Brazilian Secret 93 Million Don’t Want to Talk About Is Racism

Telma Marotto, Bloomberg, June 27, 2008

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Inflation, Crime, Deforestation

Behind the gloss, there’s another side of Brazil. Increased consumer demand and higher food prices are boosting inflation, crime is rampant, deforestation is accelerating and something many people don’t like to talk about—racism—is pervasive.

Brazilians pride themselves on their multicultural society, home to the largest black population outside of Africa. Their food, music and dance—their feijoada, the national dish of black beans stewed with pork and beef, and their rhythmic samba and bossa nova—are a mishmash, the legacy of more than 200 indigenous peoples, Portuguese colonists and about 4.5 million Africans who were brought to the country during more than 350 years of slavery. Interracial marriages are common.

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‘Anything But Race’

So pervasive is the perception that Brazil is a paragon of racial harmony and equality that it makes the discussion of discrimination all but impossible, says Carlos Santana, a Workers’ Party legislator who represents Rio de Janeiro and heads the National Congress’s Parliamentary Group to Promote Racial Equality.

“In Brazil, we can talk about anything but race,” Santana says. “The myth of racial democracy created a taboo.”

Some people outside of government use harsher terms.

“We have the strongest apartheid ever because people deny racism exists,” says Humberto Adami, head of the nonprofit Institute for Racial and Environmental Laws in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s very hard to combat what is taken as nonexistent.”

Statistics paint a picture of a nation tainted by the legacy of unequal opportunities. One hundred twenty years after becoming the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, Brazil remains divided by color. People of African descent are “a large, impoverished and discriminated-against population,” the Brazilian embassy in Washington said in a press release posted on its Web site in April.

‘Preta’ and ‘Parda’

Blacks—defined by the government and nongovernmental organizations as people who describe themselves as either “preta” (black) or mixed-race “parda” (brown)—make up almost half of the population. Of the nation’s more than 187 million people, 92.7 million are black and 93.1 million are white; Asians, Indians and those who haven’t declared a race make up the rest. On average, they earn little more than half as much as whites, 578.2 reais ($361) a month compared with 1,087.1 reais, according to a report based on 2006 data by IPEA Institute for Applied Economic Research, a government group in Brasilia.

Black women are particularly disadvantaged. According to a study by IPEA and the United Nations Development Fund for Women using 2003 data, black women earned 70 percent less than white men, 35 percent less than black men and almost 18 percent less, on average, than white women.

Few blacks make it into management. They account for an estimated 3.5 percent of the executives, 17 percent of the managers and 17.4 percent of the supervisors at 500 major companies, according to the Ethos Institute, a Sao Paulo-based business group that seeks to promote social responsibility. In the U.S., blacks make up about 13.5 percent of the population and hold about 6.3 percent of the management jobs, according to U.S. government data.

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‘Linked to Education’

“No,” says Roberto Setubal, chief executive officer of Sao Paulo-based Banco Itau Holding Financeira SA, Brazil’s second- largest nongovernment bank. “I think this situation is closely linked to education,” he says. “It’s a problem that can only be solved in the long term as the level of education in Brazil improves.”

The country is moving in that direction, Lula said in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg News.

“It’s a cultural problem,” Lula said. “Instead of complaining that business people don’t hire blacks, we need to improve education, the background of everyone, so that people can take all the possible positions. We are advancing in this direction.”

A Petrobras official says the company hires only through an exam that’s open to everyone.

“There’s no discrimination by race, age or religion,” the official says in an e-mailed response to questions. Respect for people of different races “is explicit in the company’s ethics code,” says the official, who refused to be identified by name.

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‘Spending Power’

“If you consider the spending power of the black community in the U.S., you can have an idea of the consumers we are leaving behind because they are at the margin of social inclusion,” says Luana Moraes, 35, director at Differential, a Sao Paulo-based consulting firm specializing in corporate diversity. “It’s an economic issue as well as a social one.”

Jose Vicente, rector of Universidade da Cidadania Zumbi dos Palmares, known as Unipalmares, estimates that gross domestic product growth might be 2 percentage points greater if blacks were fully integrated into the economy.

“We are simply giving our back to half of the population,” he says.

Vicente, who is black and has degrees in sociology and law, says he faces discrimination daily. Visiting Brasilia, the country’s capital and political hub, in March 2007 to attend his friend Miguel Jorge’s swearing in as trade minister, Vicente, 48, says he was asked to fetch a chair for another invitee.

‘Spirit of the Senzala’

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Some students of Brazilian society say the pervasive denial that racial bias is behind the gap between blacks and whites is itself proof that discrimination exists.

“Racial prejudice in Brazil lies in the insistence that there is no racial prejudice,” Joseph A. Page, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, wrote in “The Brazilians,” a 1995 book based on research conducted during 16 visits to Brazil over three decades.

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‘Perpetuates Itself’

“People tend to hire other people who are like themselves,” he says. “It perpetuates itself.”

For blacks who do achieve corporate success, the experience can be disorienting.

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Mother’s Advice

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Expatriate executives working in Brazil are also victims of racism. Douglas Taylor, a 46-year-old black U.S. citizen, says that when he first came to Brazil in 1990 to work for Citigroup Inc. in Rio de Janeiro, he was expecting a country where people were treated the same regardless of their skin color, he says.

“If it’s a racial democracy, why can’t blacks feel more comfortable anywhere they go?” asks Taylor, who is now an analyst for Daniel Advogados, a Rio de Janeiro-based intellectual property law firm. “I don’t call it a racial democracy.”

‘Dollar Denominated’

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Brazil’s blacks might hold better jobs if they had better access to quality education.

“One hundred years after the abolition of slavery, the former slaves haven’t yet received the appropriate attention from the central government,” says Fernando Haddad, Lula’s education minister since 2005. “The education issue is one of the elements that explain this phenomenon,” Haddad, 45, says. “But I have no doubt that there is racial discrimination as well.”

‘Stop This Silliness’

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“It’s necessary that we stop this silliness of being scared to confront racism,” Lula said in a speech in November 2006, a month after his re-election for a second four-year term. “We have to confront it with claws out and teeth bared,” he said.

Blacks repeatedly stress the importance of schooling.

“Education is the only way to exit poverty,” Walkiria Moreira Marinho says. Marinho, 59, who retired as a general manager at Telefonica SA in Sao Paulo in 2001, says she was one of five blacks at the college she attended and one of two women among 70 students in her class. “But the truth is that you can never get rid of racism.”

When her son was 6 years old, he was rejected by a school in one of Sao Paulo’s most-exclusive neighborhoods, Marinho says. As she looked in vain for his name on a posting of those accepted, she remembers being interrupted by another mother who asked, “Do you see any other black child here?” Marinho says she ultimately succeeded in registering her son at another school, and today, at age 27, he is a diplomat.

‘Gave My Best’

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The universities from which companies recruit trainees don’t reflect the composition of the population, says Gustavo Marin, president of Banco Citibank SA, the Brazilian unit of New York- based Citigroup. At the Universidade de Sao Paulo, for example, 13.4 percent of the students registered in 2007 were black, up from 12.5 percent in 2006.

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No Shield

Still, education goes only so far. Luiz Claudio Polycarpo, 47, has degrees in engineering, marketing and education. He also has an important job: supervisor of customer training and electronic tools distribution at Guarulhos-based Cummins Brasil Ltda., the Brazilian subsidiary of U.S. engine maker Cummins Inc. Neither his education nor his job shield him from racist affronts.

A few years ago, when he and his white boss visited a client company, a security guard mistook Polycarpo for a chauffeur and refused to talk to him, he says. Instead, the guard went straight to Polycarpo’s foreign boss, who was sitting in the passenger seat and didn’t speak Portuguese. Discrimination like that isn’t about education or social status, he says; it’s about color.

Brazil’s confusion and denial over race are manifest in the way the lines sometimes blur in defining who is black and who is white. Take the case of the Teixeira da Cunha brothers.

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Limited Prosecutions

While the constitution of 1988, adopted three years after the end of 21 years of military rule, made racism a crime, prosecutions have been limited, says Sinvaldo Firmo, a lawyer at the Father Batista Institute for Blacks, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Sao Paulo. When there are convictions, penalties are usually fines or orders to perform community service, he says.

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A so-called Racial Equality Statute, which was approved by the Senate in 2005, hasn’t been voted on in the lower house. The measure would, among other things, give tax incentives to companies hiring black workers and impose a quota system in universities.

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‘Light Years’

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There’s wide agreement among those who acknowledge Brazil’s racism that it’s the product of centuries of prejudice.

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“Racism is clearly an issue in Brazil,” Ferreira says. “As a black person, you notice it all the time.”

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