Racial Issues in Brazil
By: Dan Paladino
In April 1500, the Portuguese reached the coast of a country that we now recognize as Brazil . At that time, the use of the discovered land was not yet determined, but Portuguese settlers soon began to see the agricultural benefits that could be produced. As a result, the dependence of slavery became imperative in order to provide the work necessary to cultivate the land. Items such as sugar, gold, diamonds, and coffee became high commodities as the Portuguese continued to colonize. By 1555, colonists began enslaving native Indians forcing them to adopt new religious views and succumb to grueling working conditions (i). However, settlers began to develop a growing concern about the working characteristics of the native slaves. Also, two serious epidemics broke out in 1562 and 1563 depleting the Indian population (ii).In an attempt to restore the slave supply in Brazil , Portugal began to rely on the importation of Africans. By 1776, the largest diamond exporting area in Brazil , Minas Gerais had a population of 320,000 consisting of 50 percent blacks, 26 percent mulattos, and 22 percent whites (iii). It has been estimated that four million African slaves were imported from 1550 to 1855 (iv).
Slavery in Brazil lasted over three centuries, and continued long after it became an independent nation. Interestingly, the use of Indian slaves was outlawed in 1578. However, Brazil was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1888, which was twenty-three years after the United States . Brazil 's long history of African slave trade has led to extreme racial diversity that is easily recognized through simple observation. The chart below displays the population based on color in 1982.
Racial diversity is something that United States citizens are very familiar with, yet we generally determine race by the color of a person's skin. A person that may be viewed as a light-skinned black in the United States may consider himself or herself to be white by Brazilian standards. Also in Brazil , color may be determined by a person's physical appearance (e.g., texture of hair, shape of nose, lips, etc.) (vi).The picture below was taken in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro during the Brazil GST 243-IS course in January. After talking to some of the locals I was informed that the child in the middle is considered to be mulatto, while the other children are considered to be black. However, in recent years the general public, including the media, began putting the two groups into one category called afro-descendentes (African descendants) or simply negros (blacks), which is not intended to be a racist term opposed to our standards. Even though the term is not necessarily intended to be racist, many people who are being categorized together denounce the idea that they should all be viewed the same (vii).This leads into the problem of racial inequality in Brazil .
Slavery played a major part in shaping the history of Brazil . The only positive affect that it created was the great racial diversity that exists today. Unfortunately the diversity was followed by racial inequality. In 1911, the Brazilian delegate to the Universal Races Congress announced a plan to eliminate all African and mulatto presence by 2012 (viii). The plan was discontinued, but Brazil continued to have a long history of racial inequality. Many black leaders in Brazil feel that blacks and mulattos are being grouped together because most them fall in the same political and socioeconomic class where they are pushed to the bottom (ix).In June 2000, the Washington Post released the answers to a survey completed by 1,172 residents of Rio de Janeiro dealing with racial issues. When asked how much racism was in Brazil 74% answered, a lot. Also, 62% stated that discrimination keeps blacks from getting good jobs and from improving their lives. The article also mentioned that 36% of blacks don't have formal education as opposed to 19% of whites, and 50% of blacks are illiterate. In addition the infant mortality rate for blacks is 63.2% based on 1,000 live births opposed to 37.3% for whites (x).It is not proven that racism causes these conditions, but it is apparent that there is strong advantage for whites in these situations.
I have personally experienced the racial diversity in Brazil , and have made many observations dealing with racial issues. One of the biggest observations that I made occurred during our group's tour of the favelas, which are very poor communities that are literally built on top of each other. The picture below illustrates the conditions of the favelas. As our group was walking through the community it became quite obvious that the majority of the people who lived there were either black or mulatto. In fact, I found that there were more white students traveling in our group then white residents in the favelas. The children in the first photograph reside in a local favela of Rio .
Another interesting fact about the favelas is that many of them are located next to very rich areas along with predominant schools. However, the children of the favelas are not allowed to attend these schools. Even though a mere street separates some of these neighborhoods, the lifestyles of the inhabitants are worlds apart.
While traveling through Brazil ,I began to take notice that whites seemed to hold certain jobs. The picture below was taken at a bar in Brazilia. The two women and the man in the white button down shirt were employees at the hotel that our group was staying at. Even though we had a short stay in Brazilia, we became very good friends with them. They all consider themselves to be white, and the same can be said for most of the employees that worked at the front desk, or the restaurants of the hotels that we stayed at. Many of the black and mulatto hotel employees usually worked as housekeepers or doormen. Also, I noticed that nearly all of the sales associates at the high-end fashion malls were white. However, at local convenient stores the majority of the employees were black or mulatto. Other occupations that seemed to be held by a white majority were educators, police force, and politicians.
These observations are not based on statistics, however, the trend seemed to continue through out the major cities that I visited. I would also like to mention that every Brazilian that I met, no matter what skin color, had a very strong sense of nationalism. Although the racial struggle in Brazil remains evident there is still an extremely strong sense of unity among its citizens. Brazilians are very proud of their country, and I have to say that they should be. The three weeks that I spent there gave me a chance to experience things that I may never see again. In all honesty, the trip was one of the greatest events of my life, and certainly the best of my college career.
For more information on racial issues on Brazil you can refer to the works cited, or Anthony W. Marx's Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States , South Africa , and Brazil which is not listed.
The websites below also offer Newspaper articles dealing with issues such as affirmative action in Brazil .
i. Fausto, Boris. A Concise History of Brazil . Cambridge : University of Cambridge , 1999. pg. 16
ii. Ibid, pg. 17
iii. Ibid, pg. 53
iv. Mattoso, Katia M. de Querios. To Be a Slave in Brazil . New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press, 1979. pg. 40
vi. Nascimento, Elisa Larkin in Hamilton, Charles V. Beyond Racism Race and Inequality in Brazil, South America and the United States . London : Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001. pg. 510
vii. Ibid, pg. 512
viii. Ibid, pg. 514
ix. Ibid, pg. 512
x. Buckley, Stephen. " Brazil 's Racial Awakening," The Washington Post . Monday 12 June 2000 ; A12 < >