The deepest of racisms



What is structural racism? it is a necessary reading for difficult times like ours, where thought and reflection seem to lose place amidst prejudices and unreasonable statements of purpose and meaning.

A judicial sentence handed down in 2016 against a defendant convicted of robbery and attempted murder stimulates a series of reflections on social relations and discussions involving race and racism in Brazil. After analyzing the events and disclosing the 30-year prison sentence for the criminal, the judge responsible for the verdict describes her surprise in relation to the individual who committed the crime: “The defendant does not have the standard stereotype of a criminal, he has skin, eyes and fair hair, not liable to be easily confused.” The decision by the judge from the state of São Paulo was widely publicized on social media in 2019, three years after the event, and points to a series of expectations regarding those who commit crimes in Brazil: skin color, hair type, ancestors, residence, family structure, among other aspects.

Written by a professional accustomed to decisions with considerable effects on the lives of citizens and supported by the law, the sentence produces diverse analyzes and it is even questionable whether the honorable judge was racist in her description. It is very likely that she will not describe herself as such, educated as she probably is by the traditional values ​​of the Enlightenment and a defender of equality, freedom and fraternity. However, the situation also reveals an interesting pattern explored by economist and social scientist Eduardo Giannetti:

“Opinion polls conducted in Brazil have revealed an intriguing pattern. When each citizen is asked, for example, if he considers himself a racist, the vast majority responds negatively. But when you ask the same people if there is racism in Brazil, the result is certainly the opposite: the largely majority opinion is that there is a good deal of racial prejudice among us” (GIANNETTI, 2018: 43)

Giannetti explores the perception that we Brazilians have of ourselves, not only in racial matters, but also in relation to habits and behaviors, among other characteristic traits of this rich human grouping that we find in Brazil. In the case of the São Paulo judge's sentence and her description of expectations about who seems bandit and who it does not seem, it is likely that this same difficulty occurs in observing oneself and one's own practice as a directly racist action. If questioned, it is very likely that the operator of the law will deny any kind of prejudice or racial segregation, claiming perhaps that, on average, criminal practices really involve individuals who confirm their expectations. However, in connection with the enigma raised by Giannetti, another paradox arises here: How can there be racism without racists?

This is one of the themes addressed in the stimulating and welcome book by the São Paulo lawyer and philosopher of law, Sílvio Almeida, entitled What is structural racism? The book is part of the “Plural Feminisms” collection, coordinated by Djamila Ribeiro, who is also a philosopher. It is a work of social theory, which has two fundamental theses: (i) we cannot understand contemporary society without the concepts of race and racism; (ii) the racism involved in such a society is always structural, that is, it is an element that integrates the political and economic organization of our society. In general, Almeida seeks to show that the expressions of racism in everyday life, in interpersonal relationships and in the dynamics of institutions are manifestations of something deeper, “which develops in the political and economic bowels of society” (p. 16). Returning to the case of the sentence handed down by the judge, she expressed the structural racism that founds and organizes our societies, where being a criminal is “a black thing”. But why and how does Brazilian society have this structure?

Sílvio Almeida divides the book into five chapters to explain how this works. It first describes a bit of the history of the concept of “race”, highlighting the contemporary scientific questioning about the existence of human races. However, it is a concept that permeates history, generating tensions and crises at different times. The author makes important distinctions, mainly between prejudice, discrimination, racism, the latter being a form of racial discrimination based on biological or ethnic-cultural characteristics. He distinguishes three interrelated conceptions of racism: (i) the individualist conception, where individuals maintain racial restrictions and discrimination – and which today is widely considered a moral error and crime; (ii) the institutional conception, where racism manifests itself as a result of the functioning of institutions, “which start to act in a dynamic that confers, albeit indirectly, disadvantages and privileges based on race”. (p. 29); (iii) the structural conception, in which racism stems from the social structure itself, from the way in which social, political and economic relations are constituted. In this last conception, racism ceases to be a social pathology or an institutional breakdown, but rather a historical and political component that enables the systematic racial discrimination of individuals today. It is a historical process, as racism was present in the formation of Brazilian society, sustaining economic processes and social organization through a long period of enslavement and continues until today. And it is a political process, as it influences the organization of society and the distribution of power unevenly.

