Racism and Discrimination Brazilian Style

Has Brazil been able to create a racially integrated society? Some domestic and foreign observers would say so. But there is an increasing number of voices that dispute this. Recent polls have shown that while almost 90% of Brazilians say their society is racist only 10% admit having any racial prejudice. The lyrics of a song believed demeaning to blacks have provoked a national debate about racism and freedom of expression.

by Rosemary Gund

To be Brazilian has always seemed to mean more than mere nationality. Brazilians like to define themselves as a real race -- the Brazilian race -- result of a mixture of other primary races such as African, Indian and white, this one being represented mainly by the Portuguese. This exotic hybrid was supposedly the origin to a self-proclaimed "racially integrated society", where there were no fundamental differences or racial conflicts.

The truth of the matter is that this "myth" of a racial democracy is becoming more and more questionable and has been debated more openly showing the veiled face of racism and discrimination in Brazil.

The most complete scientific-journalistic study about racism is Brazil was conducted just last year by the major newspaper Folha de São Paulo and the Institute of Research Datafolha. Some of the results were very surprising: while 89% of Brazilians said they believe there is racism in the society, only 10% admitted they were prejudiced; but 87% manifested some sort of prejudice by agreeing with racist statements or admitting having had discriminatory behavior in the past.

According to the same study, black people also manifest prejudice against their own color. About 48% of interviewed blacks agreed with such statement as "Good blacks have white souls" and the like.

So the question that remains unclear is what exactly is the proportion of racism in Brazil and how it is manifested in our society. That is because explicit anger and hate are rarely present in the behavior of people towards blacks and mulattos. Racism in Brazil is so enrooted and subliminal that it becomes very hard to determine when it is manifested.

One of the most recent cases for the racial debate in Brazil has to do with the upcoming national mayoral elections. This coming November São Paulo might elect its first black mayor in 442 years. Celso Pitta, former secretary of finances for the administration of the current mayor Paulo Maluf, is in first place on the polls and his popularity has been growing continuously. This fact could be used to justify the non-existence of prejudice in Brazil if it wasn't for the fact that Pitta would be the first black mayor in almost half a millennium.

Pitta is not a common black person in Brazilian society either. On the contrary, he is the exception to the rule. He has an American diploma in business administration and is being backed up by a popular veteran Brazilian politician Paulo Maluf, the current mayor of São Paulo. But in reality, his conservative approach appears as the decisive response to his advantage in the polls so far.

"The population does not see in race an element of decision for the vote," affirmed Pitta on an interview with newsmagazine Isto É. But that was not the case of Brazilian senator Benedita da Silva. When she run for mayor in Rio de Janeiro, she was often victim of discrimination and racial jokes. "People made gestures imitating monkeys to me," she revealed. That is explained probably by the fact that she comes from a lower class than Pitta and of course is also a woman.

Even though racism in Brazil is by law considered to be a crime with no right to bail, cases like Benedita's have never ended up with anyone in jail. Because racism in Brazil is so subtle, it is easy to get it confused with other criminal offenses such as injury, calumny and defamation. Moreover, in Brazil, offenses of the like are almost always taken as mere jokes, like in the recent case of the Brazilian singer and composer Tiririca, who ended up having his song "Veja os cabelos dela" (see Rapidinhas in the September issue of Brazzil) censored because it referred to black people in a derogatory way. The song tells of a black woman who "stinks like a skunk." The song was censored and Tiririca, an illiterate circus clown from the drought-ridden northeast of the country, is being sued for crime of racism.

While that might seem like a just cause for many, for others it comes only to reaffirm the position of Brazil as a country full of contradictions and reveals the elite's hypocrisy towards the black people. Many believe indeed that Tiririca is a scapegoat, who did not offend blacks more than did many other popular songs that were Carnaval hits such as "O Teu Cabelo Não Nega" (Your Hair Can't Deny It) or "Nega do Cabelo Duro," (Hard-Hair Blackie) as was pointed out by writer Aguinaldo Silva. "In Brazil, it is no use the black movement, gay or lesbian try to reproduce American models The Brazilian black movement must find its own model," explained Silva to weekly newsmagazine Veja.

Hélio de La Peña, humorist of the TV group Casseta & Planeta, also declared to Veja that as a black he was not offended by Tiririca's song: "It is natural that people stink, independently of their race."

