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In 2004 dentist Flavio Sant’Anna was shot to death without even a chance to defend himself, in a cruel demonstration of the São Paulo Police modus operandi. It was later revealed by the investigative process that being black was the sole reason for his killing.

The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in Brazil

Raquel Souzas[1]

In the last decade of last century highly reliable quantitative, as well as qualitative, data have been vigorously produced, describing, in a certain way, the conditions of inequality and racial vulnerability existing in Brazil.

The country internationally known as the most unequal in the world shows, according to the data, what Helio Santos, an intellectual and member of the black movement, has called the vicious circle and absence of discontinuity of the structural elements racially separating blacks from whites, which, at the same time, feed back into the existence of “two Brazils”.

           The data analyzed by Marcelo Paixão, professor and researcher at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and at the Afro-Brazilian Observatory, uncover the intricacies of Brazilian inequality in comparison to other countries in the world even further.

           As if the HDI (Human Development Index) data on colour/race were not enough, other quantitative and qualitative works have revealed everyday situations where racial inequality manifests itself. From different perspectives, these show the substantial elements that frame the specter of persisting discrimination in Brazil.

All data collected so far attempt to answer the recurring question: “Does discrimination in Brazil occur because of race, or because of social class?” Some might even update it to “Are people discriminated because they are black or because they are poor?”

These data, coming from different sources and clippings, should endure this initial stage of the realization of the the problem, which is throwing us in the middle of such recurring issues. We could position ourselves in a different place, confronting racism in any of the various fields within the social realm. But the vision of a country that sees itself as an “island of tranquility” remains, not only in the minds of the people but also in those of the intellectuals whose job is to think about Brazil.

            In the World Conference Against Racism, which took place at the dawn of the first century of the new millennium, in 2001, we achieved visibility for the racial problem in Brazil, and had some success in discussing discrimination.

Brazil committed to the “Durban Action Plan”, and since then we have seen the building of strategies for overcoming racial discrimination and institutionalized racism at the government level.

The realization that we must overcome institutionalized racism has allowed the creation of legislation such as Bill 10.639, which establishes the teaching of African history in Brazil, among other measures. However, we are still waiting for the desired changes delineated in the Action Plan to occur. We want to see them become a reality in our daily lives.

In 2004 dentist Flavio Sant’Anna was shot to death without even a chance to defend himself, in a cruel demonstration of the São Paulo Police modus operandi. It was later revealed by the investigative process that being black was the sole reason for his killing. In 2005, in turn, assassinations were “wholesale”, in the words of a columnist with a daily newspaper in Queimados, Nova Iguaçu, a poor suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Hundreds of people were killed in the most banal fashion, by men with connections to the Rio de Janeiro Military Police, for motives that are still under investigation.

           Images in the daily media present the problem as a merely regional phenomenon. The cruel circumstances in which people who live in that region died, along with the data about them that has been released, allow us to conclude that these are the people who are experiencing the worst HDI ratings. For obvious reasons, our only chance is to establish a racial hetero-classification, by watching the published images of the people who were victims of the greatest racial slaughter modern Brazil has seen.

In 2005 we continue to see, at the national level, the occurrence of events such as that in Queimados, and, at the international level, the death of Brazilian citizen Jean Charles at the hands of the London políce, a victim of the same racial discrimination.

In October 18, 2005, the officers who shot Flavio, the dentist killed in São Paulo, were sentenced to prison terms varying between 4 and 17 years. Information arriving via internet has shown a favorable outlook regarding the conclusion of the sentencing stages of the trials.

We have seen, in 2005, measures being taken that aim only at the tip of the iceberg, and have not had legislation to effectively address the root of the problems that have, for centuries, been engrained in society as acceptable everyday practices, which keep many people from exercising their citizenship to the fullest. By looking at data on social vulnerability for a city like São Paulo, we can see how urban landscapes can contain such large inequality. In certain cases and situations, not even the most basic levels of individual freedom are allowed to be exercised – the one that gives us the right to come and go without being discriminated.

The need to produce data, analyses and discussion based on facts is as critical as ever, despite the feeling of impotence felt against occurrences such as the slaughter at Queimados.

In 2005, yet another realization has been made: that distorted images of black men and women remain crystalized in the social realm, after being constructed and accumulated throughout the centuries, and are, still today, reinforced on a daily basis, remaining unchallenged under the “racial democracy myth”.

[1] Raquel Souzas, B.A. and Licenciatura in Social Science ( FFLCH-USP), specialist, M.A. and Ph.D in Public Health (FSP/USP). Member of the Directive Board of  FalaPreta! (Black Women’s Organization). Consultor with the Afro-Brazilian Observatory.