Next, Almeida seeks to show how we started to “naturalize racism”, that is, transform differences based on racial criteria into something common and commonplace in Brazil. Even without the scientific seal, many theories about the ineptitude of black people cross common sense, perpetuating practices and situations that exclude and maintain social inequalities, thus attributing “natural places” to individuals. Such visions are constituted from a rich and complex social imaginary, always reinforced by the means of communication, by the cultural industry and by the educational system (and reaffirmed in our daily lives – as in the case of the maids in soap operas, mostly black). Almeida also shows how the conditions of blacks and whites are dependent on specific historical and political circumstances, linked to different discourses and evaluative situations (Is the player Neymar black?). Finally, it addresses the concept of meritocracy, showing how discourses of this nature are highly racist, since they promote the conformity of individuals with their situation, without thinking about the historical, political and social circumstances that fostered such an order of things.

In analyzing the relationship between racism and politics, Almeida outlines hypotheses about the nature of the state, distinguishing some forms of racial consideration on their part and the strange relationships between race and nation. In his analysis of the Brazilian state, the author argues that national projects in Brazil, since the implementation of the first republic, sought to institutionalize racism, involving it in the national imaginary, with the aim of internalizing internal contradictions. He also defends the importance of the political representation of minorities in the organization of the state, based on two effects of this participation: (i) the opening of a political space so that the claims of minorities can be passed on; (ii) the dismantling of discriminatory narratives that place minorities in subordinate positions. Finally, it starts from the analysis of the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe on the dynamics of control and elimination of black bodies, to show how this process is effective in Brazil, with policies of intense repression against poor and black youth.

The author promotes a rich and in-depth analysis of the relationship between law and racism. Almeida argues that we can reduce the current views on the relationship between law and racism to two: (i) law is the most efficient way to combat racism, civilly and criminally punishing racist acts and practices and structuring public policies to promote equality; (ii) the law is part of the same social structure that reproduces racism as a political practice and as an ideology, even if it can introduce superficial changes in the condition of minority groups. It also deals with the relationship between race and legality, showing how the legal apparatus of the past supported enslavement in Brazil (he cites the reference to “slaves of the kingdom” in colonial legislation), but also how laws and legal provisions, such as the Statute of Equality Racial (Law 12.288, of 20/07/2010), were created with the aim of limiting racist and discriminatory practices. Finally, it discusses anti-racist legal practices and gives the example of Critical Racial Theory, a theoretical current that emerged in the United States and which seeks to expand studies and analyzes on the relationship between racism and law.

In the expositions on the relationship between racism and the economy, Almeida firstly analyzes the relationship between racism and inequality, noting that it can be expressed in statistical data and quantified in mathematical terms, but its explanation lies in the understanding of society and its numerous conflicts. Thus, to explain facts observed in Brazilian economic dynamics, such as the occupation of low-paid and precarious jobs by black people and the highest unemployment rates among black people, he visits some economic theories. Among these, one can highlight the theory of cumulative causes, developed by Nobel Prize winner Gunnar Myrdal in 1944, in which the economist shows how the accumulation of factors, such as low schooling, poor access to health and food, misinformation, among others, end up determining the economic possibilities of black individuals. However, this and other hypotheses in economic theory still do not point to a structural view of racism in economic organization, shifting the focus to the analysis of the individual and not the social and political structure that makes the lives of these individuals more difficult.

