Brazil approves racial equality law, but “much yet to do”

Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva signed the “Statute of Racial Equality.”  But he was the first to recognize that in achieving this legislative landmark “we didn’t get everything that we wanted” and “there is much yet to do.”

The statute, whose passage required a fight lasting ten years, recognizes the fact that Brazil is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic state in which Brazilians of African descent who have been the victim of four hundred years of slavery as well as pervasive historical current patterns of racial discrimination.

In a statement in support of the law, Senator Paulo Paim of President Lula’s own Workers’ Party said, “Last year, research institutes connected with the federal government indicated that Blacks are the poorest, the least educated, are those who when employed receive the lowest wages and who are the overwhelming majority of workers pushed into informal employment and unemployment…the proportion of Blacks below the poverty line is 50%, while among whites it is 25%…”

The senator went on to show that these differences show up in social indices such as life expectancy and other things.

To remedy this, the law creates a number of new measures:

  • A new social action agency called Sinapir (Portuguese anagram for National System for the Promotion of Racial Equality).
  • A requirement that schools at all levels include detailed instruction on the history and culture of the Africans in Africa and Brazil and their descendents, especially but not only in the teaching of history.
  • Prohibition of racial and ethnic discrimination including with regard to access to any public or private resource or benefit.
  • Protection of Afro-Brazilian religious beliefs, practices and religions (such as Candomble, Macumba, Umbanda and others), as a matter of freedom of religion.
  • Recognition of the descendents of escaped slave “quilombola” communities and financial help for them.
  • Recognition of Afro-Brazilian kick-boxing, called “capoeira” as an official sport worthy of receiving government support.

Lula however pitched into the right wing opposition for having gone to court to block sections of the law that would have established affirmative action quotas in jobs, education and television programming. Opposition to the law was based on the argument, which will be very recognizable to people in the United States, that there is no official racism in Brazil any more, so the law was not needed.

This is what Lula was referring to by “much yet to be done”.

The total population of Brazil is about 192 million. Of these, the 2000 census identified about 6% as Black, but another 38% as “pardos” (mixed race), who would certainly be considered African Americans if they lived in the United States.

Slavery was abolished in Brazil only in 1888, after numerous slave rebellions, but economic, political, social and military elites connected to the slave system continued to have power in the society for a long time afterward, and continued to promote both legal and de-facto racial oppression.

Lula also signed legislation authorizing the creation of a “Federal University for Luso-Afro-Brazilian Integration” in the Eastern state of Ceará. This university, which is to be ready in 2011, is intended to bring together Brazilian students and faculty and those from African countries, especially those which were former Portuguese colonies — Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome and Principe.

The promotion and passage of these two laws comes has, like everything else, its national and international context.

The national context is the Brazilian national election scheduled for October 3. The presidential candidate of Lula’s Workers’ Party and its allies, former energy minister Dilma Rousseff, as well as the left generally, hope to mobilize poor Brazilians who are often left out of national electoral politics; the Racial Equality Statute is just one of numerous progressive social policy initiatives related to this aim.

But Brazil also has been reaching out to African countries to form new trading partnerships and diplomatic alliances; the recognition of the huge role that African people played, and keep on playing, in Brazilian history and society certainly can’t harm these efforts.

Photo: (Agência Brasil/CC)


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.