Brazil: The Fall of a 'Racial Paradise'

Article excerpt

In 1923, a Brazilian congressman declared that "Black Brazilians will disappear within 70 years". Afranio Peixoto, a renowned Brazilian author, added that, "in 200 years, the black eclipse will have passed entirely". As one of the most racially diverse nations in the world, Brazil has for centuries wrongly considered itself a colour-blind nation. But as Regina Jere-Malanda reports, the veil is now off and black Brazilians, instead of disappearing within 70 years, are increasingly realising that deep-seated racism has been alive and well, and as a fightback, are becoming more assertive, partly thanks to the efforts of President Lula.

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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.

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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. …