Saturday, October 22, 2016

Whether it be Olympics or Anti-Corruption Marches, Race is a central question in Brazil!!!

Nitheesh Narayanan

Rafaela Silva won a gold medal in Judo for Brazil in the recently concluded Rio Olympics. It is through this Afro-Brazilian athlete that the hosts received their first gold medal in the 2016 Olympics. The success of Silva in Judo has been read as a befitting reply to what she had to face after being disqualified in the 2012 London Olympics following an illegal leg grab. She said, recollecting that event, ‘I was very sad because I lost the fight. So I walked to my room, I found all those insults in social media, they were criticizing me, calling me monkey, I got really, really upset, I thought about leaving Judo’. For many, especially those who are not from Latin American countries, who have heard of Silva’s experiences, wondered if racism actually existed in Brazil. There is this conception that the Latin American countries are free from racism. In almost all studies and briefings on racism, Latin America does not appear .But this is an erroneous understanding. Brazil, the most populous country in the region also has the largest number of African descendants of all Latin American states. In fact, Brazil has the largest African population in any country outside Africa. An analysis of the problem of racism in Brazil will shed a reality check on the prevalence of racism in Latin America.

Adam Stefan in his documentary, ‘Wide angle- Brazil in Black and White’, narrates different ways in which race matters in the country. The documentary starts by stating that there might be  racial harmony in Brazil, but this does not mean there is existence of equal opportunity. Timothy Mutholland, President, University of Brazilia, points that ‘the denial of racism is one of the ways which people fight against quota system’. He adds that ‘the university which must be for everyone is reserved for an elite white minority’. Universities are not the only places where experiences of racism can be documented. It is prevalent across Brazilian society. Two years ago, a huge debate was triggered in Brazil following the news that the singer Anitta used skin whitening cream. Two photographs from her past and her present showed that she had lightened her skin since she signed a contract with Time Warner. Jouquim Barbosa. The first black judge of the Brazilian Supreme Court, says, ‘Racism in Brazil is well hidden, subtle and unspoken, underestimated by the media’. It becomes crystal clear from the fact that 98.5% of the Brazilian judges, 99% of their diplomats and 81% senators of Brazil are white.

Looking at some of the data on the socio-economic indicators of Brazil allows us to further grasp the division that exists in reality. Findings on education will shed important light on this. Illiteracy among Afro-descendants is more than twice of that of whites. A factor being the underfunding of the public schools where the non-whites depend for their education. In 2000, compared to the 20% of whites, 42% of the Afro-descendants population had no schooling and only 1.41% of Afro-descendants had an advanced degree compared to 6.95% of the whites.  There were 23,5,5000 white students in Brazilian universities (78.8% of Brazilian university students at that time) while there were only 576000 Afro descendants students (19.3% of university students). A sharper decline occurred between 1991 and 2000 in the proportion of Afro-descendants students who are between 18-24 year age group in Brazilian universities. They fell from 16.7% of the student body to 15.9%. Despite intensive regional variations, the under-representations of people of colour in Brazil’s public universities remain a reality. The whites earn 2.4 times more compared to non-whites. In Salvador province, which was the centre of slavery the ratio goes up to 3.2. Life expectancy of non-whites is six year less than the whites. 

To understand why there is a skewed development among the different social groups in Brazil, it is imperative that we take a glance at the colonial and post-colonial political-economy of the country. The history of slavery in Brazil which lasted for ended in 1888. It was the last South American country to abolish slavery. Since then there has been no policies or legal provisions which directly discriminated against non-whites or restricted their mobility unlike the Jim Crow regime in the United States of America. No rights were denied to blacks and no racial hierarchy was legally set up by the state. But the policies framed by the state in the initial decades of 20th century nevertheless contributed to maintaining the division between different races. One among them is the ‘whitening policy’. It is an aggressive immigrant policy which provided subsidies and other facilities to the Europeans migrants to Brazil. The huge majority of the country’s population had already been filled by the outsiders, either from Africa or Europe, by then. Africans were brought as slaves by the European colonizers starting from Portugal. The whitening policy was also a major tool in modern nation-state making.  The development of racism has to be seen in close relation with the development of the nation state or the nationalist ideology. Etienne Balibar explains how both depend on each other for their existence. He argues in a way that it is inevitable for a ‘nation’ to identify itself with the ‘race’, because historical, political, cultural and other distinguishing factors of a ‘nation’ are ultimately subsumed under the idea of ‘race’. This inevitably leads to a nationalistic purism, an ideology that ‘we’ must not be contaminated by them. Two among the many examples of this are the Jim Crow and apartheid regimes in United States and South Africa respectively which were shaped by the nation-state. Baliber elucidates how an extreme sort of racist nationalism operated in the fascist Germany and in other European countries. Following the pattern, the nation making process in Brazil has completely neglected the needs of the blacks and continues to date without any major alteration.

