Brazil’s Blacks Feel Bias 100 Years After Slavery
By MARLISE SIMONS, SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: May 14, 1988
The descendants of African slaves make up half of this vast and racially mixed nation, and the religions, food and music brought by their ancestors have molded a vital part of today’s Brazil. But many blacks feel they have little to celebrate today, a national holiday commemorating the day 100 years ago that Brazil abolished slavery and ended its era as the principal and longest-lasting slave society in the Americas.
Rather, advocates of black rights point to the overwhelming poverty of most black families and the open and hidden prejudice that stunts their lives. In the large cities, they call on blacks to shun festivities and instead attend protest concerts and join marches. ‘Basements of Society’
”We have gone from the hold of the ship to the basements of society,” said Zeze Motta, Brazil’s leading black actress and a longtime campaigner for black advancement. ”May 13 is not a big day for us.”
Across Brazil, which has the largest black population outside Africa, the centenary has nonetheless unleashed a burst of debates and prompted Brazilians to scrutinize the problems of blacks perhaps more deeply than they ever have before.
Exhibits, articles and new books are retelling the terrible story of how an estimated four million slaves were dragged here from West Africa to build the wealth of the Portuguese colonists. Between 1550 and 1850, Brazil attracted nearly 40 percent of the Atlantic slave trade, six to seven times more than the United States. Abolition finally freed the remaining 700,000 slaves in a population of 10 million Brazilians, of whom more than half were already freed blacks.
Most Whites Deny Bias.
Today more than 70 million of Brazil’s 145 million people are black or of mixed race. As discussions here inevitably shift to their plight, the attention is peeling away some of the layers of resistance that many Brazilians have against confronting a colonial heritage that has left class and color lines still sharply drawn.
Most Brazilian whites dismiss the suggestion that racial discrimination exists here. But blacks are virtually absent from senior Government, military and diplomatic ranks or among opinion makers and business executives. There is one Cabinet minister of mixed descent, and none of the country’s 23 state governors are black. Of the 559 members of Congress, only 7 consider themselves black, and Benedita da Silva, the first black congresswoman, said that only 4 of them are active in promoting the advancement of their race.
In recent weeks, the press has broken the old taboo against examining race relations. For the first time, it is being reported here that blacks eat less well, get less education, earn less and die earlier than whites.
‘Could Be a Turning Point’.
”May 1988 could be a turning point,” said Jacques d’Adesky, an economics professor of mixed ancestry who specializes in development. ”This is a moment of consciousness-raising. I think it will leave a deep mark.”
About 600 black groups have sprung up in the more liberal political climate of the last several years as Brazil has moved from military to civilian rule. With a variety of focuses, both political or cultural, they have widely varying strategies for change. In the Atlantic port city of Salvador, sometimes called the capital of black Brazil, where only 20 percent are white, many blacks have adopted the style and pan-African ideology of Jamaica’s Rastafarians.
In the months leading up to the centenary, there also was a surge of complaints about discrimination and abuse, a reflection, perhaps, of a greater willingness on the part of victims to speak out. At S O S Racism, a private civil-rights organization that investigates and publicizes cases of discrimination in Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Prudente, a sociologist, said many callers complain of police mistreatment, employers who pay black workers less than whites, or private schools that exclude black students.
One caller said that an elegant sports club regularly barred black nursemaids accompanying white children if they did not wear a ”nanny’s uniform.” Another told of a police patrol on a bus, making routine identity checks, that approached only the five black passengers.
In a notorious case reported by newspapers in March, a white doorman ”punished” a black maid, Vera da Silva, in an apartment building when she entered the main elevator instead of the service elevator. The angry doorman decided to teach the ”insolent black” a lesson and trapped her inside the elevator for half an hour.
These were small scenes, perhaps, on the ample roster of Brazilian social and racial injustices. What made them unusual is that the victims protested. Much of racism here, blacks say, cannot be confronted because it comes in ways that are hard to prove or fight. Although racial discrimination has been against the law since 1951, a subtle social code is still prevalent in Brazil. Job advertisements, for example, seek individuals of ”good appearance,” a euphemism for light skin. Less Tangible Than in U.S. ”How do you prove it was your color?” asked Rosenir Muniz, a historian and computer programmer. She said she had given up after 20 months of making telephone appointments for job interviews because the jobs would suddenly be filled when she showed up.
