Posted on June 11, 2008

Brazilians See Themselves in Mixed-Race Obama

Stephanie Beasley, Reuters, June 10, 2008

Barack Obama’s campaign for the U.S. presidency has generated huge interest in Brazil, a country whose African heritage is a key part of its identity but where many blacks still struggle to progress in society.

Democrat contender Obama would be the United States’ first African-American president should he defeat Republican John McCain in November’s election.

Obama’s progress has been avidly debated in Brazil, from student refectories to newspaper columns. His portrait was on the front cover of this week’s Veja magazine, a leading Brazilian news weekly, along with a 10-page report.

“Obama looks like my father,” singer Caetano Veloso said in an interview with Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. “He’s a mulatto that’s looks like someone from Santo Amaro (Veloso’s hometown). I’ve heard he’s said he looks like a Brazilian.”

The interest in Obama highlights different notions of race in Brazil and the United States—who have a shared history of slavery—and also Brazil’s own racial fault lines.

Brazil boasts of being a racial democracy. Many people have African blood, including internationally famed musicians and athletes, and African elements are ingrained in the national culture from samba to cooking.

But in reality, few Afro-Brazilians are in the top ranks of politics and business. Blacks count for many of the poor in this country of 185 million people, which has one world’s biggest income disparities. Police harassment of young black men is common.

“There are few racists in Brazil but there is racism,” said Andre Jenszky, a lawyer at the Sao Paulo office of a Wall Street firm. “Racism is sort of casual and everyday.”

To many Brazilians, Obama, the son of a white American woman and a black Kenyan, is not quite black anyway.