Discrimination out in the open

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.

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
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
. 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

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

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.

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