The rhythm of samba is being replaced by funeral hymns. Almost 560,000 Brazilians (608,000 as of October 31,2021) have succumbed to COVID-19, the world’s second highest death toll, and no end is in sight. There have been “Staggering losses”, as the BBC reported (on July 8), provoking Medecins sans Frontières to warn of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Brazil.
Supplies of drugs and oxygen, confirmed British publication The Lancet, “are running short”. Yet, Jair Bolsonaro, president of the nation of 212 million, continues to treat the deadly virus as “just a flu”, as did his colleague Donald Trump before U.S. voters forced him to vacate the White House. Bolsonaro continues to hold public gatherings, provoke scientific denialism, and ignore the advice of his health ministers, of whom he has dismissed three since the pandemic started. Like Trump, the Brazilian leader ignores face masks and vaccines, and suggested that Brazilians should stop “whining” about the pandemic.
It is unlikely the COVID-19 disaster will be under control when, next year, the Brazilian people will be asked to vote for a new (or old) president: Jair Bolsonaro or, probably, the former left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva: the symbol of white supremacy versus the man of black/brown power. Bolsonaro has reason to fear the vote. His disapproval rating is at an all-time high, and voter intentions show him further falling behind his rival, who spent 580 days in jail for alleged corruption, yet did not suffer any loss of popularity.
The question: will the Brazilian Blacks and Browns, who make up 56% of the national population, but are represented by only 125 (out of 513) delegates in the Chamber of Deputies, regain power, and the opportunity to revolutionize the future of their nation. According to Ana Paula Barreto, a Black Brazilian and Director of Programs of the New York based AfroResistance, in a podcast produced by the Policy Center for the New South (‘Bridging the Gender Gap -Intersectionality of Oppression: the case of Afro Latinas’), Brazil has been “controlled by the same families and structures over the last 300 years”.
For Ana Paula Barreto, who was born in Jardim Angela, a poor and reputedly dangerous area of Sao Paulo, the “colonial structures are still in place”, and thus justice and freedom are not available to all: “We are the majority, forced to be the minority, since power, the application of power determines, who rules”. 10 percent of the White class, which counts for 43% of the population, owns 90% of the land. One example, mentioned by Barreto: Salvadore (Bahia), population of 1.8 million, largely Black and Brown, which in its history has never been led by a Black mayor. The state of Bahia, where the majority is Black, has never elected a brown or black governor either.
Edward Telles, a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, noted in the digital magazine” UN Chronicle” (Racial discrimination and miscegenation, Vol.44,issue 3,Jan 2008): “Based on the statistical analysis of censuses, and other evidence we know that racial discrimination in the labor market and other spheres of Brazilian society is common. Non-whites are major victims of human rights abuses, including widespread police violence. On average black and brown (mulatto and mixed race) Brazilians earn half the income of the white population. Most notably the middle class and the elite are almost entirely white, so that Brazil’s well known melting pot only exists among the working class and the poor.” Black Brazilians accounted for 76.2 percent of the 50 033 people murdered in the nation in 2020(“Yearbook of Public Security”).
The Legacy of Slavery
In early May, police in Rio de Janeiro killed 28 suspected drug dealers in the Jacarezinho favela. Some, neighbors reported, were ready to surrender but were, allegedly, shot in cold blood. Thousands of Black Brazilians demonstrated while their president publicly thanked the police for a job well done.
“Violence has characterized Brazilian history since the earliest days of colonization”, wrote Heloisa Starling and Lila Schwarcz in their historical study Brazil: A Biography. Even after slavery ended, “its legacy casts a long shadow”. Black people are the most harshly treated by the justice system, have the shortest life spans, the least access to higher education and to highly qualified jobs. Brazilian activist Iéda Leal, writing in Education International, declared “with more than 300 years of history, racism is ingrained in Brazilian society”. The activist added that because of the presence of an “inept and indifferent government”, Black men are the main victims of COVID-19 in Brazil, totaling 250 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, as compared with 157 deaths per 100,000 among whites, according to figures from the NGO Instituto Polis.
Among women, those with Black skin are also more affected: 140 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants against 85 per 100,000 among white women. The trend is highlighted in another survey carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, which showed that women, Black people and the poor are most affected by the disease. For centuries, Brazil managed to cultivate an image of a racism-free society, which used slavery—the kidnapping of about 10 million Africans—to advance the economic power of the nation, far more slaves than ever worked in the U.S. cotton and tobacco fields. At the end the color of skin did not determine the acceptance or refusal of a citizen.
The pulse of phantasies, a free life style, touched the beaches with gentle waves, Black and Brown, seemingly united, the ocean waves drowning any suggestion of class and repression. Samba rhythm excited dancers during the mythical carnival, and local football players floated above the pitches like athletic butterflies. Magic touches by dark skinned Pele, or Ronaldinho, did not allow debates of poverty, starvation and oppression (Nevertheless Ronaldinho supported the right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro during the 2018 election). Brazil was the paradise of harmony, colorblind, just as deceptive as a Fata Morgana. Two decades ago, gifted youngsters like Ana Paula Barreto, were hardly accepted to public schools, many forced to remain in work as domestic workers, maids or cooks.
Barreto realized at a young age that her “community was lacking the conditions and opportunities to have a dignified life”. Through studies, internships and working experiences in NGOs and international organizations, she was able to liberate herself and follow her path, which led her to New York. In her more than one hour long podcast for the Policy Center for the New South with Lilia Rizk, she admitted that often Black women, herself included, are still shadowed by “misogynoir”, a term coined by U.S. scholar Moya Bailey, and defined as “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against black women”. Three hundred years of Black enslavement, Ana Paula Barreto, said “has left its traces”.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.