The Social Consequences of Skin Color in Brazil

by Joana Ito

Cultural diversity and racial miscegenation is now an image that Brazil is pride to export. However, the ideal of racial democracy in Brazil is still a dream. Although the ideology of miscegenation is widely spread, the mixing of races and colors did not result in physical nor socioeconomic homogeneity.

The problem of racial discrimination against blacks in Brazil is largely attributed to the historical past. The racial inequality that remains in Brazilian society is regarded as a consequence of the long history of enslavement, an inheritance of a dirty past of exclusion and discrimination. However, in a society where the general perception of “being black equals being poor” remains, and where most would be truly surprised if they met a black lawyer, doctor or businessman, the discussion of race and color cannot be limited to matters of correcting a “historical debt”.

Black African slavery did, undeniably, impose social economic exclusion for black people and was cause and consequence for the establishment of racist values of white superiority. Amazingly though, the question of white privilege is often disregarded in the discussion of racial inequality in Brazil. In its discussion, the focus is not on the income concentration of white elites, but on the poverty of the black. It is more about the fact that the black cannot benefit from the free public higher education, rather than about the fact that richer white portion of the population enjoyed for decades a “free” education in public universities, subsidized by taxes of the whole population and with high costs for the public budget.

In August this year, Brazil government enacted an affirmative action law requiring federal universities to reserve half of their admission spots for students from public secondary schools, with racial quotas prioritizing the blacks, pardos and indigenous. Additionally, a plan for the adoption of quotas for blacks in the federal bureaucracy should be announced in late November, representing important gains for the Black Movement. Nevertheless, it is relevant to point that the protection of white privilege is an issue that is not limited to the problem of access to quality education and job opportunities. The historically very high concentration of land ownership inherited by white elites and also the regressive tax system that largely lifts the burden from the higher income class are not only issues that protect an economic elite, but mostly a white economic elite.

The plurality and differences of the Brazilian society are not only in the color of the population, but also reinforced by a socioeconomic stratification in which the majority of the black and pardos remain in the lower class, while the white enjoys the effects of white privilege. To believe that Brazil is a racial paradise, in essence, is to deny the relevance of these issues of inequality and dominance.

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