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Brazil's blacks battle myth of "racial democracy"
Posted: Monday, August 27, 2001

(Shasta Darlington) RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) - Dining at posh restaurants and strolling through upscale malls may not seem radical, but for Afro-Brazilians this is in-your-face activism -- aimed squarely at the myth of "racial democracy" in Brazil.

"The biggest cruelty we face is invisibility, the feeling that we don't exist," said Benedita da Silva, the vice-governor of Rio de Janeiro state and before that the first black woman elected to Brazil's Senate.

"We make up half of the population, but for the most part we don't occupy decisive political and social positions," she said. "We live on the margins, in the ghettos where people can't see us."

While many Brazilians argue that the country has been more successful than the United States in creating a multiracial society, critics say Brazil has ignored deep-seated racism for more than a century -- simply because racism was never institutionalized in segregation or apartheid laws as in other countries.

Activists are hoping a United Nations conference in South Africa this month will force Brazil to confront racism at home and will raise support for a wide range of proposals on better health, eduction and jobs for blacks.

In an effort to show just how absent blacks are from Brazil's upper and even middle class, activists have invaded locales where blacks are rare: exclusive Sao Paulo restaurants or shopping centers along Rio's beachfront promenades.

Joni Anderson, the owner of Agencia Noir model agency, has staged protests he calls "blackouts" outside fashion shows to demand more black models. He also rents limousines and sends his models to chic restaurants and theaters to make a statement.

"When a well-dressed black couple walks into an expensive restaurant
everybody assumes they're American. We want to alert people that this kind of racism is going on," he said.


The myth of a racial democracy in Brazil has persisted, however, due to the subtle nuances of prejudice and to the success of blacks in specific fields. Pele, the king of soccer, is by far the most famous Brazilian in the world, for example.

Blacks have traditionally excelled in music and sports, often becoming
ambassadors for Brazilian culture the world over. But at home they complain of police harassment and social insults.

Outside of Carnival season, black women accompanied by white men are often assumed to be prostitutes and black visitors to wealthy condos or high-rise office buildings are still often sent to the "service" elevators.

"Middle-class blacks exist and they live in condos, they just better not show up at the pool," said Ivanir dos Santos, president of the Center for the Articulation of Marginalized Populations.

In a bid to emphasize how few inroads have been made, Santos stormed a
fashionable Rio mall last month with dozens of black protesters decrying the minuscule number of black salespeople and shoppers.

"They say we don't sell, it's not a good image," he said.

Even attempts to appeal to Brazil's black middle class, like the foundering "Raca," or "Race," magazine, have not been very successful because blacks themselves avoid being pigeonholed, activists say.

Only 5.4 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as "black" in the last official survey while 40 percent say they are "dark-skinned" and 54 percent say they are white.

Brazil has one of the world's most progressive anti-racism laws but activists say the country has to take the next step, promoting integration and level the playing field for those who still suffer social and economic exclusion.

"It's not enough to have laws that prohibit, you have to have laws that obligate," said Santos.

In preparation for the U.N. meeting in Durban from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7,
delegates are pushing proposals that range from controversial quotas in public universities to work training programs and funding for research of diseases that plague the black community.


Almost half of Brazil's 170 million people are "Afro-descendants" but more than 100 years after the end of slavery, huge inequalities persist, according to the government's own statistics.

Unlike the United States, Brazil justified slavery on purely economic
grounds, not on racist arguments, creating the largest slave economy in the world to power its big agriculture and mining sectors. In 1850, Brazil finally agreed to halt trading in slaves, but didn't actually free slaves and abolish slavery until 1888.

"The gap between whites and nonwhites is the same as a century ago," said Alexandre Vidal Porto, a member of the government delegation headed to South Africa this month and an advisor to the Justice Ministry's human rights office.

"Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery. Maybe there isn't any formal segregation but there is a bias or handicap still faced by the black population," he said.

In 1999, Brazil's whiter half still earned more than double what blacks earned. While only 8 percent of Brazilian whites were illiterate, 20 percent of blacks couldn't read or write.

Still, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's administration argues that it has done more than any previous government to combat racism and that it is one of the few governments in the world to openly admit the problem.

In a bid to enforce Brazil's much-lauded anti-racism laws, Cardoso's
government installed anti-discrimination centers in 21 states where people can call in to report racism and hate crimes. The government also recognized the existence of racism in Brazil in a report sent to the United Nations.

But activists are hoping that the U.N. meeting will be a kind of catalyst for new "integration" policies.

"We are expecting a concrete measure from the government before we get on a plane for South Africa," said Santos. "We are hoping for something that will promote black education or jobs ... quotas are one possibility."

The government has resisted the idea of quotas but is still pushing for schools in former runaway slave communities known as "quilombos," funding for job training for blacks and training programs to promote blacks in the diplomatic corps.

"We have swept away the myth of racial democracy, now we're trying to deal with the legacy of slavery," Vidal Porto said.

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