Brazil’s unfinished battle for racial democracy

Brazil’s unfinished battle for racial democracy

The Economist

JOSILENE SALES’S career is typical of Brazil’s emerging middle class. She spent seven years working in a petrochemical plant, while studying for a degree at night classes. Having moved to a better paid job in marketing, she saved enough to start her own telemarketing firm in Salvador, a city in Brazil’s north-east, and now employs two other staff. Less typically, Ms Sales is black, something which sometimes surprises her clients when they meet her. “You just have to overcome this [reaction] with professionalism,” she says.

Ms Sales descends from the 4m or more African slaves imported to Brazil, many of them through Salvador, for two centuries the colonial capital. When the Portuguese first landed on Brazil’s north-east coast, on April 22nd 1500, they thought that the docile Indians they encountered could easily be put to work building a new colony. But the Amerindians were few in number, unwilling workers, and many fell victim to European diseases. The colonists quickly sought African labour for Brazil’s sugar plantations, and later its mines. Brazil would not abolish slavery until 1888.
Five centuries of miscegenation have blurred the racial boundaries between Europeans, Africans and Amerindians: today 38% of Brazilians call themselves “brown” (of mixed ancestry). Blacks are only 6% and Amerindians a mere 0.2%. Such racial mixing encouraged Brazil’s largely white elite to nourish a myth that their country had overcome the legacy of slavery and become a “racial democracy”, with no colour prejudice—unlike the strife-torn United States.

Displays of racial hatred are indeed rare in Brazil. Nor do Brazilians live in racially segregated areas. And in contrast to their counterparts in the United States, Brazilians of mixed race are likely to be seen, and see themselves, not as black but as white or brown.

But Brazil’s blacks do face prejudice. And though, or because, as Brazilians say, “money whitens”, the country’s deep social inequalities run broadly along racial lines. Brazil is still largely governed, managed and owned by whites. Blacks and browns are disproportionately poor, and find it harder than similarly qualified whites to get a job….

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