This is the third in a three-part series on Afro-Brazillians. The other two parts may be found here: The Afro-Brazilian Story I: Black November and Zumbi dos Palmares and Afro-Brazilian Story II: Slavery, Identity and the Question of Racism
Link with Africa
Complex as racism is, Brazil has certainly made progress in addressing it within the last years. The close cultural relationship between Brazil with Africa permits drawing parallels between the country and some African nations.
The ethnic and religious intolerance that characterize countries like Nigeria for example, is not any less racist. How can it not be, when countries like Nigeria were themselves enslaved based on a colonial rationale that Africans were heathens, and geographical entities were arbitrarily and deliberately created in total disregard for humanity with the sole purpose of exploiting, dividing and ruling?
For many Africans, the very idea of being an African only occurs outside Africa where they experience their first true and vivid experience of African identity, often inflicted in the form of racial aggression.
The general tendency to treat the entire 54 countries in the continent as one country inhabited by Black people, who probably live in huts with wild animals, war ravaged and hunger stricken, is one of the many stereotypes created by the media. Indeed the very concept of Africa as a geographical entity with homogenous socioeconomic indicators is being questioned.
In an article in Financial Times, Nov. 1, 2013, Simon Kuper highlights the enormous diversity, not only in Africa but within African states themselves. His submission that newspapers like the Economist frame the commonly accepted narrative on issues involving Africa vindicates the perception that mainstream media works in setting stereotypes related to Africa.
Media narratives promote the idea that Africans have no history, or that languages like Swahili (spoken by 140 million), Hausa (54 million people), Yoruba (28 million) Igbo (24 million) etc., are lumped together and regarded as “African dialects.”
Indeed the size of Africa itself has historically been manipulated to suit colonial invasion and slavery. It is impossible, for example, to imagine that by 1986, Nigerian Wole Soyinka had won a Nobel Prize for literature. This is what Chiamanda referred to as the danger of single story, which was enough to incite the anger of author Franz Fanon in his book Wretched of the Earth, and in every rational human being confronted with the propaganda on the myth of African and Black inferiority.
Like the blindness to the African reality, racism is a consequence of an ideological legitimation of the colonial project (read white supremacy), as author Chinua Achebe wrote “If you are a colonialist, you construct a very elaborate excuse for your action. You say for example, that the man in question is worthless and quite unfit to manage himself or his affairs. If the worse comes to worse, you may even be prepared to question whether such as he can be, like you, fully human.”
Throughout the history of the world though, there has always been racism. From the harsh tyranny of Eastern Europe, to Congo, South Africa, U.S., Germany, Middle East, Spain and Italy, it has always been there.
However, as political commentator Noam Chomsky said, “racism developed as a leading principle of thought and perception in the context of colonialism. That’s understandable. When you have your boot on someone´s neck, you have to justify it. The justification has to be their depravity,” effectively denying them humanity.
Affirmative Action in Brazil
Perhaps the most debated issue on inequality that is also directly related to race in Brazil is currently centered on social programs and affirmative action that appear to favor Blacks.
Critics of such programs argue that everyone should have equal opportunity since theoretically they are of the same capacity arguing that Blacks are poor only because they are at the bottom of pyramid in a society that is stratified by class and not race. They further posit that since many white Brazilians of the same class suffer similar misery as the Blacks, affirmative action is discriminatory.
However, many disagree, submitting that the disparity based on skin color can only be explained by racism, arguing that Black people, as a social group, were historically meted with the injustice of slavery and have never had any kind of privilege, unlike the beneficiaries the “whitening” policy.
The adoption of affirmative action is clearly one of the many American influences that have been gripping Brazil in the last decades. Experts in sociology predict that this inequality is reversible by systematic affirmative action policies, while the actual racism can be addressed by stronger legal actions.
Another example is seen in Bolsa Familia, an innovative social initiative that ensures that Brazilian poor families with children receive U. S. $35 monthly in return for committing to keep their children in school and taking them for regular health checks. By default, majority of beneficiaries of this program are Black.
Although critics fault the system, data from the World Bank indicate that reduction in current poverty is linked to the program. Indeed the Brazilian Research Institute for Applied Economics recently reported that Bolsa Familia was responsible for 28 percent of the total reduction of poverty in the country between 2002 and 2012, with the number of poor living on less than $32 a month decreasing from 8.8 percent to 3.6 percent. Indeed, 12 percent of beneficiaries of Bolsa Familia are already sufficiently empowered to give up the benefit.
Already, countries like Egypt, Ghana, India, and Turkey are adopting the model. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that,New York City has adopted the policy as well. The same trend is expected with the implementation of quota system in schools and government jobs. Proponents of affirmative actions and commentators that are often at loggerheads with those who insist there is no racism.
Such denial, as Jay Smooth puts it, “Diminishes the experience of Black people and an opportunity to learn more about the experience of racism from them is lost when their experience is minimized by trying to make it comparable or less painful than others.”
Even as the superficial impression is that discrimination is based on class, the darker you are, the less opportunity you have to attend school and therefore get a job, the more you have to worry about being treated as a potential criminal by the public or as over-sexualized female by advertisement agents and their consumers.
