Color, Class, Culture

Comparing Race, Social Inequality in Brazil and the United States

Oct 08, 2003

Racial inequalities in Brazil and the United States bear striking similarities-from rates of incarceration to racial profiling to poverty. This subject has received increasing attention in both countries but, while Brazil's public has long endured the many societal problems associated with racial inequality, only recently have these problems become a part of public discourse in Brazil.

Last year, the Institute of Applied Economic Research published a survey of racial inequality in Brazil based on information from Brazil's census bureau, revealing the continuing significant gap in socio-economic conditions between whites and blacks. The monthly per capita income of blacks in Brazil is less than half that of whites. In 2001, 10.7 percent of the black population—who comprise 45 percent of Brazil's total population—was unemployed, compared with 8.3 percent of the white population. And, 63 percent of those living below the poverty level in Brazil are black. The survey also cited racial gaps in literacy and years of schooling. Overall social improvements have not impacted black communities in Brazil, but rather, the survey results reflect the growing social gap in society.

As racial inequalities became more acute, the previously hushed topic of race relations entered into public debate, but only recently made it onto the political agenda. In 2001, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso instituted quotas to increase black student enrollment at public universities, a policy that just went into effect this year. President Luiz In‡cio Lula da Silva, elected last year on a strong social agenda, has committed the government to making further progress. His agenda includes a pledge to increase the number of blacks in the federal government, reflected in the appointment of Gilberto Gil as minister of culture. Gil's appointment is significant because he is the first black man ever to be named to that post. Also, he is a world-renowned recording artist whose music transcends cultural boundaries—incorporating African, Jamaican, and Latin rhythms—and whose lyrics have often touched upon issues of social inequality and race.

Minister Gil participated via videoconference in an August 12 meeting at the Wilson Center that examined race relations and compared social inequality in Brazil and the United States. "The basic principle," commented Gil, "is that one cannot treat unequals in an unequal way. It's time to create affirmative policies able to address this issue."

The meeting, part of a program jointly sponsored by The Brazil Project and Brazil's Ministry of Culture, featured presentations by three public policy scholars—Liv Sovik, Debora Carrari, and Katia Santos—who spent the summer at the Wilson Center studying this very topic.

Police Brutality
Debora Carrari, who arrived at the Wilson Center this summer with her recently completed master's degree in conflict analysis from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, compared police behavior in Brazil and the United States, and investigated the structural mechanisms that help perpetuate racial inequality through discriminatory law enforcement.

"Police brutality cannot be exclusively explained by institutionalized practice," Carrari said. She cited three social factors that contribute to police brutality against blacks in Brazil and the United States: the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of blacks as criminals; increased drug trafficking; and the physical concentration of blacks in underclass neighborhoods (favellas, in Brazil) where they are more vulnerable. These neighborhoods, characterized by poverty and unemployment, have been a reality in both countries, Carrari said. "But we [in Brazil] have no public policy yet to promote economic and social inclusion."

In Brazil, Carrari said, police disproportionately victimize blacks, physically and verbally. Blacks in Brazil have a 74.6 percent higher chance than whites of being killed by the police's excessive use of force and 73.5 percent of blacks are stopped by police, compared with 25.3 percent of whites. Such racial discrimination by police, she said, undermines confidence in the authorities and justice system and negatively impacts family structures in poor communities.

Carrari recommends further researching the problem and developing public policies to address this injustice, including police reform, crime prevention and public safety programs, community development, and cultural policies that both foster self-awareness in black communities and help eliminate racial stereotypes.

Commentator Ronald Walters, a government professor at the University of Maryland, said that, in the United States, even though rates of arrest are higher for whites, 53 percent of the prison population is black, while blacks comprise only 13 percent of the American population. Walters highlighted the lack of legislation to address equalization of sentencing, as well as racial profiling and targeted policies, which are generally limited to black communities.

Afro-Brazilian Women
Katia Santos focused her presentation on Afro-Brazilian women and their struggle to gain access to education amidst social and racial oppression. Currently working on her doctorate in Portuguese, Brazilian, and African-American literatures and culture at the University of Georgia, she shared her story of triumph as a black female scholar in Brazil.

Determined to get a university education, despite not being accepted into public university, Santos took out school loans to attend a private university, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro—the only one offering the degree she was seeking in Portuguese—English translation. One of only three black students, Santos recounted feeling isolated and, at times, bore the brunt of intolerant comments by professors. But she also had inspiring classes and professors, particularly enjoying her women's studies classes, and stayed on to receive her master's degree in Portuguese literature. "I made the transition from a working-class person to a black graduate student with a working class background," Santos said.

A turning point came in 1993, when she attended a national conference for black students in Salvador, Bahia, awakening the activist in her. She continues to advocate racial equality and advanced education for Afro-Brazilians, and asserts that Afro-Brazilian women who are accepted into college need financial assistance to remain in school.

"I believe Afro-Brazilian women should be included in any decent agenda of public policy because, in general, they are the sole providers for their families..."

As a scholar, Santos seeks to discover ways to empower Afro-Brazilian women by examining literature produced by African-American scholars on issues related to black women. Santos added, given that black populations in Brazil and the United States are both derived from forced African diasporas, U.S. civil rights accomplishments could be used as a guide for Afro-Brazilians.

Promoting Racial Democracy
Liv Sovik, a professor of communications and cultural theory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, discussed the influence of popular culture on the formation of new identities and the resulting increased attention toward the margins of Brazilian society. She focused on Afro-Brazilians' demand for equality, which necessitates more specific policies designed to address social inequalities.

Sovik's research explores the impact of "whiteness" as an aesthetic ideal and a social determinant. She contends that social limitations stem not only from prejudice against Afro-Brazilians, but also from the elevation of "whiteness" to the top of the social pyramid. To remove "whiteness" from the top of the social scale, Sovik posits considering whiteness not in demographic terms, but as a social value that has a broad impact across all areas of society.

Although the self-perception of black identity has strengthened considerably in Brazil, Sovik does not believe this indicates that Brazil is necessarily headed for a dynamic similar to that in the United States after the civil rights movement. There are, however, similarities between Brazil and the United Stateswhiteness, for example, continues to be valued in both countries as a social and aesthetic ideal. Yet, the political and cultural challenge of dislodging "whiteness" from this ideal status is critical to fostering democratic race relations.

Summing up, Ron Walters said that both countries must encourage regimes that "promote, enrich and give citizenship of full meaning to all individuals," regardless of race, creed, or color. Walters noted that accomplishing these goals would expand the historically limited circle of democratic participation to the entire population.

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