Brazil’s Black Civil Rights Activists Achieving Overdue Policy Reform

By  |  15 / April / 2005


Citizen Action in the
Americas, No. 17

April 2005

Brazil’s Black Civil Rights Activists Achieving Overdue Policy Reform

Americas Program,
International Relations Center (IRC)

By Dayanne Mikevis and Matthew Flynn
A little more than a century after the abolition of black slavery in the Americas, economic and other forms of racial discrimination remain its dismal legacy. In Brazil , the black civil rights movement barely began to get underway in the 1990s. Its delay is due to repression of anyone who rejected the carefully nurtured myth of the existence of racial justice. But with a long history of black resistance and with global solidarity, activists have broken the institutional barrier to achieving affirmative action measures and agencies in a matter of years. Nongovernmental organizations are pointing the way toward better access for black constituents in health care, housing, crime protection, education, and career fields. As black equality proponents impact policy, their agenda strengthens the broader platform supporting social equity in the hemisphere, but they have a lot more work cut out for them.
March 21, 2005 : It was just another day for Brazilian media. The local papers published their usual articles on crimes, corruption, human interest, and political rhetoric, all as if it were really news. An article mentioned that this was the Day for Elimination of All Forms of Segregation.
The lack of fanfare for the unique commemoration that was widely publicized when it was proclaimed exactly two years earlier demonstrated the gaping fissure separating present reality from the noble cause of the proclamation. Sparse coverage reflected under-representation of blacks in newsrooms. The absence of speeches and marches belied officialdom’s commitment to desegregation. Yet it was a landmark occasion when on that date in 2003, Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva solemnly declared the creation of the Secretariat for Racial Equality.
That meant Brazil ‘s Black African Movement had gained a place within the country’s political administration for the first time ever. Its minister, Matilde Ribeiro, is militant, black, and feminist. What’s more, she is not the only activist in the secretariat; other members come from organizations, such as Geledes and Fala Preta!, that fight against prolonging historical racism and marginalization.

Key Challenges

Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery, and the legacy persists.

Uneven development has left larger black population in poorest regions of the country.

Elite repression, clientelism and paternalism have thwarted independent organizing by civil society.

Most of society denies a racial problem exists.

Employers discriminate based on skin color and link it to class background.

Historic marginalization has forced blacks to take the worse-paying and least desirable jobs.

Roughly 90% of those living in poverty are black; almost a third of the country is below the poverty line.

Blacks experience discrimination in health care provision and research.

In poor shantytowns, rampant violence results in barely one in three black men reaching the age of 19.

