Luciana Magalhaes and Samantha Pearson, Wall Street Journal, January 1, 2021
In its 124-year history, this midsize, mostly white city in Brazil’s prosperous farming belt had never had an Afro-Brazilian as mayor. Until now.
The inauguration Friday of Suéllen Rosim, 32 years old, comes as thousands of Black and mixed-race politicians from across the political spectrum take office in municipal governments across Brazil in what is being hailed as a victory for people of color and a big step against racism in Latin America’s biggest country.
A growing appreciation of Brazil’s African heritage and the rising profile of influential Black politicians have fueled the shift. Brazil has the biggest Black or mixed-race population of any country outside Africa, nearly 120 million—more than half the population—but only 4% of politicians in Congress are Black.
A Supreme Court ruling in October that forced parties to allocate a percentage of their state-provided campaign funds to Black and mixed-race candidates also elevated politicians of color and encouraged more to identify as such.
In November’s municipal elections, for the first time, Black and mixed-race politicians made up a majority of all candidates running for mayor and council seats across this country of 210 million people. That was up from 48% in the 2016 municipal elections. In the first round of voting more than 40% of Black or mixed-race candidates were elected, about 1,700 of them as mayors and close to 26,000 as council members, according to Brazil’s electoral court. Brazil’s most common racial mix is black and white; political candidates with black ancestry can identify themselves as either black or mixed-race.
The outcome in some corners of Brazil points to the newfound power: More than 50 people from quilombos, remote communities made up of the descendants of escaped slaves that have had little political representation, will settle into jobs as council members in towns outside these settlements. Large cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, usually represented by whites, saw inroads by Black politicians into city councils.
There are few Black and mixed-race people in politics in Brazil’s top cities, and some Afro-Brazilian leaders say racial equality is arriving too late. But change is happening. The share of Brazilians embracing their African heritage and identifying as Black or mixed-race has risen to 56% of the population in 2019 compared with 51% a decade earlier, according to the government statistics agency.
Brazil received far more African slaves than any other country in the Americas and was the last to abolish the practice, in 1888. Unlike the U.S., there was no civil war, no large-scale civil-rights movement and no countrywide debate over a national racial reckoning.
Instead, Brazilian leaders promoted the idea of “racial democracy,” presenting theirs as a society where people of all skin colors mixed harmoniously. Rights activists say it is a myth that has allowed racism to persist in the shadows.
“I believe that racism is worse here than in the U.S.,” said Paulo Paim, one of Brazil’s few Black senators. “In the U.S. there is a problem and society, in one way or another, is dealing with it…. But here people just refuse to see it.”
White Brazilians not only dominate politics but are more likely to be richer, have a university degree, hold managerial positions, and live longer and healthier lives. Of the poorest 10% of Brazilians, three quarters are Black or mixed-race.
Black Brazilians also accounted for three quarters of homicide victims and nearly 80% of the 6,375 people killed by the police in 2019.