Thursday, 18 November 2010


Black Consciousness in Brazil

By Italo Ramos
Black Agenda Report

New census data show two million more Brazilians now
describe themselves as black than did so ten years ago, when “they
had said that 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

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 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

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 parody.

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

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