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Brazil's Racial Awakening

By Stephen Buckley, Washington Post, Monday 12 June 2000 ; A12

RIO DE JANEIRO - For most of the 20th century this multihued nation prided itself on what it called its racial democracy, in which tolerance and accommodation kept peace between groups despite the yawning socioeconomic gap between blacks and the rest of society. This vision of racial harmony made Brazil the envy of the world. And it was a powerful source of national esteem, especially when Brazilians observed the sometimes explosive racial resentment that has bedeviled the United States.

Today, in an extraordinary shift in how this nation views itself, Brazilians no longer deny the pervasive force of race in their society. Tugged along by a torrent of research, Brazilians have come to the startling conclusion in recent years that race affects everything, from education to employment to justice.

Blacks in general are burdened with disproportionately high rates of unemployment, illiteracy and infant mortality. And Brazil's poorest blacks are targets of racial stereotypes that often lead to extreme police violence against them.

In a poll released last month by the Center of United Marginalized Populations, 93 percent of those surveyed in Rio de Janeiro state said they believe racism exists in Brazil, and 74 percent said there is a lot of bias.

One result is an invigorated civil rights movement and the quiet emergence of race as part of Brazil's national debate over how Latin America's largest and most populous country can bridge its stubborn socioeconomic inequities.

Black Brazilians have begun to assert themselves more in daily life. Dozens of black organizations have been born in the past decade. T-shirts bearing messages such as 100 percent Negro are a common sight in cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Black hair-care products are being marketed for the first time. Black-oriented magazines have made their way to newsstands. Blacks now appear in television commercials.

No one today writes about Brazil being a racial democracy, said Livio Sansone, director of the Center of Afro-Asian Studies in Rio de Janeiro. Today, people will tell you that there is racism in Brazil, which wasn't the case 20 years ago. They think a racial democracy is a nice thing to work toward, or dream of, but no one would say that's the way things are today.

Black activists say they are frustrated that Brazilians still do not believe they could be racist. In the poll by the marginalized populations center, 87 percent of respondents said they themselves were not racist, even while large majorities saw racism as a societal problem.

So we're fighting an invisible enemy, said Ivanir dos Santos, the center's executive secretary.

In the latest, and arguably most dramatic, evidence of the importance of race in daily life, a report by the respected Institute for Religious Studies found that police in Rio de Janeiro's slums kill nine out of every 10 black suspects they shoot--nearly double the ratio of white suspects.

That comes as no surprise to people such as Ivanilde dos Santos. Nearly two years ago, police in the Rio de Janeiro shantytown of Babilonia shot her son, Wallace de Almeida, in the back as he entered dos Santos's yard.

Witnesses said the police, who had accused the slim, dark-skinned 18-year-old of dealing drugs, initially refused to call an ambulance. They called only after learning that he was a soldier. Their allegations against him ultimately were proved baseless.

They were just used to shooting people up here and getting away with it, said dos Santos, 41. He died because he was black.

Babilonia is one of dozens of crumbling hillside shantytowns in Rio. Nationwide these communities tend to be majority black--and they have come to symbolize the persistent economic gap between the races.

One recent study found that in Sao Paulo, the country's most populous state, blacks had the highest unemployment rate, rarely made it through high school, and were far less likely than non-blacks to work in jobs that paid more than $400 a month.

Nationwide statistics show that only 2 percent of black students ever make it to the university level, compared with 10 percent of whites. More than 50 percent of Brazil's blacks are illiterate, compared with 20 percent of the overall population. Black infants are almost twice as likely to die before their first birthday as are white infants.

In the past, majority opinion in this nation of 167 million people shrugged off such statistics as strictly indicators of economic inequality, not as evidence of racial injustice. But recent research, such as the report on Rio's police, has begun to question that conventional wisdom.

