The Economist on Race in Brazil

Race in Brazil

Affirming a divide

Black Brazilians are much worse off than they should be. But what is the best way to remedy that?

 The shadow of the past

IN APRIL 2010, as part of a scheme to beautify the rundown port near the centre of Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic games, workers were replacing the drainage system in a shabby square when they found some old cans. The city called in archaeologists, whose excavations unearthed the ruins of Valongo, once Brazil’s main landing stage for African slaves.

From 1811 to 1843 around 500,000 slaves arrived there, according to Tânia Andrade Lima, the head archaeologist. Valongo was a complex, including warehouses where slaves were sold and a cemetery. Hundreds of plastic bags, stored in shipping containers parked on a corner of the site, hold personal objects lost or hidden by the slaves, or taken from them. They include delicate bracelets and rings woven from vegetable fibre; lumps of amethyst and stones used in African worship; and cowrie shells, a common currency in Africa.


It is a poignant reminder of the scale and duration of the slave trade to Brazil. Of the 10.7m African slaves shipped across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, 4.9m landed there. Fewer than 400,000 went to the United States. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888.

Brazil has long seemed to want to forget this history. In 1843 Valongo was paved over by a grander dock to welcome a Bourbon princess who came to marry Pedro II, the country’s 19th-century emperor. The stone column rising from the square commemorates the empress, not the slaves. Now the city plans to make Valongo an open-air museum of slavery and the African diaspora. “Our work is to give greater visibility to the black community and its ancestors,” says Ms Andrade Lima.

This project is a small example of a much broader re-evaluation of race in Brazil. The pervasiveness of slavery, the lateness of its abolition, and the fact that nothing was done to turn former slaves into citizens all combined to have a profound impact on Brazilian society. They are reasons for the extreme socioeconomic inequality that still scars the country today.

Neither separate nor equal

In the 2010 census some 51% of Brazilians defined themselves as black or brown. On average, the income of whites is slightly more than double that of black or brown Brazilians, according to IPEA, a government-linked think-tank. It finds that blacks are relatively disadvantaged in their level of education and in their access to health and other services. For example, more than half the people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) are black. The comparable figure in the city’s richer districts is just 7%.

Brazilians have long argued that blacks are poor only because they are at the bottom of the social pyramid—in other words, that society is stratified by class, not race. But a growing number disagree. These “clamorous” differences can only be explained by racism, according to Mário Theodoro of the federal government’s secretariat for racial equality. In a passionate and sometimes angry debate, black Brazilian activists insist that slavery’s legacy of injustice and inequality can only be reversed by affirmative-action policies, of the kind found in the United States.

Their opponents argue that the history of race relations in Brazil is very different, and that such policies risk creating new racial problems. Unlike in the United States, slavery in Brazil never meant segregation. Mixing was the norm, and Brazil had many more free blacks. The result is a spectrum of skin colour rather than a dichotomy.

Few these days still call Brazil a “racial democracy”. As Antonio Riserio, a sociologist from Bahia, put it in a recent book: “It’s clear that racism exists in the US. It’s clear that racism exists in Brazil. But they are different kinds of racism.” In Brazil, he argues, racism is veiled and shamefaced, not open or institutional. Brazil has never had anything like the Ku Klux Klan, or the ban on interracial marriage imposed in 17 American states until 1967.

Importing American-style affirmative action risks forcing Brazilians to place themselves in strict racial categories rather than somewhere along a spectrum, says Peter Fry, a British-born, naturalised-Brazilian anthropologist. Having worked in southern Africa, he says that Brazil’s avoidance of “the crystallising of race as a marker of identity” is a big advantage in creating a democratic society.

But for the proponents of affirmative action, the veiled quality of Brazilian racism explains why racial stratification has been ignored for so long. “In Brazil you have an invisible enemy. Nobody’s racist. But when your daughter goes out with a black, things change,” says Ivanir dos Santos, a black activist in Rio de Janeiro. If black and white youths with equal qualifications apply to be a shop assistant in a Rio mall, the white will get the job, he adds.

The debate over affirmative action splits both left and right. The governments of Dilma Rousseff, the president, and of her two predecessors, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have all supported such policies. But they have moved cautiously. So far the main battleground has been in universities. Since 2001 more than 70 public universities have introduced racial admissions quotas. In Rio de Janeiro’s state universities, 20% of places are set aside for black students who pass the entrance exam. Another 25% are reserved for a “social quota” of pupils from state schools whose parents’ income is less than twice the minimum wage—who are often black. A big federal programme awards grants to black and brown students at private universities.

These measures are starting to make a difference. Although only 6.3% of black 18- to 24-year-olds were in higher education in 2006, that was double the proportion in 2001, according to IPEA. (The figures for whites were 19.2% in 2006, compared with 14.1% in 2001). “We’re very happy, because in the past five years we’ve placed more blacks in universities than in the previous 500 years,” says Frei David Raimundo dos Santos, a Franciscan friar who runs Educafro, a charity that holds university-entrance classes in poor areas. “Today there’s a revolution in Brazil.”

