Black Consciousness in Brazil

Tue, 11/16/2010 - 13:51 — Italo Ramos

New census data show two million more Brazilians now describe themselves as black than did so ten years ago, when “they had said that they were not blacks, but 'mestiços' or 'mulattos,' a category more favored, socially.” This is, the author believes, a significant number, proof of the deep impact of the black consciousness movement and Brazil's relatively recent affirmative action programs. At the same time, “slowly but consistently, white people are admitting the real face of a segregationist and racist Brazil.”

Early last October, the work of the last Brazilian census had not yet been finished, but we already knew that our adult black population had grown two percentage points, from 5% to 7%, over the last ten years. (In Brazil, black people are officially considered a category apart from the racially mixed population.) For those who know Brazil and know that the country has the largest black population in the world, after only Nigeria, these numbers may seem surprisingly small. And these people may also ask how could this have happened? The new persons who were born in this so short period of time - 10 years - are not adult enough to be included by the census collector. So, where did those two percentage points came from?

Before answering, let’s explore another fundamental question: 7% is a small, insignificant number?

The answer may be Yes and No, as it depends on whom is reading it. Numbers are not geographic symbols but, as they don’t lie, they are the most powerful kind of authority we have to prove something, although our sense about their meaning may vary according to different national criteria. If you are Brazilian, 7% is very small, considering a population of 190 million people. But for those people in the world who deal with racial discrimination and racism, it will never be insignificant.

The census, made by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística-IBGE, doesn’t explain, as it is not its official business to make considerations about the development of racial awareness, but that difference of 2 points shows that, now, two million more people are accepting and proclaiming their real color. Ten years ago, when another census took place, they had said that they were not blacks, but “mestiços” or “mulattos,” a category more favored, socially. That difference is good proof that racial consciousness is growing in Brazil, which means that more and more black people are not ashamed of their racial identity, and, not statistically but ethnically speaking, two percentage points is a big and significant number.

But there is more about that.

These 7% might be added to 45% of those who said to the collector that they are mulattos, and the result will be a population of 52% of blacks and mulattos, and 49% of whites. So, in an American sense, the Brazilian black population is now larger than the white one. In the Brazilian sense, as was said, blacks and biracial are two different categories.

Another number that Census shows, 2%, refers to people who, 10 years ago, said to the collector that they were white, but, now, they want to change their category, some choosing to be mestiços, some mulattos, some indigenous. These are very light-skinned black persons who used to pass as white, but now are not ashamed to declare their real origin. They don’t want to be white, anymore.

(A good question would be “Why would a light-skinned person want to pass as white?” Well, I don’t want to answer, because my words wouldn’t be sympathetic to them.)

So, the Brazilian black population not only is the second largest in the world, but also exhibits the record of being the most mixed. In this sense, it reserves first place. Mulattos, in Brazil, are, mainly, a product of the Portuguese, who colonized the country, and the Africans, brought there to be slaves. And this mixture was always so dense that, in slavery times, there were more mulattos than today, proportionally to the total population. But the readers must not take this last information as a sign of racial liberalism from the Portuguese side, because it actually hides violence, a crime.

Speaking about crime, in this aspect, Brazilian and American slavery histories are similar. Both are full of cases of rape. At that time, it was common among landlords to take enslaved women as concubines. In Brazil, this practice was more open than in U.S., but, to take the best of American examples, we can ask: Did Sally Hemings love Thomas Jefferson? Those seven children were sons of sexual consent? If Sally really loved him, would she impose some conditions to return from France to Virginia with him, as she did? Jefferson agreed with those conditions and set her (their) children free, just like Brazilian landlords used to protect their bastard sons, giving them much better treatment. This was a natural behavior, so common that until today both societies make a difference between blacks and mulattos, giving to the latter a higher social status. What contemporary Brazilian and American whites don’t realize is that, by doing so, they are simply
modernly repeating what their ancestors, owners of slaves, used to do.