American blacks who live or visit here say that racism is less harsh and less tangible than in the United States, more hidden beneath the conviviality of Brazilian life. From the early days, white Portuguese colonists had children with black concubines. ”The Pilgrim Fathers brought the Pilgrim mothers, but the Portuguese at first came alone,” a Brazilian historian said.
Today, people of all colors blend comfortably in public places, team up at soccer stadiums and dance together at Carnival. But in the homes of whites, blacks are usually present only as servants or gardeners. One recent survey showed that 90 percent of all couples are of the same color.
Whites have adopted much of black culture. They eat African-derived dishes, share their music and find comfort in their spirited religion. All of this seems to bear out the saying: Brazil’s land is American, its facade Iberian and its soul African.
But Government statistics belie the widely accepted label that Brazil is a ”racial democracy,” the term that was first coined by the writer Gilberto Freyre and then widely adopted as official ideology in schools and successive governments.
In virtually every indicator of social status, black and mixed-race Brazilians compare poorly with whites. The most recent census, taken in 1980, said that nonwhites had an illiteracy rate of 37 percent, against 15 percent for whites. The life expectancy for blacks was eight years shorter than for whites.
This census, which for the first time used the categories white, black, mixed-race and yellow, reported that 44.5 percent of Brazilians are nonwhite. But researchers believe the actual percentage is well above 50 percent because many people of mixed-race descent often describe themselves as lighter than they are.
Some blacks have had outstanding careers in sports and entertainment, but most are unskilled or underpaid workers. There are no affirmative action programs.
In the last five years, according to Brazilian educators, there has been a small increase in the number of blacks attending universities. No new figures are available. In 1980, when 4 percent of college-age Brazilians were university graduates, only 0.6 percent of the graduates were nonwhite.
Black Women Said to Fare Worse
”When I finished there were eight of us,” said Mrs. Muniz, referring to the black graduates of the local university she attended eight years ago. ”We all knew each other.” Mrs. Muniz now belongs to the growing black movement and talks about the dilemma black women see.
”We want to talk about women’s problems because they are so much worse,” she said. ”The machismo of the black man is terrible. There are many abandoned women and children. But the overall problem of racism is so big, we are afraid to divide the movement.”
Another racially based problem is wage inequality.
Leftists and Government officials here have long argued that black concerns need not be addressed separately because they are part of an overall problem of class disparities that will diminish as the country develops economically. But recently disclosed census figures show that although blacks and whites who hold menial jobs earn about the same amount of money, the gap widens as education increases. Black doctors, teachers and engineers earn 20 to 25 percent less than whites. Black office workers make about half of what their white counterparts do. Black Middle-Class Movement
Analysts contend that such disparities help explain why Brazil is only now producing a black movement, led by the tiny black middle class.
In urban slums, surveys have shown that up to three-quarters of the residents say they do not suffer because of their race. Social workers explain that slums tend to be racially homogeneous, adding that slum dwellers are busy just surviving and take for granted the privileged status of whites.
”The realization that there is racism is growing because more blacks are getting educated,” said Mr. d’Adesky, the economics professor. ”When they get into the job market they find that the key is not the diploma but the skin color.”
The many new black groups still lack national leadership. Few blacks express faith in the legal system in Brazil, where laws are disregarded widely. In Sao Paulo, some groups are pressing for the rewriting of official textbooks to include black culture and history. Schoolbooks glorify the white colonists and explorers, they note, but say little about Brazil’s long history of slave revolts and the separate kilombos, or townships, created by runaway slaves. Palmares in northeast Brazil, the best-known kilombo, resisted white attacks for almost a century until soldiers destroyed it in 1696. Its last leader, Zumbi, has been adopted as the hero of the black movement.
Miss Motta, the actress, spoke the other day about the slow pace and the difficulties of change. She said that when the powerful TV Globo network finally agreed to have a black female lead in a recent prime-time soap opera, blacks saw this as a success. But opinion polls showed a barrage of angry reactions to the story of a rich young man who fell in love with a black woman, portrayed by Miss Motta.
”The racism was much worse than anyone expected,” said Miss Motta, adding that the series’ white author and male lead received many hostile phone calls. Finally, she said, ”The network asked the author to tone down some of the dialogue.”