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Colour by numbers – race politics in Brazil

Por frombrazil
28/11/12 15:00

We had three “Black” days last week. One was irrelevant. Above, marchers demonstrate in favor of affirmative action programs for black Brazilians, and against violence.

By Claire Rigby

With odd synchronicity, Brazil’s first so-called ‘Black Friday’ took place last week. Held the day after Thanksgiving in the USA, it signals the start of the Christmas shopping season there, when bargain-hunters pack malls and sites in search of discounts in scenes that, at their most extreme, occasionally bear more resemblance to looting than shopping. In Brazil, the discounts ended up being confined to underwhelming online offers, and the day ended in disappointment.

The really important “black”-themed event last week was on Tuesday – Black Consciousness Day – the Dia Nacional de Zumbi e da Consciência Negra, which commemorates the anniversary of the death of slave leader Zumbi dos Palmares. Rounding off a year in which the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled class- and race-related quotas for university admissions constitutional, on Tuesday the Ministry of Culture launched a set of new grants for black writers, artists, filmmakers and other producers.

Around R$9 million ($4.5m USD) will be spread between projects to promote reading and support black writers, grants for films made by black directors or producers, and another 33 grants for art, music, circus, theatre and dance – plus ‘preservation of memory’ work to help combat a lack of visibility, and thus history, of black cultural production.

It’s an invisibility that extends well beyond cultural output. While announcing the grants the new Minister for Culture and veteran politician Marta Suplicy wrote in Folha: ‘Look around. How many black colleagues do you see in your office? At your club? At your children’s school? In line at the movies, or at the restaurants you frequent? Now notice how many black people are there in a service capacity.’

In the newsrooms of at least one of São Paulo’s major magazines that I know of, redheads have been known to outnumber black journalists, in a country in which more than half the population describes itself as black or brown-skinned.  ‘Prejudice is black people not having access,’ said Suplicy at the launch event at São Paulo’s Museu Afro Brasil. ‘It’s having talent and not being able to express it. It’s exactly by opening up opportunities that you break the barriers of prejudice.’

Positive thinking

Though they have the support of the ruling Worker’s Party, grants and quotas
based on race have inevitably generated controversy.

‘The type of affirmative action I’d like to see,’ wrote one commenter on a news item in Folha about the new editais (calls for grant bids), ‘is the implementation of a serious basic education plan in areas where the population is predominantly brown-skinned and black (and indigenous). There would be no exclusion – the white minority in these areas would also benefit – and much less racial controversy.’

Basic education provision is – as reported last week in a story by my colleague Vincent Bevins – in serious trouble in Brazil, where much of the public school system is locked into a seemingly insuperable, demoralising crisis, and where some studies consider just 25 per cent of the population to be fully literate. But if conditions in the ‘periphery’ – a widely used term for the areas of most extreme urban poverty – scupper the chances of huge swathes of their inhabitants, black or white, a disproportionate number of black residents in those areas exacerbates the racial divide, too.

Social debt

Evidence of the way those social and economic racial hierarchies came into existence, and how they have come to be perpetuated down the years, is easily gathered at São Paulo’s Museu Afro Brasil. There, the process and effects of slavery are laid out in a series of models, graphics and powerful exhibits. More than 3 million Africans were forcibly brought to Brazil, creating not only the immense riches that formed the backbone of the nascent Brazilian nation, but also an enormous ‘social debt’ (‘dívida social’), that has never, many Brazilians feel, been properly addressed – and on which interest, in the form of continuing racism, is still accruing.

The grants for black creators are seen as important enablers for the producers themselves, but almost equally for the example their recipients might set: for the knock-on effects of an increased visibility of black artists in public life. Does it help foment aspiration and access to better careers and mainstream cultural production if you have black writers, actors, artists, film directors visibly in place and thriving? Does it help if you have a black president?

In Brazil, one of the most visible figures in public life currently is Judge Joaquim Barbosa. Barbosa is the judge in the mega mensalão’ anti-corruption trial. On Thursday last week, in another big day for Afro-Brazilians, Barbosa was elected the first black president of the Supreme Court. – and is the first ‘recognisedly black’ member of the Court, in his own words. He was referring to two previous Supreme Court members, Hermenegildo de Barros (1919-1937) and Pedro Lessa (1907-1921), who were ‘mulato escuro’ and ‘mulato claro’, respectively, or dark- and light-skinned race. A more common term these days, or the more formally acceptable term, is ‘pardo’, although the word is rarely used in colloquial speech – ‘moreno’ is more common.*

Barbosa himself didn’t benefit directly from any affirmative action – the son of a Minas Gerais construction worker, the judge lodged in a boarding house and worked throughout his law studies in Brasília, as a cleaner and as a typesetter. But as Senator Suplicy put it, ‘I know that some black people manage to break through the barriers of prejudice. But it’s not the reality of the majority.’ In pure economic terms the numbers are enough to make that frighteningly obvious: in Brazil, in the lowest income bracket (those earning up to a quarter of the minimum wage), black men outnumber white men by a factor of 2.5. Black women outnumber the same poor white men by a factor of 6.


* In a major research project (the Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílios, or PNAD) carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE <www.ibge.gov.br>) in 1976, responders were invited to self-declare their colour or race, rather than picking from a handful of usually fixed options (on the most recent census in 2010, those options were branco, preto, pardo, amarelo [‘yellow’] and indígena). In the 1976 survey, more than 90 per cent of respondents placed themselves into one of six main categories (branco, claro, morena clara, morena, pardo and preto). The rest of the population described themselves using a Pantone arc of more than 120 colours, including (translations from Zona Latina < http://www.zonalatina.com/Zldata55.htm>): azul-marinho (deep bluish), bem-branca (very white), branca-suja (dirty white), café-com-leite (coffee with milk), castanha (cashew), chocolate (chocolate brown), cobre (copper hued), cor-de-cuia (tea colored), cor-de-leite (milky), cor-de-oro (golden), morena-trigueira (wheat colored), paraíba (like the color of marupa wood), queimada-de-sol (sunburned), regular (regular; nondescript), sarará (mulatta with reddish kinky hair, aquiline nose).

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