra do Evaristo, Breve Historico." A copy is in my possession.

(22.) The existence of programs does not mean a community knows about it or had access to it. In Canoas, the government assures that communities know what is available and that they receive direct help in fighting the battle to obtain benefits. The culture of struggle, based on broad mobilizations and direct-action protest, makes Canoas exceptional.

(23.) An interesting study of how quilombos became criminalized ghettoes tells a story similar to those of many urban ghettos in the United States. See Campos (2004).


Antunes, Ricardo (ed.) 2013 Riqueza e miseria do trabalho no BrasilII. Sao Paulo: Boitempo Editorial.

Batista, Eraldo Leme and Henrique Novaes 2011 Trabalho, educacao e reproducao social: As contradicoes do capital no seculo XXI. Sao Paulo: Canalo Editora.

Campos, Andrelino 2004 Do quilombo a favela: A producao do "espaco criminalizado" no Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brazil.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi 2014 "The Case for Reparations." The Atlantic Monthly, May 21.

Daniel, G. Reginald 2006 Race and Multiraciality in Brazil and the United States: Converging Paths? University Park: Pennsylvania State University.

Fernandes, Florestan 2004 Sociologia critica e militante. Sao Paulo: Editora Expressao Popular.

2007 O negro no mundo dos brancos. Sao Paulo: Global Editora (1972 1st ed.).

Ferreira, Renato 2013 "Dez anos de promocao da igualdade racial: balancos e desafios."June: 361-77.

Fry, Peter 2005 A persistencia da raca: ensaios antropologicos sobre o Brasil e a Africa austral. Rio de Janeiro: Civilizacao Brasileira.

Garavito, Cesar Rodriguez, Tatiana Alfonso Sierra, and Isabel Cavelier Adarve 2009 El desplazamiento Afro. Bogota: Universidad de los Andes.

Gentile, Pablo and Dalila Andrade de Oliveira 2013 "A procura de igualdade: dez anos de politicas educacional no Brasil." In Sader, pp. 253-64.

Gomes, Flavio dos Santos 2005 Palmares. Sao Paulo: Editora Contexto.

Hanchard, Michael (ed.) 1999 Racial Politics in Contemporary Brazil. Durham, CT: Duke University Press.

INCRA (Institute of Colonization and Land Reform) 2012 "Territorios Quilombolas'. Relatorio." Brasilia.

Larkin Nascimento, Elisa

2003 O sortilegio da cor: Identidade, raca egenro no Brasil. Sao Paulo: Selo Negro.

2007 The Sorcery of Color: Identity, Race, and Gender in Brazil. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Magalhaes, Joao Paulo de Almeida et al. 2010 Os anos Lula: contribuicoes para um balance critico 2003-2010. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond.

Marcal, Jose Antonio 2012 "A formacao de intelectuais negros(as): politica de acao afirmativa nas uni versidades brasileiras." Belo Horizonte: Nandyala Livros e Servicos.

Marinho de Azevedo, Celia Maria 2003 Abolicionismo: Estados Unidos e Brasil, uma historia comparada (seculo XIX). Sao Paulo: Editora Annablume.

2008 Onda negra, medo Branco: O negro no imaginario das elites seculo XIX. Sao Paulo: Annablume Editora.

Mikevis, Dayanne and Matthew Flynn 2005 "Brazil's Black Civil Rights Activists Achieving Overdue Policy Reform." Citizen Action in the Americas, No. 17, April.

Movimento Negro Unificado 1988 1978-1988:10 anos de luta contra o racismo. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Parma.

Nascimento, Abdias do 1950 Relacoes de raca no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Quilombo.

1978 O genocidio do negro Brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Paz e Terra.

Nascimento, Abdias do 2002 O Brasil na mira do Pan-Africanismo. Salvador, Brazil: CEAO, UFBA.

Nascimento, Abdias do and Elsa Larkin (eds.) 2004 "African Descendants in Brazil." Special Issue, Journal of Black Studies 34(6), July.

Needleman, Ruth 2013 "Free Trade Agreements and Unfree Labor: The Case of Colombia." New Labor Forum 22(2): 51-58.

Price, Richard 1979 Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rego, Walkuiria Leao and Alessandro Pinzani 2013 Vozes do Bolsa Familia: Autonomia, dinheiro e cidadania. Sao Paulo: Editora UNESP.

Sader, Emir (ed.) 2013 Lula e Dilma: 10 anos de governospos-neoliberais no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: FLACSO.

Santos, Gevanilda and Maria Palmira da Silva 2005 Racismo no Brasil: Percepcoes da discriminacao e do preconceito racial no seculo XXI. Sao Paulo: Editora Fundacao Perseu Abramo.

Telles, Edward E. 2004 Race in Another Country: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ruth Needleman *

* RUTH Needleman (email:, Professor Emerita of labor studies, Indiana University, also taught Latin American Studies at UC Santa Cruz. Her publications include Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism and many articles on race, class, and gender, on the social movements and democracy in Brazil, free trade in Colombia, popular education, and leadership development. She has also taught two graduate courses in Brazil.
COPYRIGHT 2017 Crime and Social Justice Associates
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Needleman, Ruth
Publication:Social Justice
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Sep 16, 2016
Previous Article:The problem of explanation: understanding the scandal of judicial override in capital cases.
Next Article:Rights and reintegrating deported migrants for national development: the Jamaican model.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters