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The Difference Between Black Brazil And Black U.S.

By Italo Ramos

17 October, 2007
Black Agenda Report

In the 16th Century, the colonizers that went to Africa came from the same continent, a vast and diverse Europe, as we know. But, despite their different origins and cultures, they had two things in common. First, their two main motivations: 1) to pillage free natural resources; and 2) to appropriate free labor. Second: they thought they had the right to do these things, because, in their minds, they were superior human beings. This is a history that didn't change, as racist whites have the same mindset even today about pillage and slavery.

Although their motivations were the same, European colonizers couldn't escape their cultural differences, and so, the resulting contemporary racial relations in two countries, Brazil and the US, couldn't be more different. Today, the American newspapers' editions, as they report the contemporary history of US racial questions, are full of very good examples of these two radically different streams of racial consciousness. (In fact, the daily editions are, themselves, one of the big differences, because it is not so easy to find news about black and white differences in Brazilian newspapers.)

From reading American newspapers. I discovered that Mr. Juan Williams, a correspondent, news analyst and writer, wrote an article complaining that he has been attacked since he published a book about racial issues, that holds today's civil rights leaders accountable for serious problems inside black America. He went on to say that "75% of black America is taking advantage of 50 years of new opportunities...to create the largest black middle class in history...."

Now and then, the businessman and former University of California Regent Ward Connerly appears in the pages proclaiming satisfaction because "the demise of affirmative action in America is fast approaching."

Then came all the racial viciousness at Los Angeles' Laugh Factory with Michael Richard, followed by the idea of banning the "N" word. In this particular case, Noam Chonsky, the linguist, certainly would approve this movement, as he, more than anyone else, knows the dangerous power of cultural and political domination the language has.

More recently, I read an article written by Vikram Amar and Richard H. Sander, two professors from UC Davis School of Law and UCLA, respectively. They call our attention to what they called the "mismatch effect" - the possibility that Affirmative Action (AA) is not functioning to blacks benefit. Citing some researchers, they say that "50% of the black law students end up in the bottom 10th of their classes...." In Brazil, on the contrary, the students with AA help, are at the first rank of their classes, ahead of white students. So, white people cannot claim that AA can be bad for blacks. Instead, they say that it will be bad for the whole society, by separating people by color and, thus, "creating a racist country."

All this reminds me of five years ago, when I first came to Los Angeles intending to do some research on racial relations, and had my first shocking personal experience of the differences I am writing about. Walking down Sunset Boulevard, I was surprised by a white, slightly pink and widely smiling old lady who greeted me with: "Oh, you're good-looking! How are you doing, today?," she asked. I'm not so naïve as to suppose that she wanted an answer, so, while silently smiling back, my memory was free to send me back to my country, where an old white lady in the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo would never have greeted me like that. And I thought: Well, as I know I'm not that good-looking, maybe she is just a racist feeling vulnerable by my black appearance and trying to determine if I am really a threat, by observing my reaction to her greetings. Was I right? Or maybe she was just a liberal white woman. Well, I will never know.

But there is one thing I do know. In that old lady's attitude there was something I see in many whites, in the predominantly white community where I live, in Brazil. It is something too charming, extremely pleasant, excessively easy, that always makes me uncomfortably distrustful. This something is artificially forged by education, by politeness - the kind of civilized behavior that prevented the old lady from being gratuitously hostile or, at least, ignoring my existence. In fact, a kind of hypocrisy. But living in LA for some months every year, I quickly learned that those attitudes can be seen as a sign of education, yes, but must not be confused with liberalism.

Reading all this news about race in the US, more than just to learn about American racial complexity, I could make sense of how big the differences are between Brazil and the US, in terms of racial questions. Here are some of them:

All the space taken up in newspapers to debate black "affairs" would be unbelievable in Brazil. As a matter of fact, the media, in general, thinks and acts as if Brazil is a "racial democracy." So, for them, the work done by our black movement - which is growing although still weak, considering the huge weight of our racism - is an antipatriotic attempt to import American-style racial hate.

We don't blame national black leaders for inefficiency or inaccuracy, because we don't have any. There are so many blacks in Brazil that to be anti-black is the same as being against gravity, as they are everywhere. But without leadership, they are not organized, not mobilized and, just like gravity, not a force, compared to the American black movement. We have some black leaders in local communities, but none of them nationally known. Our greatest leader, Zumbi dos Palmares, fought against slavery, which ended one hundred years ago. Today, we have some black politicians, in the Congress, fighting for laws to benefit black population. And we have some black secretaries in the government, like the singer Gilberto Gil. But they don't lead any national black organization or movement.

In the US, black leaders may commit errors, not doing something they should do or not doing anything to stop some abuses, but, at least in principle, black people believe in them as honest individuals. In Brazil, black people always look at an emerging leader suspiciously, believing that he is not sincere and only wants to take personal advantage based on his race. So, if someone black wants to run for a political position, it is better not to ask for votes saying "I'm a black man and will fight for racial progress," because no one will vote for him.

Brazil has the second largest black population in the world, only after Nigeria. Still, black history is a very recent discipline in schools. The country is considered one of the most unequal societies, where blacks are 90% in the poorest classes. But, nonetheless, we don't attack government programs that benefit black people, because we don't have them on such a large scale as the US has. And they are new programs, as almost everything done to benefit blacks has come in recent years.

Affirmative Action is a very new expression in Brazil, borrowed from the US vocabulary. It started being practiced in 2003, not in any federal institution, but by the initiative of the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, with a quota of 40% for black students. And while in the US AA is being more and more contested and losing its strength, in Brazil, today, only four years after being adopted, it is a volcano, expelling quotas around the whole country. Americans can say it is not the best kind of AA, but it is what Brazilian black people are depending on to go to university. And in 2007, there are 40 universities adopting the quota system.

We don't have any part of the society taking advantage of new opportunities. First, because new opportunities are very few; second, because we don't have a black middle class. Blacks amount to 49% of a population of 180 million people, but it is impossible to create a middle class without education and with salaries 51% less than the salaries of whites.

We never had a Ku Klux Klan, but until today we have thousands of Samuel H. Bowers (the assumed former KKK leader who died in prison) in many owners of industries, commercial shops, hotels, and restaurants, ready to discriminate against black people at the entrance.

As anyone can see, these are very important differences, as they show how little black consciousness there is in Brazil. But there is one that is the biggest.

The most significant aspect to distinguish Brazilian and American racism, in its most generalized form, is the concrete nature of American racism, in contrast with the subjective character, the fluid state, the invisibility of Brazil's. The difference is that, in the US, nobody would dare to deny its existence, but in Brazil, racism is the essence of a substantive very...abstract. For a massive majority in Brazilian society, it just doesn't exist. For many blacks, too. But, more fantastic than that: At the same time it is invisible, it is naturally practiced by the majority of the white population. And they don't even notice what they are doing.

There are two reasons for me to list invisibility as the most significant difference between American and Brazilian racism: First, because invisibility is a secular, regular, ordinary custom, the most common form through which discrimination spreads among the population against black people. Brazilian society practices "non-existent" racism, as part of a collective bad character of Brazilian moral life. And its main property is to be diffuse, underground, disguised, treacherous and, so, very difficult to combat. How does one fight against a ghost? In general, Brazilian society believes so little in the existence of racism that some white people get offended when confronted with their own racist practices, as they like to say and believe that they are liberals. The second reason: being so, it is the best example to show how deep racism is in Brazilian whites. It is so entrenched in everyday life that nobody who is white will bother about being polite, educated, with Black people. We all know that, in the US, blacks sometimes are "invisible," but, in Brazil, invisibility is the real racism.

The millions of signs of racism in schools, at work or in the streets - the common use of the word "crioulo" is a good example - mean so little that the latest book, written this year, about racial questions, has the title "Nao Somos Racistas" (We Are Not Racists). And I keep thinking that something makes it necessary to write that book.

It is not that white Brazilian society is all racist. Of course, there are many that take advantage of discrimination, but who don't hate black people and don't think they are inferior. These ones are opportunists, like the cheap thief that takes our wallet while we're not looking. And there is that majority thinking that racism doesn't exist. These ones can be sincere, and I would dare to say innocent. The problem is that black people have failed in giving white Brazilians the real image of the world they live in. There are some attempts, mainly on the academic level, but without the necessary frequency and wide national repercussions. One of the most recent was given by a professor at the Universidade do Rio de Janeiro, the economist and sociologist Marcelo Paixao. He published his dissertation in 2004, with some data proving, once more, that the color of poverty is black. That is not a new fact, but he exposed it in a very surprising and intelligent way. He split Brazilian society in two parts, black and white, and applied to them, separately, the human development program launched by the UN in 1990 to measure the quality of life in 173 countries - income per capita, life expectancy, and scholarship. This index, that has "Happiness Index" as its nickname, was created by the Nobel Prize laureate American economist Paul Samuelson, in the 1970s, as the social counterpart of the National Growth Product (NGP), which measures economic development. According to the UN, in 2002, Brazil, as a whole, was in 63rd place, one step behind Namibia. Paixao's two countries, one white one black, were compared, and the result is that if Brazil were a country with only white people, it would be in 44th place. If it were populated only with blacks, it would be the 105th. Paixao's study goes on, showing that between 1992 and 2001, while the number of Brazilian poor people decreased by 5 million, the number of poor black people increased by 500,000, demonstrating that, while the whites got richer, the blacks got poorer.

The biggest Brazilian university, Universidade de Sao Paulo (USP), as its name says, is located in the country's richest state, with a population of more than 30 million. Although the state's black population is 27,4%, the black students at USP are only 1,4%. In 2005, USP adopted a quota for black students in the masters programs of its law school. But it was the Ford Foundation that proposed it and gave the money to be used for scholarships. So, if there is the money, why not?

Personally, I don't think that Mr. Juan Williams is a sellout, as his critics used to call him. On the contrary, considering all he has written, he is a good black man. But there are two things I don't understand in his thoughts. First: When he suggests that many black people are capable of helping themselves, as a black man, he is legitimizing the white racist arguments against Affirmative Action. Why does he do that? Well, maybe that is why he is being attacked, because, if "75% of black Americans are taking advantages of 50 years of new opportunities," it is also true that there is a large number of blacks in need of them in the other 25%, and so, his mathematics becomes a very difficult social equation. Second: When he pinpoints education as a pre-requirement to achieve racial progress, what is he thinking racial progress is? My point is: On the white side of society, education does not seem able to cure racism; instead, it simply gives to white persons a hypocritical, insincere attitude. If so, education cannot prevent black people from being a target of racism, too. So, where is the progress? Is education only a shield to protect black people against poverty and discrimination, or is it so effective that is capable of assuring racial progress? After all, Hitler was surrounded by very educated people. Well, if we don't put education in its place, we'll be at risk of creating a society with undesirable black families and workers, and full of white educated racists just like the Third Reich was. Education is very important, who can deny it? But racism is a behavioral disturbance, located in the moral terrain, although, in the whole of Mr. Williams' article we cannot find the word morality one single time. That might go without saying, but, maybe, that's another reason why he is being attacked.

As we Brazilians don't have another good example, the adoption of AA in education is the first step in Brazil to follow the path the US has been taking all these years, since the 60s. But, being such a different society, my question is: are we going the right way?

Italo Ramos is a Brazilian journalist. He can be contacted at iramos@cyberspace.com.br .


 

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