History of Oppression, Resistance
Slavery in Brazil, like in other parts of the Americas, was horrendous and brutal. As an act of resistance to forced labor and mistreatment, slaves who fled plantations and mines established liberated communities, known as quilombos . "Afro-Brazilians have a strong tradition of political mobilization that dates back to colonial times, which has helped them develop their own identity and craft strategies to combat white oppression and discrimination," explains Raquel de Souza, an Afro-Brazilian researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, who is an activist affiliated with the Race and Democracy in the Americas project.
Blacks no longer had to flee from forced labor after Brazil legally ended race slavery in 1888, the last country in the Americas to do so. But society shunned them, and official policies subsidized European immigration to hinder their economic integration. These policies aimed at diluting the strength of the African and Afro-Brazilian majority. Instead of paying newly freed blacks and stimulating their inclusion in the labor market, coffee plantation owners encouraged migrant workers from Europe to receive wages. "Here blacks were the last workers employed in the labor market, which forced them to create ways to survive outside the system,” says political scientist João Batista Pereira from the University of São Paulo. “That’s the case of favelas [shantytowns] in Rio de Janeiro , for example."
Although black slaves formally regained their freedom over a century ago, their descendants have been condemned to the bottom of the wage hierarchy. Most of the employed are domestic servants in the homes of Brazil ‘s wealthy, middle class and even working class, or they suffer as poor farmers and manual laborers in the countryside. The largest concentrations of blacks are in northeast and northern Brazil , the poorest area of the country and the very same one where colonial exploitation of slave labor was the most severe.
While many Brazilians attempt to disassociate racism from poverty, government statistics fail them. Almost one third of the population is living under the official poverty line, and blacks account for 70% of the poor, according to the federal research institute IPEA. Work by economist Marcelo Paixão reveals that the Human Development Index for blacks is 20% lower than it is for whites. "Poverty has a color in Brazil , and that is our color," says Wania Sant’ Anna, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and ex-secretary of state in Rio de Janeiro.
Myth of Racial Democracy
Many factors help explain why the struggle for racial equality in Brazil has lagged behind other countries that also have multiracial populations and histories of slavery, such as the United States. Historian Thomas Skidmore says belief in the "myth of racial democracy" held by whites also has been assimilated by African descendants in Brazil . The myth undercuts arguments that blame discrimination for inequality. The first element in the belief is that class weighs heavier than race in determining one’s life chances. Second, believers think the nature of the patrimonial state and patron-client relationships are what vitiate attempts to mobilize for social parity. Third, the absence of specific laws mandating segregation, such as the so-called Jim Crow laws enforced in the United States until the 1960s, has rendered the race problem more difficult to address. The invisible rules subtly mitigate against solidarity for the cause of equal opportunities for blacks that otherwise would come from Brazilians of mixed race.
Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freire was at the forefront of developing the concept of racial democracy in the past century. Despite Brazil ‘s racial inequities, rooted in vile slavery, Freire romanticized Brazil ‘s colonial past and portrayed a harmonious coexistence between masters and slaves. He depicted Brazil as a land of racial harmony in which different races and cultures fused through extensive miscegenation, allegedly eliminating racial tensions and prejudice over time. When white elites adopted this ideology back in the 1930s, Brazil was neither democratic nor a racial utopia. But by embracing the myth that no racial problem existed, elites could avoid the potentially explosive issue of de facto apartheid.
Another reason why racial issues barely have been addressed is that authoritarian regimes have repressed civil society. Getulio Vargas, the strongman of Brazil from 1930 to 1945, outlawed black associations as well as other groups concerned with ethnic and immigrant status. Discourse about the rights of Afro-Brazilians or development of black newspapers was not possible because "everybody was a son of the state," according to Vargas’ fascist-influenced ideology. A surge of black militancy occurred after Vargas’ death, only to be crushed by the dictatorship that came to power in a 1964 coup. The kind of civil rights mobilization seen in the United States was not possible in Brazil due to the greater degree of repression faced by all groups demanding racial justice. Because of their skin color, militants for black rights often suffered more at the hands of the military’s secret police than white, middle-class communists.
Only with organization of civil society during the democratic opening of the 1980s did the subject of racial equality begin to be addressed in academic circles and the public sector at large. At this time, the Unified Black Movement (Movimento Negro Unificado) started to operate openly. Jose Vicente, founder of one organization of the contemporary Afro-Brazilian militancy, Afrobrás, says that incorporation of black people into the political system was significant during the decade but none of the appointed Afro-Brazilian representatives had a discourse explicitly aimed at addressing the black question.
A new beginning for Afro-Brazilian militancy came in the 1990s, especially after the initial success of a new economic plan (Plano Real) when Brazilians started to have more money to support a consumer-based economy. At this time, the first magazine for a black audience, Raça Brasil , hit the shelves. When Raça appeared on the streets, a new discussion sprang up in Brazil. Many people alleged that a magazine made by and for black people was racist. Whites accused its publishers and readers of being "black racists." A parallel discussion ensued concerning Brazilian history: Who was black and who had the right to say what was black?
The 1990s witnessed the professionalization of the Black African movement with the creation and proliferation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Afrobrás and Educafro. Burgeoning domestic social mobilization and international pressure led the administration of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) to admit the fallacy of the racial democracy myth and acknowledge that racism was a social problem worthy of debate. This was a significant step toward redressing the condition of Afro-Brazilians, since policies focused on the legacy of black people in Brazil could not be achieved while denying the existence of racism.

