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Brazil: Obama Samba

Extended Interview -- Diva Moreira

Diva Moreira
Diva Moreira is a political scientist who has been involved in social movements since the 1960's. She founded Casa Dandara, a cultural center promoting black self-esteem and leadership, for which she was awarded an Ashoka Fellowship. She has been a visiting scholar at the University of Austin, Texas, as well as at The Wilson Center in Washington D.C. where she conducted research comparing race relations in the U.S. and Brazil. Since leaving the United Nations Development Program in Brazil, she has been working as an independent consultant on issues of politics and social equality.

To make sense of how Brazilians see themselves in terms of race, FRONTLINE/World reporter Andrés Cediel exchanged e-mails with Diva Moreira about how race is defined in Brazil, and how this definition has impacted progress, politics and social movements within the black community. Her answers have been translated from Portuguese.

Andrés Cediel: Is there racism in Brazil?

Diva Moreira: And how! It’s just that racism in Brazil was constructed in an intelligent fashion, without the vulgar strategies used in other places, such as the United States or South Africa. Here, there wasn’t, for example, explicit racial segregation; there wasn’t a need to issue passes for black people to enter white neighborhoods. There were other strategies here, disguised and more effective, to the point that it did not awaken the indignation of blacks domestically or within the international community.

One time I was speaking with a friend, a black political scientist from a prestigious American university, and I asked him, “How come racism in Brazil hasn’t provoked the same indignation that you felt towards South African apartheid?” Do you know what he said to me? “In South Africa, there was much bloodshed; people were being massacred in the streets. In Brazil, there is no bloodshed.”

This isn’t true! Black youth, living in the slums, are being killed all year long, all over the country. And this is one of the most perverse forms of racism, precisely because people are not shocked by it.

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Brazilian slums – or favelas – are largely populated by Afro-Brazilians, and are among the most violent neighborhoods in the world.

How is the concept of race different in Brazil compared to the United States?

The difference is that in the United States racial classifications were based on a legal definition that said if one-eighth of someone’s blood was black, then that person was considered black. Many people who are considered black in the United States would be considered brown, or light brown, here in Brazil. Not necessarily black as such. This has created divisions among ourselves, which has made it difficult to mobilize and organize black movements.

What about Obama? Would he be considered black?

In some circles, yes, and in others, no -- he would be considered mulatto, mostly because he is elegant, educated and well-off economically, that is, all things that are associated in Brazil with being white.

In the United States, we had a Civil Rights movement, and a history of racial tension and struggle. This hasn’t happened in Brazil. Why?                     

In Brazil we’ve internalized the myth of “racial democracy” -- a school of thought that has advocated harmonious and cordial relations between races. And there has never been direct racial violence, as was the case with lynching in the United States.

Racial segregation in the United States was the determining factor: Miscegenation did not remove mulattos from the black community, where they were educated in black schools and went to black churches. This facilitated the identity of the black community and allowed for a much more positive self-image and self-esteem.

In the United States, the refrain was 'separate but equal.' Here it was 'together but unequal.' This created very low self-esteem, which is what you can see in our children, young people and adults, even to this day.

Why are there so few black politicians in Brazil?

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Benedita da Silva has been a pioneering Afro-Brazilian politician, and was the country’s first female senator.

There are many reasons why. Who would finance our campaigns? We have never accumulated financial capital in this country. So we don’t have money to support black political candidates, or to support white political candidates with whom we could forge alliances to advance our struggles.

Racism is also a factor. Black politicians are rarely elected, and those that are -- such as ex-Senator, ex-Minister Benedita da Silva -- always denounce the difficulties they have encountered within their own parties, to be able to come out of the shadows and be respected. They all speak of the resistance of their parties to take on racial issues. In other words, black politicians may be allowed in, but not their inconvenient ideas about race in Brazil.

What would it mean to have a black president in Brazil? Is this a possibility in the near future?

I'm skeptical about this. In the United States, you had 43 administrations without a black person in power. Surely, it will take us longer than this, given our lack of resources and political power. Also, the internalized racism among us has serious consequences. Black voters may not vote for a black candidate because they don’t believe he or she is capable of leading.