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Research Globalisation Studies Groningen (GSG)

Op-Ed from Ana C. Rodrigues-Vasse on the racial injustice in Brazil

27 November 2020

On Friday, November 20th 2020, known as Black Awareness Day in my home country, Brazil, the country woke up with the news that a black man had been crudely beaten to death in a Carrefour parking lot by two white private security guards in the city of Porto Alegre after what seems to have been an altercation with the supermarket cashier. Whilst the circumstances of the death remain under investigation, a number of personalities including members of the country’s Supreme Court and civil society organisations expressed their sorrow at the loss of one more black life in Brazil. As social movements took the streets in antiracism demonstrations during the weekend resembling the #BlackLivesMatter struggle in the US, the irony of the day of this killing could not be greater. The Black Awareness Day is marked by celebrations of our ancestrality as a society whose culture and practices are a product of, among other things, the resistance of those who survived slavery. Moreover, the irony of this death sinks through Brazilian history and, for a part of it, re-emerges in the discourses of the vice-president Mr. Mourão who commented on the case affirming that ‘there’s no racism in Brazil!’, concurring with the entire presidential cabinet refusal to name the case for what it is: blatant racism!

Growing up in Brazil, I was hardly treated by a black doctor or dentist; at the university, there were no black professors; often at evenings I used to watch soaps with my grandparents in which all black actors and actresses were either criminals, maids or drivers. For an international audience, this picture does no justice to a country that exported music icons such as Pixinguinha, Paulinho da Viola, Heitor dos Prazeres and Elza Soares – our Brazilian Ella Fitzgerald. For Brazilians, this should make no sense either considering that more than a half of our population is self-declared black or brown1. The fact is that race and social justice in Brazil walk in opposite directions. In the wake of the covid crisis – which adds to the economic debacle Brazil experiences since 2015 – black and brown people suffered the hardest hit. Unemployment is now at 17.8% and 15,4% among black and brown people, respectively, against 10,4% for whites. Such evidences of structural racism are consubstantiated by the vulnerability of black people in Brazilian society, who are more prone to be exposed to urban violence, policy brutality, extrajudicial killings and mob justice.

In the last two decades, however, things were slowly changing. In 2003, a system of quotas was created to guarantee the presence of black people in public universities. The affirmative action was seen as an opportunity to reverse a deleterious trend at the heart of Brazilian education system. Black students attending poor-performance public schools were excluded from elite public universities, which represent the core of high-quality tertiary education. The first university to reserve 20% of places in its admissions tests for blacks was the Universidade de Brasilia – UnB for short. UnB was not a pioneer by accident. Strategically located in the country’s capital and with a long story of contestation, this university was conceived as a progressive institution, which in the past led it to being invaded three times during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Three years later, in March 2006, I was admitted at UnB for the first time. As the affirmative action was taking off, my class – the 2006’s Chemistry Bachelor class – and the hallways of UnB were progressively getting more colours. In the years that would come, we would hear that being admitted at the university was sadly not enough. Black people, mostly poor, were faced with enormous challenges to remain at the university. The claims of the traditionally political UnB’s student movements would be coloured with real-life stories of people who depended on students housing and university meals programmes to continue their studies. In the wanting consciousness of many young middle-class white students, this was a process of rehumanization – to paraphrase our immortal Paulo Freire.

Despite the achievements of seventeen years of quota system at UnB and its progressive expansion to all universities across the country as well as to the public sector, the system remains under ceaseless contestation. In a way, the success of the policy is the very reason why it often comes under fire. In the most recent years, after the election of Mr. Bolsonaro, the common discourse used to delegitimise affirmation policies, particularly racial quotas, is that racism is something that does not belong to the public sphere in Brazil. Advocating such view are the entire president cabinet, whose members refuse to acknowledge racial segregation as a product of the country’s history and the major underpinning of our social construction. Constantly, government officials resort to the long overdue ‘racial democracy’ discourse that many of us believed be left behind in the pages of Gilberto Freyre’s The Masters and the Slaves, a book written amid the political efforts to carve out the Brazilian national identity in the 1930s. In Mr. Bolsonaro & his officials’ discourse, racial democracy is merged with his traditional denial when confronted with reality, as in his widely reported callous attitude towards the covid-19 pandemics.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s denial of the vivid racism in Brazil is an additional proof of how uncommitted he is with the future of the country. Similar to his acts of irresponsibility towards the blazes in the Amazon and other environmental issues, his neglect towards racism posits him among those who go in the opposite direction of the common good to consolidate inequalities instead of combating them, to instrumentalize violence instead of nurturing a culture of peace. The murderers of João Alberto Silveira Freitas might have shared the same view at certain point of the assault. Looking at the repercussion of the case in the newspapers outside of Brazil, I cannot stop thinking of how naturalising views come to the fore. In a sense, it is usual to think that Brazilian racism is a consequence of some sort of ‘cultural underdevelopment’. However, reflecting back on my quarter of century living in Brazil, I know there is a significant part of the Brazilian society who continues to organise itself to fight against it, as it did so throughout the weekend after João Alberto’s murder. This part of our society certainly envisioned a different outcome for João Alberto’s life and for many other young black men and women across the country. It is in this moment of grief for many that we see the need for a global response: an antiracism alliance crossing borders to defend life in all its colours.

Ana Carolina Rodrigues-Vasse
Lecturer and Researcher – University of Groningen

1 Those are categories used in official statistics.

Last modified:27 November 2020 12.24 p.m.

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