Black Activists’ Agenda

Institutionalize debate and discussion about the nature of Brazil’s racial problems.
Implement affirmative action programs conducive to the advancement of blacks.

Enact laws that punish employers and others for discriminating against blacks.

Dismantle police forces that target black youth.

Provide social services to end drug abuse, violence, poor housing; increase education, opportunities, and social mobility.

Promote black pride in unique culture, history, and identity.

Rescue black history and rewrite textbooks to include its importance in Brazil’s past.

Push for affirmative action to increase the number of blacks in media and assure better roles.

Raise awareness about unfair treatment of Afro-Brazilians in the health sector.

Combat ingrained racism throughout Brazilian society.

Political Inclusion but Little Progress
The reestablishment of democracy in Brazil has led to some advancement in tackling racial disparities but progress has been slow. On a positive note, one of the most important works led by the federal government is to provide land tenure on quilombos to the descendants of escaped slaves. And in government itself, agencies have been established to deal with race issues. Beyond the federal administration’s creation of the Secretariat for Racial Equality, states and cities also are setting up offices to handle race issues. Activists from groups struggling for racial justice are managing them. "It’s a fact with two consequences: One of them is that for the first time, those groups have some kind of voice that can be heard. But on the other hand, the organizations have more patience now to wait for actions on behalf of the government," said anthropologist José Batista Ribeiro, from the University of São Paulo.
Success in establishing government agencies concerned with racial equality is partially attributed to collaborative efforts between Afro-Brazilian militants and international organizations. The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, is considered a watershed event in forcing Brazil to seriously discuss how to resolve its racial problems. One important source of information dispelling myths about racial disparities has been the comprehensive studies undertaken by the IPEA research institute. "This kind of effort—based on hard data, empirical evidence, and serious analysis—has helped provide an invaluable framework for discussions between government officials and civil society, an essential first step in the design and implementation of effective public polices," assert Luiz Barcelos and Rachel Menezes from the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S. policy analysis center.
While activists’ involvement in development policy is a major achievement, some worry that it could result in the movement’s cooptation. "I’m proud in seeing black people involved in politics, and I think it is a great opportunity to be inside the government,” says Batista, who recalls the time when only white people developed policies for black people. “But the movement lines cannot be erased because of that."
A major concern is the paucity of resources available for carrying out social programs, as in Ribeiro’s case at the Secretariat for Racial Equality. "A minister without a ministry and a secretariat without budget," Afrobrás’ Vicente calls it. "With the budget she has, she will not be able to do anything substantial." The Folha de São Paulo newspaper wrote that, after one year in existence, the secretariat had been able only to raise the issue of affirmative action in the country’s university system, yet had not taken any steps for it to become a reality. Finally, in May 2004, a legal measure was approved that allowed federal universities to use a quota system. The irony is that the document outlining the program did not come from the secretariat but rather from the Ministry of Education.