On the other hand, there are those who believe that the doing was offensive and that this kind of joke should not be permitted in Brazilian society anymore. For Milton Santos, a Brazilian geographer, the song attacks the images of blacks. "This song only reinforces the crises of self-esteem that blacks have It is important to involve all the Brazilian society in the debate about the country we want for the future."

Even though the debate is considered to be healthy and positive, there is the concern that the problem might assume absurd proportions. It could be said that some songs by the late famous satirical band Mamonas Assassinas which make fun of the Northeastern accent, the Portuguese accent and of gays, are also discriminatory and offensive. The difficulty is then to find the borderline, otherwise it would be impossible to conceive the amount of material that would be censored. "I myself make jokes about northeasterners and I'm from the Northeast. It is the kind of social humor that should be used without debauch," advised veteran TV comedian Chico Anysio.

Amidst the racial debate, surged the question of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. According to what jurist Dalmo Dallari told Veja, the lyrics of Tiririca's song "abused of the right to freedom of expression" as it was degrading to human condition.

The debate is still going on and appears to represent the beginning of a new era of questioning of the position that the black people hold in our society; a society in which the same individuals who affirm knowing racism exists in Brazil, deny being racists themselves.

According to a study conducted by CEBRAP, a Brazilian center of analysis, prejudice exists but it is so well dissimulated behind the myths of racial democracy that it becomes difficult the emergence of blacks as an organized group and also the tracing of the discriminative agent. Being so, it remains uncertain what kind of actions would be really effective to combat racism.

Datafolha's research confirmed this hypothesis. According to the results of that research, Brazilians practice what they called "racismo cordial", in other words, the individual always denies being racist himself because he knows it is politically incorrect.

Paul Singer, professor of Economy and a CEBRAP researcher, says that "Brazilians know that racism exists but do not approve it. They sincerely think others are racist but not them."

The truth is that there are innumerable cases of discrimination mainly against blacks, but not restricted to them. It can be affirmed that Brazil, far from being a society marked by racial apartheid, is also far from the much talked about racial harmony. Brazilian apartheid reveals itself more at the economic level. For example, according to data from Datafolha , even though the majority of blacks are employed, more than half of them receive less than two minimum wages ($200) a month.

The few black people who succeed reveal that they still face discrimination at every corner. The entrepreneur and engineer Adson Carvalho for instance, told a reporter of Folha de São Paulo that he was taken as a limousine driver at the lobby of the luxurious hotel Sheraton Mofarrej in São Paulo when he was staying there.

There are even more upsetting cases: The young black boy Luciano Soares Ribeiro who was run over by a BMW in the South of Brazil and the driver refused to help him because he assumed Ribeiro had stolen the bike he was riding. When finally taken to the hospital, the doctor refused to help him because they thought he would not be able to pay for the hospital bills. Ribeiro ended up dying with the receipt for the bike in his pocket.

This subliminal racism -- if we can call it so -- impedes the ascension of the black in the society. Black people have revealed that at a certain point they reach the famous "glass ceiling" and cannot reach any higher on the social scale. In Brazil, the discussion over whether American-style affirmative action should be implemented is still in its embryonic phase. The quota system is restricted to very few private companies, according the Datafolha's findings.

Last year, Paulo Teixeira, deputy representing the state of São Paulo, formulated a bill to establish the quota system in the state. After about three months the bill had been killed. Besides all this reconfirmation that the black individuals are at the margin of the Brazilian society, Folha's research has revealed that the great majority of blacks and mulattos denied having ever been victims of discrimination. That can lead us to believe that a mere verbal level, the racial integration really exists. But the facts reveal the exact opposite. Discrimination begins early in schools and extends itself to all areas of social life, including the Catholic Church.

José Maria Peres or "Dom Zumbi", bishop of the archdiocese of the State of Paraíba, affirmed during an interview with Revista Sem Fronteiras that of 400 Brazilian bishops only about five are black and what is worse, of 14 thousand priests, only about two thousand are black.

Priest Antônio Aparecido da Silva, also professor of Theology at the Catholic University in São Paulo (PUC), goes beyond and defends an alternative liturgy for Catholic rituals, where dance and music are incorporated in the sermons unifying followers and incorporating black traditions into the Catholic Church.

Brazilian President and Sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso has been very timid about this issue, but has recently created the Grupo de Trabalho Interministerial para Valorização da População Negra (Interministerial Work Group for the Valorization of the Black Population) under the coordination of professor Hélio Santos. Santos said that he believes that candidacies such as that of Pitta and of Benedita da Silva could represent the beginning of a process of maturation in Brazilian society.