There was a long period, following de-colonisation, which lasted almost one century in which the discussions on ‘race’ were conveniently silenced or sidelined in Brazil. The state advocated that in Brazilian society, race is no matter. Racial Democracy, popularized by Gilberto Freyre, is a term used to describe the society in which there is no discrimination on the ground of race and race doesn’t hold any significant position in socio-economic-political developments. Brazil was called a racial democracy and projected as a country of mixture of races with every one belonging to the ‘Brazilian’ race.

The demands of the black population were heard in an organized manner at several points in the 20th century. But no movement could actually sustain for long to grow up to the level of deeply influencing the political structure and redesigning of the social framework. Hanchard (1994) argues that the reason behind the fact that there is no sustained Afro-Brazilian movement like the civil rights movement in US or nationalist insurgencies in Sub-Saharan Africa or other parts of the world after the Second World War was the ideological hegemony, termed as ‘racial hegemony’, which neutralized the racial identity of non-whites, making mass mobilization close to impossible. Only in 1998 would official records register race. It had been denied till then, despite its existence in the society.  It was only in the Durban conference of UN against racism held in 2000 that Brazil officially agreed that there is presence of racial inequality in the country. This was due to the consistent pressure built by the black organizations and civil rights activists onwards the conference. About 300 black activists went to South Africa to put pressure on the government and also to attract international attention to the issue.

At the end of 2000, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the then president of Brazil spoke to the world about the reality of racial inequality persisting in the country. He traced its roots to the 350 years long history of slavery. For the first time in the state, he also declared affirmative policies to overcome this gap among its population. This started the quota system in higher education institutes and government services along with the setting up of official commissions to look into the matter. The succeeding governments of Lula and Dilma continued with these policies. If we compare interventions of different governments in the last 15 years, it can be seen that the government of Dilma has given the highest priority to these affirmative policies. Setting up of commissions and departments in both regional and central level, forming a separate ministry to deal with the racial issues, policies to strengthen the public school system and designing the universities with a more inclusive character etc were the major steps taken in these years. Still 15 years is a very short period for the impacts of these policies to be studied. There are enough signs in the Brazilian society that these policies are provoking a certain sections among the white population.

The process of impeachment initiated by the right wing opposition against Dilma Rouseff government in Brazil has become matter of debate on different counts. It was the allegations of corruption and campaigns around it which eventually led to Dilma loosing majority in the non-confident motion. The process of her impeachment has completed its half way so far. It is been clear that Dilma, individually she is not involved with any activities of corruption. Even the opposition does not take the campaign to the level in which she is being personally accused of corruption. The issue of corruption is not new in the political sphere of Brazil. There have been allegations of corruption regularly being raised in the polity of the country and many including Dilma’s several opponents are under investigation for corruption charges. It has never been ‘used’ to initiate the impeachment of a government until with Dilma Rouseff.

The scholars and activists have approached the ongoing developments in Brazil from various angles other than the central question on corruption. The racial question occupies major attention in this. The ousted head of the department for Racial and Gender equality, Nilma Lino Gomes called it as a racial coup. She points out that it is the affirmative action initiated by the government in favor of the blacks in the country which provoked the right wing. The workers party has received huge support in the 2014 election from the northeastern part of the country which is predominantly dominated by the non-white population. Dilma was seen as keen to adopt policies which will uplift the living statuses of Blacks and mixed race . The law of social quota which reserves 50% of the university seats to the students who have completed their studies in public schools is one of the few examples. It was also noted that the protest marches, demonstrations and gatherings which demanded the suspension of the Workers Party government saw participation mostly from the whites who comprise of 47% of the total population according to the last census conducted in 2012. With these heated debates race is no more a non-topic in the mainstream platforms of Brazil.

At the same time, the intensification of the racial conflicts also has to do with the worsening economic crisis in Brazil. Currently, it is going through one of the worst ever economic crisis since the great depression of 1930s. Obfuscating the real crisis, the rightwing is using the opportunity to line poor against on questions of race. These are challenging times for the Left and progressive forces in the county to resist this right wing coup while engaging with concrete realities. 

The author is a research scholar at the Center for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, JNU, New Delhi

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