Two criteria can be used in the quota system, skin color and social class. According to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo , some universities have worked on a quota system but most have preferred not to implement one. Schools that adopted affirmative action policies have shown positive results. In the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the students who could afford being in university via the affirmative action program had better grades than those who did not. In either case, many Afro-Brazilians remain at a disadvantage when taking the entrance exam without having studied in an expensive preparatory course called a cursinho . An article in the conservative newspaper O Estado de São Paulo bluntly put it: "The quota system needs a cursinho."
The newfound comprehension of racial problems seems to have divided government representatives and reveals the challenges in promoting other social programs, such as in the area of employment. Fernando Haddad, a policymaker at the Ministry of Education, said, "We discussed and we cannot construct a quota system based only on race because that will just help the black middle class or rich." But Ribeiro and most Afro-Brazilians defend the quota system and other affirmative action programs. "Tell me where are the black middle and upper classes?” Sant’ Anna demands. “We have one or another exception who has ascended the social ladder because of some special talent, in general linked to sports activity."
Raquel de Souza emphasizes that blacks are entitled to affirmative action and other measures aimed at compensating for years of educational, economic, and political exclusion. "It is at least ironic that there is so much opposition to these compensatory policies for Afro-Brazilians because the history of Brazil provides evidence of white affirmative action particularly when white immigration to Brazil was being advocated and subsidized by the white Brazilian elite," she says.
Actions by Nongovernmental Organizations
Many progressive groups have taken the initiative in addressing the gap left unfilled by government initiatives. Batista notes, "In the university, things have also changed, just a little bit, but they have changed. Now we have blacks studying their own problems and trying to find solutions for those issues." One success has been the establishment of the Zumbi dos Palmares College by Afrobrás. The institution, the first designed to offer bachelor degrees especially for Afro-Brazilians, is named after a hero of the Palmares quilombo who defended it against attacks from colonial forces.
Establishing the university was no easy feat but was in fact easier than implementing quotas, since it did not encroach on the established privileges of whites. Financial backing for the Zumbi dos Palmares College came from state government, Unip (a large private university system in Brazil), and some others sources, including the American Chamber of Commerce. The key to the success of the program, however, could only come from the Ministry of Education, which had to approve contents linked to black history, identity, and foundations. After convincing the ministry, Vicente from Afrobrás then garnered support from the media. "The answer was positive because the institutions are controlled by white people and public universities were not the target of this kind of action,” says Sant’ Anna. “I’m not saying that what Vicente did is not a big thing. It is a huge thing. He is doing a great work, but the reason why he received such support is clear." Afrobrás is now searching for ways to establish a graduate degree at the school.
Another activist in the area of black education is Frei David. He directs Educafro, which gives cursinhos to prepare black students to enter universities. One professor of Educafro, Melissa Carnelos, said that "people want to go to the university, but it is too hard to work with them sometimes because there is a kind of inferiority feeling still. After discussing the issue, some students felt encouraged to go to free art exhibitions, as an example. They need to discover themselves; and last week we went to a recently inaugurated black Brazilian museum at the Ibirapuera park. It was our best class to date." Despite some shining examples of success, more widespread changes remain a distant dream. In the last campus census, the University of São Paulo listed only 9% of its students as blacks, while the official statistics institute IBGE estimates that almost 50% of the Brazilian population is Afro-descendant.

