Racial Democracy Myth in Brazil Erased with Blood

By Mario Osava (IPS)

“Black lives matter, stop killing us,” demanded a banner during a protest in São Paulo for the murder of João Alberto Freitas. The 40-year-old Black was tortured to death by Carrefour supermarket guards in Porto Alegre, a southern Brazilian city. It occurred on November 19, on the eve of Black Consciousness Day, an anti-racist celebration in the country. Photo: Paulo Pinto / Public Photos.

HAVANA TIMES – The murder of João Alberto Freitas on November 19 could just mean another aggression against blacks in Brazil. However, this time it had fatal consequences. Its repercussion makes it a milestone to expand and intensify the struggle against racism.

The brutal killing of Freitas by two supermarket guards, repeatedly shown on TV and social networks, shocked the country. His death follows others of great national impact. It evidences racial structural problems in Brazilian violence which has led to growing protests.

Likewise, it also occurred amidst wide international mobilization following George Floyd´s murder by Minneapolis police on May 25. It generated the #Blacklivesmatter (#LasVidasNegrasImportan) movement.

According to the initial autopsy, Freitas was killed by asphyxiation. He suffered dozens of blows to the head and was pinned face-down with a security guard’s knee.

Carrefour became a symbol of raciest violence

The Carrefour supermarket chain in Brazil, where the crime occurred, became a symbol of racist violence. Violent actions by the French-owned company were recalled in the media and social networks – aggressions, torture and even a dog’s beating to death.

Carrefour’s image was “stained with blood”, the French newspaper Le Monde recognized on November 25. Repeated protests occurred in front of their establishments in different Brazilian cities.

The anti-racist movement in Brazil makes visible the ample data on Blacks’ situation in Brazil. They were the victims of 75.7 percent of homicides in 2018 revealed Violence Atlas, the Brazilian Forum for Public Security and the government´s Institute for Applied Economic Research.

According to official statistics, figures are disproportionate. The Afro-Brazilian population represents 56 percent of the 212 million inhabitants of this South American country.

The Black population murder rate increased from 34 to 37.8 per 100,000 inhabitants between 2008 and 2018. However, white victims fell from 15.9 to 13.9 per 100,000. The Black population imprisonment rate is also higher with respect to its demographic proportion.

Blacks are also subject to inferiority in the Brazilian social hierarchy. They suffer lower salaries while exercising the same functions, more unemployment and poverty.  They have limited access to education and representation in government bodies.

This is currently reflected in a higher COVID-19 incidence and mortality in the black population.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, left the Army as a captain in 1988, and Vice President Hamilton Mourão, retired as a general in 2018. Both share the belief that in Brazil where Black population is 56 percent, there is no racism. This is contrary to the opinion of 90.6 percent of interviewed people in a survey conducted this November by Atlas Intelligence. Photo: Antonio Cruz / Agência Brasil

Structural racism

It is a “structural racism,” explains Afro-Brazilian Silvio Luiz de Almeida, university professor and doctor of philosophy and general theory of law. His 2018-published book of same title, talks on the subject gains a growing audience and readers.

According to Sociologist Flavia Rios, Professor at the Fluminense Federal University, the dissemination of the concept of structural racism is neither episodic nor “abnormal”. It’s a rather functional component, structuring the country’s social relations. It highly contributes to the struggle against racial discrimination. And it even broadens judicial response to racism crimes, until now very limited to racial insult and offense.

It also helps undo the racial democracy myth, historically cultivated by political power and “generating confusion about racial violence motives”. It hinders struggles for racial equity, she regretted.

President Jair Bolsonaro and Vice President Hamilton Mourão keep the preaching of their military formation during the 1964-1985 dictatorship. “There is no racism in Brazil,” they confirm. Bolsonaro said the protests against Freitas’s murder are “attempts to import tensions alien to our history.”

Those who recognize themselves as “pardos” (mulattoes) in Brazil constitute a majority of 46.8 percent, according to official statistics. This great miscegenation is the basis of the supposed absence of racism.

But the presidential opinion disagrees with the almost national unanimity. There is racism in Brazil, responded 90.6 percent of the 1764 interviewed by Atlas Intelligence. The latter is a São Paulo consultancy offering information and analysis for companies. Only 5.7 percent disagreed.

Racists or hypocrites?

The most curious thing is that 97.5 percent said “they do not consider themselves racist” in the poll called Political Atlas.

Is racism a practice of only 2.5 percent of Brazilians or is it a country of hypocrites?

Black activist Walmyr Junior believes the militarization of Brazilian society, expanded under the current government, exacerbates violence against Blacks in Brazil. Photo: Courtesy of Walmyr Junior

Racist attitudes, however, are prevalent everywhere, said black Actor and Teacher Ricardo Lopes. He has always lived in the poor neighborhoods of downtown Rio de Janeiro.

“One day I was at my cousin’s birthday at Aterro (a central beach in Rio de Janeiro). A blond man appeared from behind a tree, with his penis exposed and calling the girls. When he saw us, he fled by bicycle,’ Lopes told IPS in a telephone conversation.

“I chased him shouting ‘pervert’, but right before reaching him a military policeman knocked me to the ground. He crushed my head with his boot and let the pervert escape. He only freed me when my mother intervened,” Lopes added.

“In the 19th century, the ‘racial paradise’ myth arose in Brazil. It was based on European visitors’ observations of the enjoyable coexistence between whites and their black slaves. More enjoyable than in the US, said Sociologist Rios by phone from Niteroi, a university city near Rio de Janeiro.

Racial democracy myth spread widely in the twentieth century

In the twentieth century, the belief in ‘racial democracy’ spread. “It was adopted as a narrative of the State from the 1940s.” It even included the adherence of Black intellectuals, although as a desire, a need to pursue, recalled the Sociologist.

In the following decades sociological studies, especially at São Paulo University, refuted this ideological vision. However, the demystification in intellectual and university circles did not prevent the military dictatorship from reaffirming racial democracy. It was even considered as the basis of political nationalism, she noted.

Brazil’s re-democratization in 1985 put an end to that official narrative. But it was only to highlight the country as “multi-ethnic”, as Latin America in general, said Rios.

Nonetheless, as per the statistical data, research and journalistic information accumulated, the existence of structural racism is more than evident.

“The increase in racial violence, as occurred in Carrefour supermarket, reflects society’s militarization. It’s the proliferation of guards safeguarding private property at the expense of lives,” said Black Movement Activist Walmyr Junior. He runs a soccer school for children in La Maré, a group of favelas near downtown Rio de Janeiro.

“The business community supports this militarization” and the devaluation of Black lives. This is proven once again during the pandemic. “It is worth keeping a business open, no matter how many more Blacks die,” said Walmyr.

But he does not believe in massive protests arising from the Carrefour case. In his view, the Black movement is divided into a great “diversity” of orientations. For instance, in his case, he defends complaints and the supermarket boycott, but rejects violent acts.

“He is a Black who will clean up the broken glass,” he said.

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