Race and Blackness in Brazil

By: Thomas Desoutter
Associate Editor, Vol. 26

Brazil is a nation of 210 million people, sixty percent of whom are Black or multiracial. Many of the country’s most celebrated cultural traditions are rooted in the practices of Brazil’s enslaved people and their descendants. The most famous Brazilian of all time, the soccer legend Pelé, is Black, as are many of the nation’s popular cultural figures. With these facts in mind, it may surprise you to hear that Brazil never experienced a Civil Rights Movement and is currently governed by white supremacists. In fact, Brazilian society is and always has been thoroughly permeated by racist political policies, a racialized class hierarchy, and crude stereotypes. Americans often mistakenly view Latin America as a homogenous mass of mixed-race people who live in poverty but find solace in good weather. An exploration of Brazil’s racial reality could be very useful in dispelling that myth and providing a framework for understanding the country today.

The transatlantic slave trade brought more kidnapped Africans to Brazil than to any other place.[1] The Northeast region of Brazil was home to vast sugarcane plantations owned by a handful of Portuguese noble families. Brazilian slavery tended to be even more brutal than American slavery, in that enslavers made little effort to keep their victims alive, instead preferring to work them to death and import more. Today, Brazilians overwhelmingly reference “the Northeast” (O Nordeste) with racialized connotations: Black, poor, backward, superstitious.

Yet, many of the cultural traditions that we associate with Brazil are rooted in the traditions of the Brazil’s Black community. For example, some of the practices of slaves grew into traditions that are central to Brazilian culture today. The uniquely choreographed martial art of capoeira emerged from slaves’ need to conceal their collective martial training by disguising it as a dance. The national dish feijoada, a stew of beans, sausage, and pork, is traditionally believed to have its origins in meals slaves would create out of their owners’ leftovers, although this is contested.[2] The musical genre of samba, a syncopated style closely associated with the festival of Carnaval, was developed in Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro in the early 1900s, drawing on West African and Brazilian folk traditions.[3] The widely known genre of bossa nova is derivative of the larger samba tradition as well. The Afro-Brazilian syncretic religions of Candomblé and Umbanda still have a considerable active following in the Northeast.

Afro-Brazilians have a rich political history as well. During the period of slavery, those who escaped their tormentors established revolutionary communities called quilombos. One of these communities, called Quilombo dos Palmares and located near the northeastern city of Recife, had 30,000 residents and repelled Portuguese attempts to reconquer the land under the leadership of great kings like Zumbi.[4] The warriors of Palmares integrated capoeira into their warfare and maintained their independence for an entire century.

Despite these tremendous cultural and political achievements, Afro-Brazilians have been politically and economically marginalized since the very beginning of Portuguese colonization. Brazil was notoriously the last country in the West to abolish slavery, not doing so until 1888. Elite opposition to the imperial family’s abolition of slavery is actually cited as one of the primary reasons for the 1889 military coup d’état that replaced the Empire of Brazil with a republic led by the dictator Deodoro da Fonseca – a coup that historians consider contrary to the desires of the majority of Brazilians at the time.[5]

retirantes portinari
Retirantes, Candido Portinari, 1944

The abolition of slavery was not accompanied by any Freedman’s-Bureau-esque program to integrate freedmen into the new social structure. Instead, many former slaves were forced into horrific job-seeking journeys across the desert, memorialized in powerful paintings like Retirantes (“Migrants”) and books like Vidas Secas (“Barren Lives”), which figure among the most celebrated works of art in all of Brazilian history. The vast majority of northeastern land remains in the hands of a handful of elite white colonial families to this day. Scions of these families, notably José Sarney and Fernando Collor de Mello, served as uniquely unpopular and corrupt presidents in the modern post-dictatorship period, and actually remain Senators to this day.

Since the Proclamation of the Republic, Afro-Brazilians have been excluded not only from the political process, but from the national imaginary. Waves of immigration from Italy and Portugal in the early 1900s were facilitated in order to “whiten” the population, while the industrialization programs undertaken by the reformist governments of Gétulio Vargas and Juscilino Kubitschek in the mid-1900s were focused in the wealthy, majority-white southeastern state of São Paulo. This uneven development exacerbated the racial-geographic economic inequality that had already existed since the time of slavery. It was also inextricably linked with the legacy of slavery: the millions of immigrants from Italy (and later Japan) were exploited to provide the extremely cheap labor on coffee plantations that had been taken from enslaved Black people prior to abolition.

