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.
By Émerson Luís
A recent spot aired on Brazilian network TV presented a man touting the excellence of
Itaú, the second largest private bank in BrazilBradesco 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
(http://www.ceamodas.com.br) 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
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 AplicadaInstitute 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’sa
subsidiary of Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest daily, with a
circulation of some 400,000 copieshad 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.
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 MarginalizadasCenter 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
In the first census by IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e EstatisticaBrazilian
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
Dulce Maria Pereira, a black activist from the leftist PT (Partido dos TrabalhadoresWorkers’
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.
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
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 Brazilthe 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.
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
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 SocioeconômicosInter-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
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
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
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."