Brazil: Race to the top of Rousseff’s agenda

Black and mixed-race Brazilians are shown in a new government report to still suffer from institutional racism. But that could eventually change if several measures currently being studied are implemented.

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Brazil has burst into the international spotlight in recent years, first through its growing reputation as one of the world’s major emerging economies, then through its designation as host of the 2014 football World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, and most recently following the massive protests that made front pages around the world in June. One theme that has continued to be mentioned in reporting on brazil – indeed it is probably hindering the first case and may well have helped cause the third – is its historic inequality, a problem that is not going away. I have written on it briefly on these pages, although there is so much more to be said about such a broad and crucial topic. However, inequality in Brazil has always been about more than just socio-economic differences; the issue of race has also played a defining role in the formation of the Brazil we see today.

The history and demographics of Brazil give a fairly comprehensive explanation for this: it was one of the principal importers of African slaves during the colonial era, and slavery was only abolished for good across Brazil in 1888, shortly before the end of the Empire of Brazil and establishment of the Republic in 1889.  Nowadays, some 51% of the country’s population identify as either black or mixed race, according to the 2010 Census, which showed white Brazilians forming a minority of the population for the first time since records began.

Picture courtesy of Bahia State’s Secretaria de Promoção da Igualdade Racial (SEPROMI – Secretariat of the Promotion of Racial Equality)

Nevertheless, the colonial structure of Brazil that was in place for centuries has left a lasting impact on the attitudes of some in society towards non-white citizens, who are subject to discrimination both in social terms as well as economically. In the words of President Dilma Rousseff recently: “We lived through a long period of ‘slavocracy’, which did not end with the abolition of slavery. Racism turned into a form of social stratification and is in fact what keeps this stratification in place. It is a social phenomenon and it places indigenous and black populations at the bottom of the pyramid”. As the demographic sector represented by black and mixed-race people plays an ever-bigger role in the composition of Brazilian society, there is a risk that continuing socio-economic disparities between white and non-white Brazilians will lead to a greater divide among this multi-ethnic society, and may even hinder the development of Brazil itself.

A study carried out by the Department of Statistics and Socio-economic Studies (Dieese), the results of which were released earlier this month, showed that the average salary of a black Brazilian worker (N.B., this study refers to the 51% identified as black or mixed-race in the Census as “black”) in the country’s main metropolitan areas is some 36% lower than that of other ethnic groups, regardless of the level of education received. These figures represent only a slight improvement over the past six years or so, with the earnings gap in 2006 being closer to 40%, or even 50% in areas such as Salvador, Brazil’s third largest city after São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The study also cited the example of a black worker with a university degree working in the manufacturing industry, who on average would earn R$17.39 (US$7.45) per hour, as opposed to a non-black worker in the same circumstances who would earn R$29.03 (US$12.43) per hour, meaning the former earns just 60% of the latter. Furthermore, it also indicated that the proportion of black Brazilians working in low-skill jobs is higher than among other sectors. The report names educational attainment gaps as a leading factor in the differences in career advancement and wage levels, with some 27% of black workers having failed to complete mandatory education (between the ages of 6 and 14) and barely 12% having obtained a university degree.

To many in the black rights movement and similar sectors of civil society, these figures came as no surprise, and only serve to back up what they have been claiming for a very long time. The coordinator of Brazil’s União dos Negros pela Igualdade (Unegro – Union of Black People for Equality), Gerônimo Silva, said “it’s common for surveys to appear during [Black Conscience Week] that prove what the black movement has been saying. There is a social apartheid and a post-slavery suffering that needs to be stopped”.

Crowds at a street gathering in Salvador, Bahia, on National Day of Black Conscience, on 20th November. Photo courtesy SEPROMI

Nevertheless, there is some cause for cheer looking to the future. Recently, the Superior Court of Justice ruled in favour of a new law that could see 20% of seats in Congress reserved for black and mixed-race Brazilians, and now President Rousseff, of the centre-left Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT – Workers’ Party), has sent a bill to Congress asking them to consider similar quotas for government and cabinet positions. Rousseff announced this initiative during a speech at the National Conference on Promoting Racial Equality, and assured her audience that it would serve as an “example” for public and governmental organisations, legislative and judicial bodies, and private-sector companies. She called the initiative the kind of “affirmative action” that is needed to do away with racial and social inequality, which she said was the bane of Brazilian society. “We can’t ignore the fact that the colour of one’s skin was and still is a driver of prejudice and discrimination against millions of Brazilians, against more than half of the population”, Rousseff said.

Quotas already exist in some of the country’s institutions, for example in public universities. Meanwhile, according to Rousseff three quarters of those who have escaped poverty under the government’s highly successful Bolsa Família social programme have been black or mixed-race, showing that there are at least some government-led initiatives successfully targeting this social sector and helping to overturn a situation where black and mixed-race Brazilians are far more likely to be caught in the poverty trap. The President also announced that she would create a sub-department within the Ministry of Health which would be dedicated to the wellbeing of Brazil’s black population, with this sector of society also being the first to benefit from the forthcoming programme of contracting foreign doctors and medical staff to come and work in Brazil, a plan that is aimed at helping to improve the lot of Brazil’s rural and poorest communities.

President Dilma Rousseff at the National Conference on the Promotion of Racial Equality. Photo courtesy of SEPROMI

The Dieese study showed that black and mixed-race workers are far less likely to reach positions of leadership, either within their work or in positions in the public eye, such as political office. The argument for introducing quotas such as those seen in post-apartheid South Africa is that the presence of high-achieving individuals from historically underprivileged social sectors can help develop role models, making success for future generations more likely. While quota systems can prove controversial for some, they are undeniably the kind of “affirmative action” identified by Rousseff. Moreover, not only are they an effective way of providing role models for black and mixed-race people to look up to, thereby helping them overcome societal barriers that have historically denied them the kind of social mobility essential for creating a more equal society; they also help to change perceptions of black and mixed-race people by the rest of society, a phenomenon that plays as great a role in maintaining racial inequality as any other.

Whether or not one likes the idea of introducing quotas, such a measure must be applauded as an honest attempt to correct one of Brazil’s most serious and long-standing wrongs.