Brazil: Fighting for the Right to be Black

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"We're not Racists: A Response to Those Who Want to Turn Us into a Bi-Coloured Nation." So reads the provocative title of a recent contribution to the debate on race relations in Brazil, by Ali Kamel, executive director of journalism for the Globo media network.

In the last few years an argument has been simmering in the Brazilian media and academic circles about the affirmative action policies being introduced into higher education and the state sectors.

Discussion has mainly revolved around the validity and applicability of racial quotas for access to university courses. But this is more than an "academic" debate in a country where, by even the conservative indicators of the last census, nearly half the population - around 90 million - are identified as Afro-descendants, a figure exceeded by only one other state on the planet, Nigeria.

Brazil was the single largest colonial importer of African slave labour, and the last nation in the Western hemisphere to abolish the institution (in 1888). The political elite eagerly embraced the eugenicist, scientific racist ideas circulating in Europe in the late 19th century, as both diagnosis and remedy for the country's socio-economic backwardness. So, in a systematic effort to "whiten" the nation, preferential treatment was given to European immigrants, while black Brazilians were effectively excluded from access to land or to any but the most menial urban jobs.

In the 1930s these explicitly racist policies gave way to a new populist politics of social "integration". Industrialisation and social welfare reforms held out the possibility of social mobility for some in the urbanised areas. Meanwhile, Afro-Brazilian culture - or a selective, sanitised version of it, amenable to control and manipulation by the state - became celebrated as the mythical core of Brazilian national identity, epitomised by samba and carnival.

Any attempts by black or working class organisations to represent their own experience and interests independently of the state, or against its rhetoric, were met with outright totalitarian repression. The country's first black political party, the Black Brazilian Front, was outlawed in 1937. So the apparently liberal ideology of mixture, integration and racial democracy went hand in hand with violent hostility towards those who challenged their oppression in terms of race or class.

Denial of racism

The current arguments against affirmative action therefore have a long pedigree. For over 60 years black political activism and self-organisation have been denounced by the advocates of mestizo (mixed-race) nationalism as "divisive", as promoting the racialisation of an essentially non-racialised country.

So Kamel focuses his critique on the supposed imposition of an alien (i.e. US), binary racial model on a society that operates according to a different logic, that of the colour continuum, a democratic "rainbow" of shades and identities. In actual fact, his real agenda is a much more conservative one - the outright denial of racism at all as a determining factor in Brazil's "social apartheid". Because so many millions of poor Brazilians are white as well as black, Kamel argues, it makes no sense to talk of racial discrimination, especially in a country with no traditions of legal segregation, ghettoisation or race riots. The problem, then, is simply poverty, without regard to colour or race.

Volumes of statistical evidence demonstrating how Afro-Brazilians are blatantly over-represented, often by around 20 percent, in the spheres of unemployment, criminalisation, poor education and general deprivation, are summarily dismissed as irrelevant. But contrary to Kamel's assumption that race and class must be mutually exclusive categories, what this data actually shows is that they are inextricably linked.

And while it is true that in Brazil this oppression is less often expressed explicitly, in confrontational forms of public discrimination and violence, it does operate in other, more insidious ways. The pre-emptive silencing of black dissent, the tacit censorship of black political and intellectual traditions, and collusion in the invisibility of black identity are all examples. It is only now, in the 21st century, that black history has begun to be properly represented on the Brazilian school curriculum, and that the country has a museum worthy of the name, dedicated to the Afro-Brazilian experience.

Kamel suggests that the promotion of negro identity is no more than an act of "political correctness" on the part of an unrepresentative minority of activists and policymakers. He is really in denial of something more important - the emergence since the mid-1980s of an increasingly generalised, informal politics of popular self-organisation and resistance, to which anti-racism and the affirmation of black traditions of struggle and pride are central. We've seen this in the proliferation of cultural NGOs such as Olodum and Ilê Aiyê in Salvador, or the massive hip hop movement of São Paulo, or in youth and community initiatives like the Rio-based Afro Reggae.

This growth of a broadly popular social consciousness identified with the black experience is what really explains the increasingly political resonances of the term negro. It is not some "politically correct" racial policy imposed from above by the state. One of the historic weaknesses of the Brazilian left has been its failure to recognise the racial question as central rather than peripheral to the overall struggles of working people. But as activist Joel Rufino dos Santos argues, to "present the problem of the black as the problem of Brazil is the most radical way of fighting racism".


Dave Treece is the director of the Centre for the Study of Brazilian Culture and Society at King's College, London.