Blog 5-Brazilian Delegates Discuss the Historical Context of Race

Interestingly, Brazil’s group made an effort to distinguish their country from the others historically. Unlike the US, Brazil did not undergo a revolution. In addition, during the 1970’s Brazil experienced the early effects of globalization with the influence from Africa’s countries gaining independence and the civil rights movement in the US. Despite

However, only after the World Conference on Race and Racial Discrimination in 2001 did Brazil’s government finally implement affirmative action. Interestingly, despite the media’s poor representation of affirmative action, 60% of the population supports the policy, of course with support decreasing as the income level increases.   

Just as South Africa has the concept of “non-racialism,” Brazil must grapple with the concept of racial democracy.  Only during the 1970’s did researchers and intellectuals question this racial democracy and argue it is a myth, an ideal, but not possible. In addition, the researchers that began studying the race dynamics in Brazil were able to provide statistics proving that the poorest white was still better of then the poorest black person. 

Brazil’s problem right now is how to classify people by race. Since inter-racial people fall in between, with some labeling them white and others black. This makes affirmative action based on race difficult in Brazil.   

Angela Paiva also emphasized the great change that occurred in the 1980’s with all the social movement pushing for social justice and significant constitutional changes. These movements grew out of the end of the dictatorship that existed from 1964-1985. But only in the 1990’s did Brazil acknowledge that racism existed in their country.  The great myth in Brazil is that there is racial equality. 

Paiva goes on to examine two different policies implemented at the state and federal universities.  Some schools only have affirmative action for indigenous people. In state schools they have a policy for black and indigenous people. But a gray area forms for those who are black, disabled or unable to attend because of income.  

Jurema Werneck picked up on the difficulty of implementing an affirmative action policy applicable to everyone involved. After the Durbin conference, Werneck’s organization returned to Brazil and became a major player in the discussions trying to implement the results of the Durbin conference. As a result of the increased national attention, people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community as well as those in the disabled community began to join in the debate as well. 

In addition, the split in the white movement became more apparent. Initially, there were those who were silent, race does not exist, and those who were in solidarity. Now the debate revolves around those against affirmative action and those who defend quotas for their own interests.  In addition,  biology, or  DNA, has also complicated the matter of defining who is "black" and  fits the quota description. 

 Another speaker in the Brazilian delegation discussed the environment this public policy is being implemented in. In Brazil’s last official census, 67% of the Black population earned less then $180.00 (a month). As the speaker bluntly put it, to be born black means they have two times the chance of being poor compared to a white person. This condition is mainly due to laws implemented after Africans were freed from slavery in Brazil.  In the 1850 land law, for example, freed slaves and Blacks could not buy regulated land. At the same time, this law allowed European immigrants to come and create homesteads in Brazil. The legacy of this discrepancy means very few Blacks could accumulate property wealth.

Questions and Answers Session 

 On major question brought up by several participants was how can Brazilians claim that they share cultural space and yet still have racism in the country? Another participant asked about the condition of the Black intellectual scene in Brazil.  

One speaker addressed people’s puzzlement with the subtle form of racism in Brazil, which in some ways is harder to counteract then open racism.  Right after the abolition of slavery, the Republic claimed everyone is a citizen and that discrimination on race doesn’t exist. Yet, only 20% of the population was allowed to vote until 1930.  Legally, the Brazilian constitution does not recognize the issue of race.

In addition, one participant asked indigenous issues seems more acceptable for affirmative action.  Is it because it is not seen as a race issue or a sense of historical responsibility? The participant also asked how does class play a role. Why do more people rally around that when the class hierarchy seems normalized. And how does that relate to Black women being pushed off the
affirmative action agenda in Brazil. Ultimately this tied into the general question of identity and how to categorize people in Brazil in order to implement affirmative action policies. With DNA testing proving that people who look Black are actually 60% European, how can quotas be set or beneficiaries of policies be determined?

 Satish Deshpande addressed this concern by acknowledging that race can become a  soft issue. The more nebulous it is, the easier it is to say that the issue does not revolve around race.  In India, there is a fear of racial fraud in order to benefit from affirmative action policies.

Dr. Dora Bertulio acknowledged that in Brazil there is a subtle form of racism in the country which affirms Deshpande’s concept of soft race definitions.  In Brazil, people celebrate miscegenation in order to prove that racism does not exist and racial categories are unnecessary.  The DNA tests also re-enforce this concept that everyone is mixed and beyond racial categorization.  

Yet, race is still a factor in terms of treatment in society. As Dr. Bertilio notes, when a well dressed Black person enters an establishment, the person with them would have to justify that person as a lawyer etc. because of the inherent assumptions based on that person’s color. 

On a positive note, Jurema Werneck reminded the participants of all the national and media attention affirmative action has received since the Durbin conference. Suddenly, the issue of racism is a permissible topic. Programs have developed that offer Blacks and Whites a public forum to discuss the issue. Werneck ended the Brazilian delegations presentation with the understanding that affirmative action is new to Brazil and the foundation for discussion is just being established. 






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