Tactics and Strategy

Activists and officials lobby agencies to enact laws that work toward racial justice.

Campaigns, protests, and debates raise awareness and visibility of discrimination and race issues.

Unique musical, religious, and other cultural traditions spread messages.

Nongovernmental organizations establish schools and universities for blacks to study race issues.
International alliances with other black activists throughout the African Diaspora aim to obtain resources, exchange ideas, and promote common agenda.

Collaborative efforts between black activists and international civil organizations can apply pressure on the government to address the problem of racial hierarchies in Brazil.

Persisting Issues
The Afro-Brazilian movement continues to struggle against many other impediments. One fundamental concern is health care: Not only do blacks lack the resources to obtain proper care, but they also suffer from deficient research and treatment of diseases prevalent in people of African descent. Many people, despite their white complexions, have African ancestry and remain susceptible to such diseases. "They took my baby and said they did not know what the problem was. After all the exams, the doctor told me he had falciform anemia, but he doubted the exam results because I’m white, and he said that it is a black people’s disease," declared Sheila Onorico, a white woman with black ancestors. "For the first time in my life, I started to feel outside the system. Almost no one has an idea of my child’s problem. Hospitals did not know how to proceed, and sometimes they asked me if my husband was black, but in an invasive way, as if I was breaking a rule." Onorico eventually did find treatment, but the problem perplexed her. "I asked myself: Why is it that a disease that has been known for some time has not been researched and obtained funding? I cannot help but think that this has something to do with color." Last year was the first time that a medical congress in São Paulo decided to discuss black people and the public health system.
Organizations such as Fala Preta! and Criola play a very important role in fighting racial oppression and prejudice in Brazil . These organizations focus their efforts on issues that concern black women in particular. Afro-Brazilian women have to endure discrimination based on their racial ancestry that is further exacerbated by sexism and class differences. These organizations deal with domestic violence, health care, reproductive rights, and related issues.
Another grave problem affecting blacks is violence. In Brazil ‘s poor shantytowns, called favelas , endemic violence results in barely one in three black men reaching the age of 19, according to historian Marcos Alvito. Media and policymakers discuss the rise of drug traffic and crime resulting from socio-economic exclusion. But the issues’ racial dimension gets short shrift. "The main problem is to admit that this is a racial problem. When black people are murdered by police forces, it is usually framed in the mainstream media, and even in academic and political circles, as violence against the poor or as a form of combating drug trafficking, and not portrayed as violence against blacks," says De Souza. She adds that official statistics are not concerned with the racial background of those who are victimized by urban violence.
Finally, outside of the favelas , blacks who obtain a degree of social mobility continue to face racism that is passed down from generation to generation. The socio-political and historical configurations of Brazil create a context in which lower class status is directly associated with African ancestry. The case of Sant’ Anna illustrates this problem. Despite living in a wealthy neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro , Sant’ Anna is mistaken as a maid and her children are mistreated by others. "People say to me that Brazil is not a racist country, but how can those other children offend mine if they did not learn it some place? And more, they see black servants being mistreated and consider this is normal," she said.
After 500 years of white oppression, change should not be expected overnight. Abdias do Nascimento, a former senator who has been an Afro-Brazilian militant for most of his 90 years of life, sums up the continuing struggle. "Blacks lack everything to obtain equality promised by democracy. Where are the black people? Only in the shantytowns, only in these police shenanigans because they have nothing: no work, no housing, nor effective health care, and no education that equals that of whites," he was quoted as saying by the BBC.
At the forefront of the current struggle of Afro-Brazilians is access to education, one of the main keys to more widespread social, economic, and political inclusion. Afro-Brazilians have played a major role in establishing Brazil as one of the largest economies in the world; it is only fair that they should equally reap the benefits of their participation in building the Brazilian nation.
Dayanne Mikevis is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo. Matthew Flynn is a freelance journalist and graduate student in sociology at the University of Texas, Austin.
Secretariat for Racial Equality (SEPPIR)
Esplanada dos Ministérios, Bloco A, 9º andar
CEP: 70054-900, Brasília, DF, Brasil
Tel: (55 61) 411-3610
Policy Evaluation Unit and Local Development Unit
SCN Quadra 2 Bloc "A: – 7 andar
Ed. Corporate Financial Center
70712-901 Brasilia-DF
Tel: 61-329-2043
Fala Preta!
R. Vergueiro, 434, 3º andar
CEP 01504-000 São Paulo , SP
Tel: 11 3277-4727
Avenida Presidente Vargas 482, sobreloja 203, Centro.
Rio de Janeiro , RJ, 20071-000
Telfax: (21) 2518-6194/ 2518-7964
Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra
Endereço: Rua Santa Isabel , 137 – 4º andar
Vila Buarque
CEP: 01221-000, São Paulo , SP
Tel: (11) 3333-3444
Rede Nova Abolicionista
Rua das Palmeiras, 90 – Botafogo – Rio de Janeiro – RJ
22270-170 – Brasil
Tel: 21 286-1441
Fax: 21 286-1209
Ministry of Education
International Human Rights Association
of American Minorities (IHRAAM)
1 – 5765 Turner Rd., Ste. 117
Nanaimo , BC . V9T 6M4, Canada
Telfax: 250-758-0449
IPEA (Institute for Applied Economic Research)
SBS – Quadra 1 – Bloco J – Ed. BNDES – Térreo
70076-900 – Brasília – DF, Brasil
Tel: +55 61 315-5000 – Fax: +55 61 321-1597

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Published by the Americas
Program at the International Relations Center (IRC). ©2005. All
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Production Information:

Dayanne Mikevis and Matthew Flynn
Editors: Talli Nauman, IRC
Production & Layout: Tonya Cannariato, IRC