Back to our cover

August 1999

Up and Coming

Yes, there are prosperous and even rich Brazilian blacks. And they are not just the successful soccer players and musicians. There are actually millions of them, working as lawyers, doctors, executives and businessmen, making up one third of the Brazilian middle class.

Émerson Luís

A recent spot aired on Brazilian network TV presented a man touting the excellence of Itaú, the second largest private bank in Brazil—Bradesco being the first. Nothing new there. Financial institutions have been selling their wares on the tube for decades. What prompted many viewers to do a double take was the fact that the actor making the pitch was black. Despite having a population that is half black or mulatto, one would never guess it by watching Brazilian commercials. On TV and in print ads models tend to be angelic-looking blue- and green-eyed blondes.

The fact that a big bank is using blacks to sell itself to the general public is further proof that the invisible black Brazilian middle class is finally coming forward and being recognized as an economic power. Appliance manufacturer Walita was the first company to use a black model on TV to sell its products. Its 1979 groundbreaking spot featured an interracial couple formed by a white woman and a black man. The most successful instance of a black promoting products on TV is actor Sebastião Fonseca who, as the spunky Sebastian, has been in a continuing advertising campaign for apparel maker C & A since 1988. Fonseca has become a popular spokesperson for the company which produces an average of three new spots a month, and he travels around the country promoting autograph afternoons at C & As' outlets. At its Internet site ( the company even has a game in which Sebastian dances.

A DataFolha study from 1997 shows that black participation in TV ads ranged from a low 4.7% on Manchete TV to 17.8% on SBT TV. Globo, the dominant TV network, with about two thirds of the total audience, had 13.2% of its ads featuring black people. For Haroldo Campos, editor of Raça Brasil, "while the market has awakened to the black presence the same has not happened with the advertising agencies."

Felipe Duke, creative director at ad agency Propeg, has an opinion that will not endear him to black activists. Duke says that it's time to rethink the way blacks are used in ads, but not for the usual reasons, such as their lack of presence, but because "a black when he sees another black does not identify with the product, despite the fact that he is watching himself. There is a prejudice against products intended for the lowest classes and blacks unfortunately are still part of them."

Those who have explored the market for black products have no complaints. "It's delirious, I made $800,000 last year and intend to make $2 million this year," said Antônio Carlos Moreira in an interview for weekly magazine Manchete. Moreira is the owner of Cravo e Canela, a pioneer manufacturer of cosmetics for blacks. Until recently these specific products had to be imported or blacks were forced to use the same make-up created for white skins.

Some figures that attest to the increasing black affluence: according to the IPEA (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada—Institute for Applied Economic Research), the number of blacks in the Brazilian middle class has increased by 10% in the last seven years; today blacks represent 22% of business owners, as compared to 10% ten years ago.

According to United Nations statistics, Brazil is the world's largest black country after Nigeria. In a country where reliable statistical data are a rarity it is no surprise that nobody knows how many blacks there are, and much less how large is the number of blacks who belong to the middle class. Big enough, however, to provoke some course corrections at Brazil's most important ad agencies. Big enough to deserve an eight-page cover story in mid-August in Veja, the largest (1.2 million copies) Brazilian weekly newsmagazine. A study conducted at the end of 1997 by ad agency Grottera Comunicação revealed that Brazil had a black middle-class of 7 million, with an average monthly family income of about $2,000. Grottera's purpose was to create a profile of the black consumer. Every month this population spends around $500 million in non-essential products, and has a total buying power of close to $45 billion a year.

The work was not as rigorous as other traditional research studies since the population sample researched was limited to responses to a questionnaire inserted in the magazine Raça Brasil, whose readership is not a representative sample of black Brazilian middle class. Of the 3,250 questionnaires returned, 1,500 were used for the study.

Luiz Grottera, director of the agency, takes to task Brazilian businessmen for not tapping this mother lode more aggressively. "The ignorance about black consumers show disdain by the companies. Wouldn't it be better to invest in products for these 7 million consumers here in Brazil instead of trying to sell more to the Mercosur countries?"

A 1997 study by DataFolha, the research branch of Folha de São Paulo, showed that the Brazilian elite was made up of the top 8% of the population. Blacks and mulattos, while constituting half of the total population, represented a mere 14% of the elite group. Separately, blacks represent 2% of this total.


Recent estimates about the size of the Brazilian black middle class suggest an 8-million-strong population ,or roughly, one third of the whole Brazilian middle class. If there is such a big contingent of well-to-do blacks in the country why is this crowd often treated as invisible? In part this has to do with Brazilians accepting their blackness. The concept of race is very flexible in Brazil. People who would be considered black in Europe or in the United States in Brazil get a variety of designations, some euphemistic, including pardo (the official designation for mixed race), mulato, mulato escuro (dark mulatto), mulato claro (light mulatto), and moreno. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso whom no one would call black, says that he has a foot in the kitchen, meaning that he has black ancestors.

While the "one-drop-rule" makes the whitest American a black as long as there is a black ancestor somewhere, a lack of precision in the Brazilian race classification makes the color question a personal choice, seemingly with infinite possibilities.

Two cases in point: IBGE's interviewers are instructed, when filling out census questionnaires to ask interviewees to state their own color. That has led to a profusion of tones, some of them stunningly imaginative but hardly precise or helpful, colors like "coffee and milk" or "baby brown". To the question "What's the color of your skin," posed to respondents in the 1995 study by Datafolha's—a subsidiary of Folha de São Paulo, Brazil's largest daily, with a circulation of some 400,000 copies—had more than 100 different answers.

In Bahia, where blacks represent about 80% of the population there are at least ten different ways to designate a black, sometimes with very subtle differences from each other. These descriptive words are more than just ways to differentiate colors, they also express the attitude of the talker towards the person he refers to.

So a black who has a blue tone to his skin is called retinto (re-painted) while dark blacks with straight hair are called moreno (brunet). Someone with a brownish-black skin is known as negro formiga (ant black) while escurinho (little dark one) is used to designate blacks who whites believe are decent and "know their place." Those with dark skin, straight hair and light eyes are called cabo-verdes. Mulato is the generic term for mixed-race Brazilians, but it designates mainly those African-Brazilians with big lips and flat noses.

Depending on the context, neguinho (blackie) can be offensive or very endearing when a couple (black or white) use it between themselves as in "vem e me dá um beijo, minha neguinha," (come and give me a kiss, my little darling). Negão (big black man) and negona (big black woman), on the other hand, unless used among friends is a provocation or insult.

There are several different ways to designate lighter skin blacks. A black with light skin and light eyes and yellowish hair is called sarará or sarará miolo if he is almost albino. Albinos are known as gazos . By the way, on Article 289 of Bahia's constitution mandates that every time an ad shows more than two people, one has to be black. On the books since 1989, the law has just recently started to be enforced.

Four Million

The first Brazilians, many anthropologists agree, came from Mongolia over the Bering Strait, as well as from Australia and Polynesia, some 20,000 years ago. When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil in 1500 there were about 3 million Indians; fewer than 300,000 survive today. Blacks were added to the racial mix starting in 1531, when the first slaves were brought from Africa. During a slave trade that would last more than 300 years, 4 million blacks mainly from Mozambique, Angola and the Gulf of Guinea would be transported to Brazil, a practice that ended only in 1855.

Miscegenation has been the way of Brazil since colonial times. Slavery was abolished without bloodshed in contrast with other countries in the Americas and without bad blood between masters and slaves. Interestingly, the majority of the new freed men stayed with their owners in their new condition with the same bonds of camaraderie and respect they had before the end of slavery.

Slavery in Brazil ended in 1888. Since their integration in society, blacks have been fighting to be visible and be accounted for. While their number has been increasing, census data suggest that their share of the total population is becoming smaller. While United Nations figures show Brazil as having the largest black population outside Africa, IBGE's 1991 demographic census establishes that only 5% percent of the Brazilian population, or 8.25 million people, are black. According to these figures, 50% of the population is white and another 45% is parda (of mixed race). "If we continue at this pace, we will soon have fewer blacks than France," denounced historian Wania Sant'Anna in an interview with Jornal do Brasil, a Rio daily.

Sant'Anna and several black activists would like a change of methodology. "We would like for IBGE to recognize the criteria of color, race and ethnicity as fundamental characteristics of the black population and to offer more statistics in which the race variable is one of the factors analyzed," the historian said. "The lack of such data distorts all the reasoning about the Brazilian reality."

Black activists also accuse the IBGE of inconsistency when it uses the term pardo to designate color of skin. They are worried that this classification may end up creating a huge category that is not helped by any government social program.

Ivanir dos Santos, executive secretary for CEAP (Centro de Articulação de Populações Marginalizadas—Center of Articulation for Marginalized Populations ) suggests a national awareness campaign so those who tell the IBGE interviewer they are pardo would start saying they are black: "A frank and open dialogue among Brazilians might lead the pardo population to present itself as black. We don't want to use a straightjacket, but we would like to see the pardos free to say, "I have this origin and have no problem recognizing that."

The next census is scheduled to take place in August 2000. The first census took place in 1872, during the regime of Emperor Pedro II, and the government has been at a loss to deal with the issue of race and color ever since. The population was then divided into slaves and free men. On that first effort to count how many Brazilians there were, skin color choices were white, black, brown and caboclo (Indians and their descendants). White, black, caboclo, and mestiço (mestizo) were the terms used to define color in the 1890 census. The next two efforts, in 1900 and 1920, didn't include an item about color.

In the first census by IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica—Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) in 1940, the questionnaire included three options for color: white, black, and yellow. In 1950, 1960, and 1980 pardo was added to these three colors. In 1970, there was no question about color. In the latest census, the one in 1991, another classification was added: indigenous.

Some changes are being studied for the 2000 census. One would be to include the questions of race and color in all the questionnaires and not only in 25% of them as has been done up to now. Another suggestion is to change the term used to designate a black person. Until now preto has been the used term. Blacks themselves have suggested the adoption of negro instead. Another change would be the chance for people who call themselves pardos to add if they are of African descent, independently of how many generations ago the African ascendant appears. But that might not work. Census tests revealed that few people wished to declare they are of African descent, even after having classified themselves as pardos.

IBGE's former president Simon Schwartzman believes that people don't admit to their blackness because they are afraid that such an admission would make life more difficult for them. "Social reality," Schwartzman told Jornal do Brasil, "is defined by perceptions. This is a question of identity that is self defined by the person. This is not a racial question, but a cultural one."


What does the black Brazilian middle class want? The same things as the white middle class, according to a study by ad agency Grottera. Twenty nine percent dream about buying their own home, 39% would love to travel, 43% are interested in buying or trading their car, 44% of them want to start their own business, while 54% want to make more money.

Better education is the key to the recent black advancement. The black middle class has a much better chance to go to school than their parents had. While only 27% of the parents finished high school this number has increased to 39% among their children. Thirty five percent of the black middle class has a college degree. Interestingly enough, it was during the military dictatorship that blacks were offered better chances to educate themselves.

Dulce Maria Pereira, a black activist from the leftist PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores—Workers' Party) told Veja in 1998: "It was the military regime that created the black middle class in this country, by opening public schools' doors to everybody and not just the white elite, as in the past."

Despite the headway made by blacks, they are conspicuously absent from high government posts and the military brass. President Cardoso, who as a sociologist has often written about the black plight, has only had one black Minister, none other than soccer legend Pelé, who after a mostly ceremonial stint at a Sports Ministry post has since left the presidential cabinet to take care of his own very busy agenda.

It's been said repeatedly that poverty and not race is the main cause for discrimination in Brazil. However that's not what statistics say. The illiteracy rate for blacks is twice that of whites. At the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) the largest and best Brazilian university, a laughable 1% of the student body is black or of mixed race. Up until September 1996 when the Ebony-like, slick Raça Brasil magazine was launched with an initial circulation of 300,000-copies, blacks didn't have a national or a recognizable publication to call their own. The magazine is still going strong, even though its circulation stabilized at around 100,000 copies a month.

Discrimination against blacks in many instances is not veiled and in some cases it seems the result of actions or inaction taken by blacks themselves. How else does one explain that Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, has never elected a black mayor, even though 80% of its population is black?

The situation gets even more perplexing when one considers that voting in Brazil is mandatory for everyone 18 or older. Celso Pitta, an unknown black bureaucrat, won the São Paulo mayoral race in 1996 only because he had a very powerful sponsor , Paulo Maluf, former mayor of the biggest Brazilian city.

and Chagrin

In his just-released book Coal to Cream, the Washington Post's culture editor, Eugene Robinson, who was the Post's correspondent in South America during the 80s, talks about his enchantment and subsequent disenchantment with the so-called Brazilian racial democracy.

Although based in Buenos Aires, the reporter used to make frequent trips to Rio. Sprawled on the sand under the Ipanema sun and surrounded by a seminude fauna seemingly oblivious of their own skin color Robinson, a black, believed he had found his racial Shangri-La. "The emphasis on the more mutable issue of color (rather than the rigidity of race) was at the heart of what I loved so much about Brazil—the absence of racial conflict," he writes. "There was no silent struggle going on."

This first impression, though, like many passions and loves at first sight, didn't last long. The harmony he saw, the American journalist would soon find out, was mainly the result of the silence and complacency of the oppressed. This reality was more acute in Brasília, the capital, where Robinson noticed that while cabinets were peopled by whites, garages and kitchen were crowded with blacks. His conclusion: black American resentment is a necessary evil, black Brazilian accommodation an unneeded harmony.

The Invisible

Under the guise of non-discrimination and political correctness, no one in Brazil seems to be gauging the advancement or the failures of the black population. The professional associations for lawyers (Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil), doctors (Conselho Federal de Medicina), engineers (Conselho Federal dos Engenheiros) all say they are proud of not knowing how many blacks or members of any other racial group belong to their ranks.

All of this makes it impossible for Brazilian non-whites to establish any official program similar to the affirmative action existing in the U.S., although there are still some efforts to achieve this, like a recent decision by a São Paulo Judge establishing that 25% of all models used in the state government's advertising be black. For blacks to succeed in the job market is much harder than for whites. It's believed that a mere 1% of the strategic positions in the work force are occupied by blacks. The bank industry is a good illustration of this reality.

According to São Paulo's Seade Foundation, while the average monthly salary for whites is about $400, a black hired for the same position would make less than half this amount (about $190). Another study by Ipea shows that whites have a 30% better chance of getting a job when applying together with a black, even if both have the same level of education and experience.

Another DataFolha study from December 1996, this one commissioned by the São Paulo's Bankers Union, showed that 87% of those working in banks are white and that 91% of the managerial posts are also in the hands of whites. Among workers only 2% are black and among supervisors a negligible 1%. Mulattos and browns make up 7% of the bank employees total. Since then, according to Dieese (Departamento Intersindical de Estatística e Estudos Socioeconômicos—Inter-Union Department for Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies) the situation has deteriorated further.

Neide Aparecida Fonseca, the Banker's Union director told Raça Brasil: "The banks' selection process is extremely racist and the few blacks who are approved work in the rearguard, in the branches basement We have one black banker for every 1,000 whites in the frontline." "Racial diversity only exists in the ads," says Fonseca. "The private banks have discovered that there are 7 million blacks in the middle class and started to use blacks in their advertising to win a share of this market."

Exame, a biweekly business magazine, had a hard time preparing an article entitled "Race and Career" published on its May 8, 1996 issue. Their conclusion: "The number of black executives is almost zero." The magazine contacted approximately 100 companies looking for blacks who had achieved success in their career. They found 12, but only five agreed to be interviewed.

Headhunters say they never hear of companies making restrictions about the color of their candidates. That would be illegal anyway. These same headhunters also recognize that very rarely, if ever, do they see a black being hired as a top executive. "The prejudice starts with the ads offering jobs, which ask for candidates with `good appearance,' this way excluding blacks," says Valdir José Quadros, director of Unicamp's (Universidade de Campinas) Institute of Economics. The term `good appearance' has been used in Brazil for a long time as a code word for "whites only".

For José Adir da Silva, coordinator of the Black Awareness Nucleus, a São Paulo group in defense of blacks' rights , there's been lots of talk lately, but little action. In an interview with the weekly Época he said: "We want quotas for blacks in the universities. This is something the government doesn't do. If 25% of the state of São Paulo population is black, why is it that less than 1% of USP's (Universidade de São Paulo) students are black? The current economic crisis acutely affects blacks, who are among the poorest. We, the black, continue to lead in illiteracy, unemployment and living in substandard housing."

For decades, blacks have been successful in some restricted areas like soccer and music, namely samba. Leônidas da Silva, Didi, Garrincha, Fio Maravilha and, of course, Pelé, are all legendary names in soccer. The same goes for Cartola, Pixinguinha, Ataulfo Alves in the music area. They are all from the old guard. With the exception of Pelé, being famous didn't improve their life style. Fio Maravilha, for example, ended up delivering pizzas in San Francisco and the sublime Cartola, who was able to record his first LP only at 66, was never able to move out of the shack where he lived before becoming famous.

It's a very different story today. Black soccer players command salaries in the millions. On TV there is a small but powerful team of very young black beauties who get top billing and no longer appear just as maids or cooks. They have names like Taís Araújo, Isabel Fillardis, and Camila Pitanga. And the top-selling musician in Brazil today is black pagodeiro Alexandre Pires, whose Só Pra Contrariar band sells three times more CD's than Roberto Carlos, until recently the unbeatable champion.

Last year, Camila Pitanga, 24, told Veja magazine about how exasperating it is to have people constantly chastising her for calling herself black: "No matter how much I insist in reaffirming my black roots, people always keep thinking the opposite. It's something very annoying and as terrible as the most consummate prejudice. They ask, why do I insist I am black when I am so pretty. This is absurd. It is as violent as if I were barred from entering a hotel or a restaurant because of the color of my skin."

Send your
comments to

Back to our cover