These policies and their consequences belie the myth of “racial democracy” that is often propagated about Brazil. According to that theory, tolerance of mixed-race marriages and the absence of de jure apartheid are said to prove that Brazil is a non-racist country. However, this myth has been thoroughly debunked. The richest one percent of Brazil’s population is about 80 percent white and the rate of racial intermarriage is negligible among wealthier Brazilians, while three-quarters of the poorest 10 percent are Black or mixed-race.[6] Rather than a racial democracy, the historical project that emerges is one of a white ruling class isolating itself while attempting to “whiten” the remainder of the population.[7]

Following a CIA-backed coup d’état against the elected leftist president João Goulart, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 that engaged in genocide of indigenous people as well as mass torture of dissidents. Goulart’s support for major land reforms and nationalization of oligarchic industries was one of the crucial factors that inspired the military coup.[8] The dictatorship firmly aligned Brazil with the global Right: the United States, the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, and right-wing dictatorships in Argentina and Chile. Above all, it vigorously opposed Cuba and the anti-imperialist efforts it supported elsewhere in Latin America and Africa. Because the dictatorship spanned the period of the Civil Rights and Decolonization movements, the dominant political culture snuffed out any possibility of a Black liberation movement at home. The Black musical icon Gilberto Gil was exiled to Britain, while others like Milton Nascimento and Jorge Ben resorted to concealing their subversive messages in ambiguous, metaphorical lyrics.

Even the Brazilian Left has failed to grapple with the country’s racial history. The mass movement led by former president Luiz Inácio da Silva of the Workers’ Party (commonly known as Lula) focused exclusively on economic class to the exclusion of race, likely due to the widespread denial within Brazil that racial castes or racism even exist there. Lula himself is white, as was his successor Dilma Rousseff. No person who identifies as Black or pardo (mixed-race) has ever been elected President of Brazil, and there is little expectation that this will happen soon. In 2017, Supreme Court judge Joaquim Barbosa (who is Black) took initial steps toward running for president, but quickly withdrew after a flood of death threats against him and his family. Indeed, there is a popular disdain for identifying as Black even among Brazilians who have a claim to that identity. For example, the soccer star Neymar, who has a Black father and a white mother, infamously rejected the label for years before a remarkable change of heart in 2020.[9] World Cup champion and Black rights activist Paulo César criticized Neymar’s initial stance, saying, “This is the difference between Brazil and America. Over there, if you’re black, you stand up and say you’re black.”[10] Anitta, Brazil’s most prominent pop star, tends to treat Black identity as a lever to turn on or off depending on her PR needs – specifically, she claimed Black ancestry for the first time in order to counter criticism that her video Vai Malandra engaged in cultural appropriation of impoverished favela communities.[11]

In 2018, the far-right authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in a landslide on an explicitly racist, sexist, homophobic, pro-torture, pro-dictatorship platform of political violence and open hatred. Bolsonaro has condemned quilombos, said that people of African descent are “not even good at reproducing,” and advocated sterilization of the poor. Despite his appalling views, polls suggest his odds of re-election in 2022 are at least a coin toss. Afro-Brazilians deserve better. Brazil badly needs to reckon with its racial history, but this unfortunately remains a profoundly uphill battle.

[1] Cecília Ritto, “Vergonha Ainda Maior,” Veja (Mar. 7, 2015), https://web.archive.org/web/20150313000755/http://veja.abril.com.br/blog/ricardo-setti/tema-livre/vergonha-ainda-maior-novas-informacoes-disponiveis-em-um-enorme-banco-de-dados-mostram-que-a-escravidao-no-brasil-foi-muito-pior-do-que-se-sabia-antes/.

[2] Wikipedia, “Feijoada,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feijoada.

[3] Wikipedia, “Samba,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samba.

[4] Wikipedia, “Palmares (quilombo), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmares_(quilombo).

[5] Wikipedia, “Decline and fall of Pedro II of Brazil,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decline_and_fall_of_Pedro_II_of_Brazil.

[6] Cleuci de Oliveira, “Is Neymar Black? Brazil and the Painful Relativity of Race,” NY Times (June 30, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/30/opinion/is-neymar-black-brazil-and-the-painful-relativity-of-race.html.

[7] See id.

[8] Wikipedia, “1964 Brazilian coup d’état,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_Brazilian_coup_d’état.

[9] Cleuci de Oliveira, supra note 6.

[10] Id.

[11] Dom Phillips, “Hit Brazilian music video touches nerve over race, sexist abuse and inequality,” The Guardian (Dec. 22, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/21/anitta-vai-malandra-race-sexist-abuse-appropriation.