Proponents further argue that teenage pregnancy, drug problems and criminality are a result of people underserved by its government, and that is what the quota system is trying to address.
Every young male Black Brazilian, is about four times more likely to be killed than his white counterpart and that should certainly be of concern in any society. A parallel that can help in understanding better and addressing the violence among young Black Brazilians may be found in Tom Burrell´s book Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, even though it is based on the American model.
The changing trend
Today, the era of social media is providing platforms for open discussions on delicate issues like Black identity, inequality, racism, misogyny, homophobia etc. Alternative media is bringing many closer to reality as more historical distortions are being discovered.
Today for example, many Americans no longer celebrate Columbus Day because, as Dr. Jack Weatherford, an American anthropologist and ethnographer said, by doing so, they celebrate a man “who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history.”
We also have the likes of Dr. Chinweizu Ibekwe highlighting a hitherto largely ignored process of forced “Arabization” and anti-African genocide that has been taking place across Northern Africa for hundreds of years and now in sub-Saharan Africa, with devastating consequences, like the madness of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.
Brazilians of African descent are demanding racial equality in the political and economic domains of the broader society under several different groups. It is encouraging seeing many Brazilians engaging in meaningful debates on discrimination of all kind. When a popular powerful evangelical pastor recently tweeted highly racist and homophobic tirades, practically the entire country rose against him. Indeed Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff herself personally apologized to the offended Cuban doctors in a state reception organized in their honor.
The contagious Brazilian general warmth and hospitality that echoes the African tradition, is certainly an important factor that has been cementing the different groups in Brazil. Perhaps in recognition of the enormous benefits of retracing the Brazilian African roots, former president Luiz Inacia Lula da Silva has been at the forefront in the campaign against reduction of inequality among all groups in Brazil and establishing greater cultural and economic ties with African nations, clearly setting an example to African leaders.
In the city of Redenção of Ceara state for example, University of International Integration of Lusophone and Afro-Brazil (Unilab) was established. The unmistakable symbolism in the choice of the city is the fact it was the first town to abolish slavery in Brazil.
The fact that Brazil produced Justice Joaquim Barbosa, a Black man from Paracatu of Minas Gerias, who rose to become the current president of the country´s supreme court, at a time when there was no quota system, is a rebuttal of the Black inferiority myth.
As one professor often says, “all you need for excellence to emerge is the right system of selection” by offering the right opportunity. When James Watson, the co-discoverer of double helical structure of DNA, told The Sunday Times, a British Newspaper in 2007, that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really,” he was merely narrating that single-sided story while roping on the old racist colonial propaganda that seeks to justify white supremacy.
His subsequent apology and denial of having implied genetic superiority were a mere obfuscation to make his racism harder to identify. Long before him, other “respected scholars”, including Ibn Khaldum, a Muslim scholar, made even more racist remarks.
But science teaches us that all human beings are organic creatures with capacities that have scope and limits linked to each other that ultimately determine what kind of cognitive creatures they are. It is what gives them, as people of different color, sex, orientation, background, culture and geography, the capacity to explore and create in a certain ways but not necessarily in others. Biologically, we are all distinct as individuals and race is a completely discredited concept. However, when next you feel prejudiced against someone different, remember they are human, like you.
Brazil will continue debating and talking openly about race, problematic as the definition of the term is, since it is a scientifically erroneous categorization system. This is even more so in such a seemingly racism-free mixed nation. While it is biologically impossible to categorize members of the same species in to race, it is however a social reality because many do face racism.
Science, critical thinking and skepticism will continue to expose our self-serving bias and illusionary optimism and help in leading us to true knowledge for understanding the human condition. The fact that the journalist of the Cuban housemaid fame is from a region that is itself, subject to prejudice and discrimination by other regions within Brazil, shows how difficult it is to first admit, and then overcome self-serving bias often inspired by in-group bias which makes us perceive our group favorably while rejecting or hating others based on superficiality.
Brazilians never had iconic civil right movements’ leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but they don’t not need a ridiculous Morgan Freeman 30-second video asking them to forget about Black Consciousness Day (or month), much less CNN´s Don Lemon ‘s “how not to be Black.”
Not talking about a thing has never been known to make it go away. Even as it emerges as one of the leading economies, surpassing countries like U.K., perhaps the biggest Brazilian challenge is bridging the gap of inequality between the rich and the poor, which, clearly has some racial implication. By lifting 3.5 million people out of poverty and more than a million out of extreme poverty in 2012, Brazil has demonstrated that it can attain economic prosperity that addresses its multiracial and pluralistic nature by applying homegrown initiatives.
Decades after the defeat of Nazi Germany and establishment of majority rule in South Africa, biological racism and its cultural essentialist equivalents continue to flourish, even in the absence of support from state and the law.
Brazil provides a classical example of how historical discrimination by institutions and individuals against those perceived as racially different can persist and flourish under the illusion of non-racism, long after policies like branqueamento are abolished.
But as you probably prepare to attend the FIFA world cup in 2014, know that Brazil, in whose heart lives Zumbi, is a warm and welcoming country that´s actually working, despite its challenges.
Abdulrazak B Ibrahim