In Brazil, in the time of slavery, the mulattos were chosen to be what was called Capitães do mato (bush captains), the leading hunters of fugitives slaves in the forests and responsible for chasing those ones walking in the streets in the cities. That was a job that gave some privileges to them, as they were not in the fields nor in the big houses, but seen as the protector of the interests of white owners of slaves. But the position also gave them the very bad reputation of being enemies of black people.

The social order is self-reproductive. If nothing is done to change it, in terms of a revolt, the imposition of a law or the exposure of positive role models, the social order repeats the same pattern of the society, eternally, just like it is. So, as changes don’t happen overnight, the culture of slavery perpetuated many old customs, making that institution not as remote as we would like. And, today, the capitães do mato have disappeared, as they are not necessary, anymore, because of the end of slavery, but, more than one century later, in their places, a big majority of soldiers of the Brazilian military state police, is comprised of mulattos. These are the police in charge of invading huts in favelas and of chasing poor people in the streets, mainly blacks, asking them for identification cards and arresting those who cannot prove that they have a regular job. Black people hate them. It is history, if not just repeating itself, making a kind of

Until today, there is not an explanation for that change of attitude made by the “new blacks.” Can it be an effect of the Affirmative Action? Maybe. Affirmative Action came to Brazil around 2003, when a university in Rio de Janeiro adopted the first Brazilian system of quotas for students originating from public schools, blacks and indigenous people. Since then, the discussion about race, discrimination and racism provoked remarkable changes in the false image of a racial democracy Brazil has maintained since the abolition of slavery. Slowly but consistently, white people are admitting the real face of a segregationist and racist Brazil. But the quota system is also a university success. The last research made by the Universidade Federal da Bahia states: “…the quota students’ performance improves every year. The poorer the students, the better their progress.”

Brazil is a young country, with a juvenile enthusiasm in many senses, without answers or even research, yet, about its most important questions, like those about “new blacks.” Few people care about who makes Brazil what it is, and for whom. Of course, we are not so innocent as to not know that Brazil is evolving within a permanent conflict of huge cultural, political and economic interests that we have already identified and we are learning how to deal with its resistances, changes and tricks, like the disguised face of the modern capitaes do mato. Slowly but consistently, we are pushing ahead and improving an Affirmative Action that came late. And, for a developing country, it is comforting to know that some difficult questions, so important for tracing a right and quick road to a really democratic future, are not being answered even in developed countries.

Italo Ramos is a Brazilian journalist. He can be contacted at


Interview with Sally Price


PROA: Your book on Maroon Arts shows how descendants of rebel slaves from diverse African origins living in Guiana and Suriname have kept alive pan-African aesthetic ideas while adapting them creatively to changing economic and social circumstances. It seems amazing that even facing much adversity (civil war, a plummeting economy, drugs, mining companies) they still care about artistic mastery. How do you explain it?

SALLY PRICE: People don’t lose their culture just because they hit hard times. Think about the descriptions we have of Africans suffering through the horrors of the Middle Passage and arriving in the Americas where one 18th-century writer observed: “todos os escravos são levados para o convés ... e seu cabelo é raspado em diferentes imagens de estrelas, meia-luas etc., o que eles geralmente fazem uns com os outros (sem dispor de lâminas), com a ajuda de uma garrafa quebrada e sem sabão.” [J.G. Stedman, quoted in S. Mintz and R. Price, O Nascimento da cultura Afro-Americana, Pallas Editora 1992, p. 72]. I would guess that equivalent examples could be found in the open-air camps where victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti don’t even have food to eat. People are surprisingly resilient in the face of adversity. It was, for example, around the time that their villages were being bombed in the civil war that Saramaka Maroon women developed openwork carving in calabashes

Interview with Sally Price


Let’s Rescue the Race Debate - NYTimes.com

“There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. ... Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs ... There is a certain class of race-problem solvers who don’t want the patient to get well.”

This 100-year-old, cobbled-together quote from the “the Great Accommodator” Booker T. Washington has gotten quite a bit of circulation in the right-wing blogosphere since the Tea Party came under attack over racial issues.

Continue reading here:
Let’s Rescue the Race Debate - NYTimes.com