Brazil and Inequality

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on RedditShare on TumblrShare on LinkedIn

Inevitably as an Olympic Games comes closer, host countries have the spotlight turned on them by the global media. It has become vogue for the western media to criticize host countries of the Olympics and drag out skeletons from their national closets. For China in 2008, it was their record on Human Rights. For London in 2012, in keeping with Britain’s self-deprecating national character, UK news media questioned whether London’s oversubscribed transport system could cope or worse if there would be a repeat of 2011 riots. For Brazil in 2016, the country’s vast inequalities will doubtlessly receive intensified global attention.  The unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity in Brazil is a multi-faceted beast that a brief article simply could not do justice to. In respect of this, this article will focus on just one area of inequality in Brazil; racial inequality.

The Veiled Problem of Racism 

Although the term has now fallen out of the popular vocabulary, for much of it’s history Brazil has thought of itself as a “Racial Democracy,” wherein racism is a rarity and life chances do not depend on skin colour.  When asked to classify their race most Brazilians will bawk at the question and give a hazy answer. Defining oneself as “white”, “black” or “mixed race” is seen as unnecessary. This can be explained partly by historical factors; immigration, intermarriage and interaction between different races can be dated back to the first European settlers in Brazil. This national story of racial tolerance and equality is a gross distortion of fact when it comes to equality.  This is demonstrable in everyday life in Brazil, for instance the journalist Oliver Blach when visiting a food court in an up-market shopping market in Saǒ Paulo he noted that customers were white and  staff were black. [1] Furthermore,  black community activists consistently  complain that white youths are more likely to get jobs when competing with a black youth with the same level experience and education. [2] Unlike the USA where racism was obvious through customs like segregation,  racial inequality is hidden behind a veil of tolerance.

The Economics of Inequality 

Despite some considerable improvements to the life chances of Black Brazilians since the Workers Party (PT) took power in 2002, there remains a huge gulf in opportunity and wealth between white and black Brazilians. The majority of the inhabitants of favelas (shanty towns) at the edges of Brazilian cities are black and according to the 2010 Census the average white Brazilians still earn roughly double the amount of Blacks. [3] Access to Higher Education is often a vital tool to social mobility, yet as recently as 2009 the percentage of black 18-24 year olds in higher education was as low as 4.9 per cent. [4] Brazilian politics echoes the economic disparity between ethnic groups. For example, in Dilma Rousseffs’s cabinet of  38 ministers, only one is black.  As grim as these statistics appear to be, it would be misleading to suggest that life for black Brazilans has not improved under Lula De Silva and Rousseff. Of the 30 Million Brazilians to leave poverty since 2002, over half are black. [5]

Polices and Solutions 

Both President’s  Lula and Rousseff have acknowledged the inequality between black and white Brazilians and have both, in the labour market and in education, tried to rectify the situation.  The PT in national office has tended to use “affirmative action” policies which require by law companies and educational institutions to have quotas of ethnic minorities. In Brazil, government has led the way on employee quotas, for example since 2003 the justice department has reserved twenty per cent of their vacancies for black Brazilians. [6] In addition to this, recently Dilma Rousseff  signed a law which requires federal universities to reserve at least half of their places for children from state schools and half of the these places for black and mixed race applicants. Such policies do not come without a backlash as many Brazilians resent the inherent discrimination that affirmative polices involve. The need for quotas is a nail in the coffin for the cherished notion of racial democracy in Brazil.

Looking to the future  

Racial Inequality is slowly being addressed in Brazil but it will be an issue for the foreseeable future.  Black and Mixed Race people are now the majority in Brazil, thus candidates in the 2014 presidential election will be obliged to start appealing to these groups in a more direct manner. The current policies of affirmative action are broadly a positive thing for black Brazilians, however they have  uncovered an inconvenient truth regarding Brazil and it’s notions of “racial democracy”.

Article by Andrew Tromans. Edited by Joe Austin.

Further Reading

[1] Oliver Balch, “Viva South America!” A Journey through a restless continent. Faber and Faber, (London 2009), pg200

[2] http://www.economist.com/node/21543494 Affirming a divide Black Brazilians are much worse off than they should be. But what is the best way to remedy that? Jan 28th 2012 | RIO DE JANEIRO | from the print edition

[3] http://www.economist.com/node/21543494 Affirming a divide Black Brazilians are much worse off than they should be. But what is the best way to remedy that? Jan 28th 2012 | RIO DE JANEIRO | from the print edition

[4] Oliver Balch, “Viva South America!” A Journey through a restless continent. Faber and Faber, (London 2009), pg 197

[5] http://www.economist.com/node/21543494 Affirming a divide Black Brazilians are much worse off than they should be. But what is the best way to remedy that? Jan 28th 2012 | RIO DE JANEIRO | from the print edition

[6] From “Racial Democracy” to Affirmative Action: Changing State Policy on Race in Brazil Mala Htun Latin American Research Review , Vol. 39, No. 1 (2004), pp. 60-89, p 68