Marielle’s Murder and the Death of Brazil’s Racial Democracy Myth

When Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman, was shot to death in downtown Rio on March 14, her killing moved the world.

Protesters took to the streets in New York, Paris, Buenos Aires and elsewhere, pledging to continue Franco’s fight against racism, poverty, inequality and violence.

Elected in 2016 after serving 10 years on Rio’s human rights commission, Franco was proud to be a black lesbian born in one of the city’s poor neighborhoods, or favelas. She used her power as an elected official – her “collective mandate,” she called it – to hold Rio’s conservative government accountable to its most marginalized residents.

Franco was particularly critical of the city’s ineffective response to a surge of murders and police shootings in Rio’s mostly black favelas. Local activists have deemed these killings “black genocide.”

As a black Brazilian lawyer, I can see that Franco’s assassination – a recognized political crime that remains unsolved – has ruptured the dangerous silence surrounding race in this country.

That seems to be making some powerful people unhappy. On April 9, a Rio city councilman’s aide was also murdered. His boss had recently testified to police in Franco’s murder investigation.

Witnesses say the shooters told 37-year-old Carlos Alexandre Pereira Maria, who is black, that he should “shut his mouth.”

Brazil’s Racist History

Brazil, where 54 percent of the population is black, has famously portrayed itself as a “racial democracy” – a society so diverse that racism simply cannot exist.

That’s a myth.

Black Brazilians earn, on average, 57 percent less than white Brazilians. They make up 64 percent of the prison population. Brazil’s Congress is 71 percent white.

Racism here goes back centuries. Brazil was not just a colonial slave empire – it was actually the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888. Before that, Brazil’s penal code imposed harsh punishment on enslaved people, including execution.

And when Afro-Brazilians finally gained legal rights in 1888, the government offered no reparations or financial support after 450 years of bondage.

In the 1910s, eugenics societies cropped up in São Paulo and Rio. Inspired by racist pseudoscience from the United States and Great Britain, these groups spurred a national movement to “improve the human race” by cleansing Brazil of “undesirable” blood.

Black people were top among the Brazilians that eugenicists proposed segregating from society, barring from entering the country or deeming “mentally defective.”

The racist underpinnings of the eugenicist movement would justify discriminatory practices in Brazil for decades to come. Brazil outlawed capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, until the 1950s. It also made vagrancy illegal, which criminalized homeless and unemployed black people.

Efforts at Equality

Brazil passed its first anti-discrimination policy in 1951, prohibiting businesses from refusing to serve customers based on race, a typical practice of that era.

Four decades later, in 1989, the black congressman Carlos Alberto de Oliveira pushed through stronger legislation that actually punished discriminatory business practices. It also extended legal protections to people based on ethnicity, religion and national origin.

The Brazilian government has since made several more attempts to promote racial equality. In 1996, it officially recognized and protected Afro-Brazilian culture and history.

A 2010 law aimed at redressing the wrongs of slavery ushered in a mild suite of affirmative actions. Today, Brazilian universities give some priority to black applicants and the government actively recruits black candidates for public sector jobs.

But racial bias remains potent. A 1988 survey in São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, found that 97 percent of respondents said they were not prejudiced. But 98 percent of people said they knew someone who was.

That impossible finding inspired the historian Lilia Moritz Schwarcz to coin the celebrated saying that, “All Brazilians see themselves as an island of racial democracy surrounded on all sides by racism.”

In 1995, 89 percent of survey respondents said they believed that racial bias existed in Brazil. Only 10 percent admitted that they held racist views. Results were similar in 2009.

Lethal Racism

This is “racismo à brasileira” – racism, Brazil style. Race is still a taboo subject. Nonetheless, as Marielle Franco exposed in her work, skin color dramatically impacts safety in Brazil.

Nationwide, 71 percent of the more than 60,000 people murdered in Brazil in 2017 were black, according to the think tank the Brazilian Security Forum.

Young black men in Rio’s poor favelas are far more likely to be among the hundreds shot each year by law enforcement. According to a report by Amnesty International, 79 percent of the 1,275 recorded killings by on-duty police officers in Rio between 2010 and 2013 were black.

Black women also live in a more dangerous world than white women. The number of black Brazilian women murdered increased 54 percent between 2003 and 2013. This happened despite a 2006 anti-domestic violence law credited with a 10 percent reduction in violence against white women.

So much for “racial democracy.” In purely legal terms, black Brazilians are equal to white Brazilians. But, in real economic, political and criminal justice terms, evidence confirms, they are not.

Breaking the Taboo

Still, the myth of racial democracy has endured.

A main culprit, in my opinion, is the country’s myopic focus on class. Brazilian policymakers and scholars consistently point to poverty and economic inequality as Brazil’s main social problems.

The predominant debate on class ignores race, gender and other salient factors that impact life in Brazil. It overlooks the fact that the majority of people facing poverty-related problems like gang violence, food insecurity, unemployment, limited access to education and homelessness are also black.

In my experience, Brazil’s strong emphasis on economic mobility also contributes to racism. As in the United States, many Brazilians believe that they live in a meritocracy. When black people struggle, white people may well think they just aren’t working hard enough.

Brazil’s conservative current president, Michel Temer, has done little to promote racial equality. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Temer assumed office in 2016 after the controversial impeachment of the left-wing female leader Dilma Rousseff. One of his first acts as president was to shutter Brazil’s Ministry of Women, Racial Equality and Human Rights. Then he appointed an all-white, all-male cabinet.

This, in part, is how Brazilian structures of oppression remain invisible, largely unchallenged and, for white people, easy to ignore.

Marielle Franco talked openly about race, violence and gender. It may be what got her killed.

But, in death, Franco’s message of equality has only grown louder.

Ana Míria dos Santos Carvalho Carinhanha is a lawyer and doctoral student at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original article here:


You May Also Like

About 8.000 homeless families invaded private lot in São Bernardo do Campo, São Paulo - Photo: MTST

In São Paulo, Brazil, Everyone Will Have a Home in… 120 Years

Once a proud symbol of resistance to racial segregation, a shabby square in São ...

Jair Bolsonaro | Jeso Carneiro/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Brazil President Bolsonaro Becomes Lula on His Way to Reelection

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro seeks to encompass Bolsa Família (Family Fund), the most successful ...

Brazil’s Bolsa Família: A Good Intention Gone Astray

Two months ago the press divulged the fact that Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program had ...

President Michel Temer in the Air Force helicopter - Beto Barata/PR

Brazil President Buys Time in Effort to Avoid Impeachment

A key coalition partner has delayed its decision on continued support, but Brazilian President ...

Protest against Temer in Curitiba, Paraná state - Lula Marques/Ag PT

If Brazil President Manages to Remain in Office He’ll Be Too Crippled to Govern

Demonstrators marched across Brazil on Sunday calling for the resignation or ouster of President ...

Grading Cardoso

Although José Serra is acknowledged to have done a good job as health minister ...

In Brazil, the Old US-friendly White Boys Are Back. And Obama Backs Them

Reports of U.S. Secret Service personnel procuring Colombian prostitutes and duking it out at ...

Jair Bolsonaro

The Rise of Jair Bolsonaro : Understanding Brazil’s Culture Wars

In the lead up to Brazil’s election second round, polls show far-right candidate former ...

Rio's samba school Unidos da Tijuca - Tomaz Silva/ABr

Rio’s Carnaval Celebrates Life and Blasts New President

Rio de Janeiro’s world-famous Carnaval celebrations officially began on Friday in the first festival ...