By comparing the fates of black and white suspects, the report removed economic status from the equation, said Ignacio Cano, the study's lead researcher. In the past, people said, black people, the country's poorest group, are more involved with crime, and so it makes sense that the police kill them more often, Cano said. What this data shows is that that's not true.

Race in Brazil, which in 1888 was the last country to officially end slavery, has always been a profoundly complex issue. It is a fluid proposition, made so because of the extraordinary range of skin color that is the legacy of generations of miscegenation, and because each shade has a different social weight in the Brazilian context. In the survey conducted by the Center of United Marginalized Populations, respondents chose to identify themselves in 10 different shades. The 1991 census found that 47 percent of Brazilians considered themselves black or brown; 51 percent said they were white. (Two percent claimed other skin colors.)

Brazil's range of skin color was once viewed as a debilitating defect by its leaders, prompting them to try to whiten the society by luring European immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But by the 1930s, Brazilian sociologists and anthropologists were hailing the country's racial rainbow as a great gift. Throughout the 20th century, Brazilians of all shades took enormous pride in the fact that their diverse nation held little of the racial tension that seared the United States.

Racial slurs were not uttered in public. Legalized segregation never existed. Hate groups were nonexistent. Racial democracy became one of the society's signature myths.

And yet black Brazilians remained the country's invisible citizens, a status blamed not on racial prejudice but on their economic status. In truth, said sociologist Antonio Sergio Guimaraes, Brazilians were in denial.

Years ago you never saw black people on television because the thinking was that they were associated only with things that were ugly or dirty, said Guimaraes, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo.

Perhaps no institution has denied charges of racism as vehemently as the police--who are among the groups most frequently accused. For years human rights groups angrily argued that police were more likely to kill black and brown suspects.

Complicating the conversation was the heavy presence of blacks within the police force; historically, it has been one of the very few avenues blacks could take out of the slums. Today they make up at least 50 percent of Brazil's military police force.

Black police officers rejected the possibility that racial stereotypes could taint their behavior. Black police discriminated against black citizens without even realizing it, said Jorge da Silva, coordinator of public security, justice and emergency services for the state of Rio de Janeiro. Today, da Silva said, the police have come to agree that we have a problem.

He said that police officials now emphasize human rights training in courses and field preparation, with special emphasis on better basic shooting skills.

Those measures do not salve the bitterness in Ivanilde dos Santos's heart. She has sued the police over her son's death, a move that would have been unheard of a decade ago.

He wanted something better for me, dos Santos said, standing in front of her house, where 100 percent Negro is scrawled on one outside wall. He wanted to get me out of this place. And they killed that dream.

Brazil in Black and White

The perception that Brazil is a racial democracy has been shattered of late, and most Brazilians believe blacks do face bias. Statistics on health, education and employment bear out that there are serious inequities between black and white Brazilians.

Deaths of infants before age one per 1,000 live births:

Blacks 62.3

Whites 37.3

A wide gap between blacks and whites persists in education

Years of schooling completed

Blacks 4.2

Whites 6.2

Pct. who had no formal education

Blacks 36

Whites 19

Pct. of adults who are illiterate

Blacks 50

Whites 20

Percent unemployed

Blacks 7.7%

Whites 6.6%

The Center of United Marginalized Populations recently asked 1,172 residents of Rio de Janeiro state whether they believe blacks face discrimination in Brazil.

Q: How much racism is there in Brazil?

A lot 74%

A little 19%

None 7%

Q: Do black and white Brazilians get along?

There are some problems 46%

Many problems 22%

No problems 32%

Q: Do you think the government has a special obligation to help blacks?

Yes 51%

No 49%

Q: Do you think discrimination keeps blacks from getting good jobs and from improving their lives?

Strongly agree 62%

Agree 20%

Disagree 7%

Strongly disagree 11%

Q: Do you think BrazilŐs educational system discriminates against blacks?

Strongly agree 37%

Agree 23%

Disagree 12%

Strongly disagree 28%

SOURCES: Center of United Marginalized Populations, Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics