As fans around the
world marvel at the skills of Brazilian soccer
players, they are also witness to the cohesion and harmony with
which the players, from different racial backgrounds, perform. While
this perception of racial equality fits neatly into Brazil’s ‘racial
democracy’, it fails to reflect the broader Brazilian society.
The Brazilian national soccer team is one of the great symbols of the country.
It has become synonymous with success, having won five World Cups, more than
any other nation. Consisting of black, white, and mixed-race players, Brazil’s
national team presents to the world a picture of racial harmony. But does
the racial harmony that seems to exist on the soccer pitch reflect the reality
of contemporary Brazilian society?
Dr. Ralf Newmark, of La
Trobe University’s Institute of Latin American Studies in Melbourne, Australia,
argues that it doesn’t. He points out that Brazil, since abolishing slavery
in 1888 (the last country in the world to formally do so), has perpetuated
this myth of ‘racial democracy’, whereby opportunity is open to all regardless
of race. "In other words, color is not an issue," says Dr. Newmark.
A snapshot of Brazilian
society by the Center of United Marginalized Populations in 2000 suggests
that ‘racial democracy’ is indeed a myth. The mortality rate for black babies
under the age of one was 62.3 per 1,000 live births, while for whites it was
37.3. 36 percent of blacks received no formal education, compared with 19
percent of whites. The illiteracy rate amongst black adults was 50 percent,
while for whites it was 20 percent.
Race relations in Brazil
were established during the slavery period, where blacks were cast in their
role at the lowest level of society, restricted to mundane and labor-intensive
Following the abolition
of slavery, Brazilian blacks had no formal barriers to impede their upward
social movement, unlike blacks in the USA or Australian Aborigines.
Despite this, the relationship
that had developed between whites and blacks during the slavery period continued
after abolition, thereby leading to a reinforcement of the status quo.
In The Negro in Brazilian
Society, Florestan Fernandes writes that formal barriers to block the
upward mobility of blacks were never erected. According to Fernandes, this
stemmed from "the perpetuation of the total set of patterns of race relations
that developed under slavery and were so damaging to the black man [and which]
occurred without the whites having had any fear of the probable economic,
social, and political consequences of racial equality and open competition
with the Negro."
Combined with this, Fernandes
argues that "the white did not feel that he had to compete, contend and
struggle against the Negro, [while] the latter tended to passively accept
the continuation of old patterns of racial adjustment."
Sociologist Gilberto Freyre,
author of The Masters and The Slaves, published in 1933, epitomized
the dominant view of race relations in Brazil. Freyre "developed this
idea of a Brazilian-ness, or a brasilidade, which reflected a noble,
tropical society," says Dr. Newmark.
Here is "this wonderful
mixing of races to produce an extraordinary tropical civilization, which was
what his thesis was. This is in fact anti-black, because was it does in a
sense, is it talks about a ‘whitening’ of the population. It talks about an
opposite of what you’d say would be black pride."
These race relations were
reflected in Brazilian soccer. In The World’s Game, Dr. Bill Murray,
Associate Professor in History, also at La Trobe University, points out the
racism that existed within the game in Brazil, such as Fluminense’s (one of
the ‘big four’ clubs in Rio de Janeiro) refusal to sign black players, a policy
which lasted until the 1950s.
Dr. Murray also writes
of a Fluminense player named Carlos Alberto, who was signed by the club despite
being a mulatto (of mixed African and European descent)a fact that had
escaped the club’s attention. In order to conceal his true racial make-up,
Alberto rubbed rice powder into his face, a superficial process of "whitening".
Another example of the
overt racism that existed in Brazilian football, as noted by Dr. Murray, was
after Vasco da Gama (another of Rio’s ‘big four’) had won the city’s metropolitan
league in 1923 and 1924 with several non-white players. Several clubs refused
to play against Vasco and went on to form their own league in protest.
Despite the racism that
existed in Brazilian soccer, the high quality of the black players eventually
forced a change in the attitude of the game’s administrators. "They had
to accept that by the late 1920s and certainly into the 1930s, they couldn’t
ignore the black players. They were just too good," says Dr. Murray.
In The World’s Game,
he writes that by the 1950s, Brazilian soccer was losing its racism. This
eventually led to today’s situation, where black players and those of mixed
descent are recognized as some of the best in the world, and treated accordingly.
Although racism in soccer
has been curtailed to a large extent, Dr. Newmark points out that sport is
one of the two areas where black people in Brazil are able to succeed, with
entertainment being the other.
Even Pelé, regarded
by many as the greatest soccer player ever, and who went on to serve his country
as Minister of Sport, "only reinforces the argument that sport and entertainment
are the two areas where you [a black person] can be upwardly socially mobile,"
says Dr. Newmark.
According to Dr. Murray,
Pelé, who married a white woman, was used to show how Brazil "was
the great integrated society". Another example of the limited acceptance
of Afro-Brazilians is musician Gilberto Gil, currently Brazil’s Minister of
The ambiguous nature of
this relationship between blacks and whites in Brazil can also be seen in
the historical weakness of a black consciousness movement. "I think this
myth [of racial democracy] has made that much more difficult. There have been
slight ones, but it’s never been a movement like in the US", says Dr.
A Frente Negra Brasileira
(The Black Brazilian Front), formed in São Paulo in the 1930s, planned
to unite blacks and mulattos. Despite having thousands of followers, the Front
received an insignificant number of votes, due in part to literacy being a
prerequisite to vote. Fernandes writes that "since the beginning of the
rights movements, all attempts to corner the Negro vote have always failed
According to Anani Dziozienyo,
author of The Position of Blacks in Brazilian Society, "the growth
of black consciousness is discouraged by the society’s refusal to grant the
black citizen the opportunity to realize his whole identity, including his
black self, by denying the significance which black development (political,
social and cultural) holds for him in particular, and for Brazil in general."
Dr. Newmark agrees, arguing
that whites in Brazil appropriated and sanitized black traditions, such as
samba, as a part of brasilidade. "What you have here in a sense,
is a sort of impotence on behalf of the blacks."
In a society where the
gap between rich and poor is so large, and where the majority of the wealth
is concentrated in the hands of such a small percentage of the population,
Dr. Newmark argues that class also plays a part in the blacks’ position. "The
racism is reinforced all the time by the class structure," he says. This
situation also results in the reinforcement of racial stereotypes.
However, the plight of
blacks in South America’s most populous nation does seem to be improving.
A number of organizations have been created since the 1990s, indicating a
new level of black consciousness. Perhaps one day, the racial harmony that
exists between blacks, whites, and mixed-race players on the soccer pitch
will indeed reflect race relations in Brazil as a whole.
1. Buckley, S, Brazil’s
Racial Awakening, The Washington Post, Monday June 12, 2000.
2. Dziozienyo, A, The
Position of Blacks in Brazilian Society, Minority Rights Group, London,
3. Fernandes, F, The
Negro in Brazilian Society, Columbia University Press, New York, 1969.
4. Freyre, G, The Masters
and the Slaves, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 1956.
5. Murray, W, The World’s
Game, University of Illinois Press, 1996.
It’s possible that Stephen de Tarczynski is currently living in a hole in
the ground in Western Australia’s outbackalthough he possibly isn’t
as well. Lucky enough to spend a few months in Brazil in 2002, he hopes
to return there soon. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.