One of its beneficiaries is Carolina Bras da Silva, a young black woman whose mother was a cleaner. As a teenager she lived for a while on the streets of São Paulo. But she is now in her first year of social sciences at Rio’s Catholic University, on a full grant. “Some of the other students said ‘What are you doing here?’ But it’s getting better,” she says. She wants to study law and become a public prosecutor.

Academics from some of Brazil’s best universities have led a campaign against quotas. They argue firstly that affirmative action starts with an act of racism: the division of a rainbow nation into arbitrary colour categories. Assigning races in Brazil is not always as easy as the activists claim. In 2007 one of two identical twins who both applied to enter the University of Brasília was classified as black, the other as white. All this risks creating racial resentment. Secondly, opponents say affirmative action undermines equality of opportunity and meritocracy—fragile concepts in Brazil, where privilege, nepotism and contacts have long been routes to advancement.

Proponents of affirmative action say these arguments sanctify an unjust status quo. And formally meritocratic university entrance exams have not guaranteed equality of opportunity. A study by Carlos Antonio Costa Ribeiro, a sociologist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, found that the factors most closely correlated to attending university are having rich parents and studying in private school.

In practice, many of the fears surrounding university quotas have not been borne out. Though still preliminary, studies tend to show that cotistas, as they are known, have performed academically as well as or better than their peers. That may be because they have replaced weaker “white” students who got in merely because they had the money to prepare for the exam.

Nelson do Valle Silva, a sociologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, says that the backlash against quotas would have been even stronger if access to universities were not growing so fast. For now, almost everyone who passes the exam gets in somewhere. It also helps, he says, that many universities have adopted less controversial “social quotas”. Mr Fry agrees that affirmative action has “become a fait accompli”. He attributes the declining resistance to guilt, indifference and the fear of being accused of racism.

The battle for jobs

For black activists, the next target is the labour market. “As a black man, when I go for a job I start from a disadvantage,” says Mr Theodoro. He notes that the United States, which is only 12% black, has a black president and numerous black politicians and millionaires. In Brazil, in contrast, “we have nobody”. That is not quite true: apart from footballers and singers, Brazil has a black supreme-court justice (appointed by Lula) and senior military and police officers. But they are exceptional. Only one of the 38 members of Ms Rousseff’s cabinet is black (though ten are women). Stand outside the adjacent headquarters of Petrobras, the state oil company, and the National Development Bank in Rio at lunchtime, and “all the managers are white and the cleaners are black,” says Frei David.


The shadow of the past

Some private-sector bodies are starting to espouse racial diversity in recruitment. The state and city of Rio de Janeiro have both passed laws reserving 20% of posts in civil-service exams for blacks, though they are yet to be implemented. If unemployment rises from today’s record low, job quotas are likely to create even more controversy than university entrance has.

What stands out from a decade of debate about affirmative action is that it is being implemented in a very Brazilian way. Each university has taken its own decisions. The federal government has tried to promote the policy, but not impose it. The supreme court is sitting on three cases addressing racial quotas. Some lawyers suspect it is deliberately dragging its heels in the hope that society can sort the issue out.

Society itself is indeed changing fast. Many of the 30m Brazilians who have left poverty over the past decade are black. Businesses are taking note: many more cosmetics are aimed at blacks, for example. The mix of passengers on internal flights now bears some resemblance to Brazil, rather than Scandinavia. Until recently, the only black actors in television soap operas played maids; now one Globo soap has a black male lead. Much of this might have happened without affirmative action.

The question facing Brazil is whether the best way to repair the legacy of slavery is to give extra rights to darker-skinned Brazilians. Yes, say the government and the black movement. Given the persistence of racial disadvantage that is understandable.

But the approach carries clear risks. Until the invasion of American academic ideas, most Brazilians thought that their country’s racial rainbow was among its main assets. They were not wholly wrong. Mr do Valle Silva, a specialist in social mobility, finds that race affects life chances in Brazil but does not determine them. And if positive discrimination becomes permanent, a publicly funded industry of entitlement may grow up to entrench it and to promote divisive racial politics.

There may be better ways to establish genuine equality of opportunity and rights. Brazil has had anti-discrimination legislation since the 1950s. The 1988 constitution made both racial abuse and racism crimes. But there have been relatively few prosecutions. That is partly because of racism in the judiciary. But it is also because judges and prosecutors think the penalties are too harsh: anyone accused of racism must be held in jail both before and after conviction. And in Rio de Janeiro the black movement’s preference for affirmative action led the state government to lose interest in measures aimed at attacking racial prejudice, according to a study by Fabiano Dias Monteiro, who ran the state’s anti-racist helpline before it was scrapped in 2007.

The hardest task is to change attitudes. Many Brazilians simply assume blacks belong at the bottom of the pile. Supporters of affirmative action are right to say that the country turned its back on the problem. But American-style policies might not be the way to combat Brazil’s specific forms of racism. A combination of stronger legal action against discrimination and quotas for social class in higher education to compensate for weak public schools may work better.

One thought on “The Economist on Race in Brazil

  1. We have to ask ourselves if some social policies are meant to address the problem or are pure demagogy. The “cotistas” initiative is at least, debatable. Why? If Brazil had quality free elementary school, all poor citizens would have access to the university. No need for “cotas” to whatever color is your skin. So the problem is not “color” but universal access to education.


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