In this sense, two relevant points from the economic-structural point of view must be considered to understand racism at the structural level: (i) racism manifests itself in the economic field in an objective way, as when economic policies establish privileges for the dominant racial group or harm minorities; (ii) racism manifests itself in the economic field in a subjective way, incorporating ideologies and naturalizing circumstances such as the connections between poverty, violence and the black population. One of the elements involved in this set is the possibility of normalizing the overexploitation of black labor, who end up available for this situation due to the precariousness of their social structure. Almeida also highlights the specificity of forms of structural racism in different places, such as Brazil, the USA and South Africa, in connection with the modes of economic development specific to each place. It addresses the limitations of the discourse that connects the current situation of blacks in Brazil as a legacy of slavery and, according to its argument, this type of explanation misses the fact that the very functioning of the market economy ends up structuring practices of segregation and violence guided by racial criteria. The author offers an interesting reflection on the limitation of developmental theories to deal with the phenomenon of structural racism and also shows how economic crises produce harsher effects and consequences for minorities, mainly through segregating discourses and austerity policies.

A felt absence in Almeida's informative work is a chapter on sociology. In it, Almeida could broaden the discussion on the structural characteristics of societies, deal in more detail with the way racism structures our society, with everyday examples and show its good Marxist foundation. However, due to the introductory scope of the books in this collection, it is acceptable that the author has sought to dilute the content of this methodological exposition throughout the book. However, as Almeida writes very well and with good foundations on the “deepest of racisms”, it is hoped that in future works he will be able to offer us a little more on the subject. He also does not address objections and criticisms to the structural treatment of racism, which could further show the pertinence of his hypothesis.

The Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, for example, is a critic of the notion of racial identity, since there are no human races: “The truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world capable of doing everything we ask it to do. race do for us” (APPIAH: 1997, 75). In this way, how to find unity among the different individuals affected by a possible structural racism? How to define who is black and who is not, in a country as mixed as ours? Another type of criticism involves the risk of “racialization of social relations” in discourses about the functioning of society. One of the main elements to mitigate the effects of structural racism advocated by Almeida is the implementation of affirmative actions, which seek to increase the representativeness and participation of historically and socially disadvantaged individuals. Philosopher Thomas Sowell (2004) analyzed examples from several countries where distinctions existed according to ethno-racial criteria and concluded that such policies tend to feed back the racialized perceptions of society, amplifying conflicts and crises. So, would discussions about race and racism end up racializing social relations in the country, causing such effects?

In response to such possible criticisms, it can be said that, even if there are no human races, as Appiah wants and is widely defended in the biological sciences, the political and historical processes that formed our society were immersed in the belief that races existed and that were to be considered. Thus, the risk of disregarding or not addressing its effects is to maintain perverse social structures that segregate and promote suffering, segregation and violence. Even though we are a somewhat mixed country (are we really?), one can clearly see how social spaces are occupied and resources are distributed in an extremely unequal way, with blacks and their descendants still occupying the bottom of social classifications, the worst jobs and the fewest opportunities for life fulfillment. Finally, regarding the risk of “racialization of social relations”, what is perceived is that social relations are already racialized: our society did not follow the precept of Joaquim Nabuco (1849-1910), that “it was not enough to end slavery”, but it would also be necessary to “destroy his work”; In this way, a vast contingent of human beings was abandoned to their own fate, without any type of social and citizenship insertion process, keeping them at the margins of political, economic and social processes, in addition to maintaining prejudiced worldviews and social structures. of segregation: To think that in Brazil there are no racial conflicts in the face of the violent and unequal reality that is presented to us on a daily basis borders on delirium, perversity or the most absolute bad faith” (p. 154).

What is structural racism? it is a necessary reading for difficult times like ours, where thought and reflection seem to lose ground amidst prejudices and unreasonable statements of purpose and meaning, even by authorities with little responsibility and without proper knowledge of our history and society. Almeida is a sophisticated intellectual, his exposition is organized and methodical, with well-structured conclusions that should be read and debated. Reading her book is, in addition to being an intellectual exercise, extremely important so that we can understand from what assumptions and supports the São Paulo judge wrote her sentence, in which she exposes her expectation that blacks are criminals in Brazil. Our society has developed from racist and segregating practices, and has remained so until today, displacing blacks and the poor to the margins of their social, political and economic systems. There was no way to be different with a history and society like ours. This type of racism deepens our subjectivities, to the extent that we naturalize it and believe “that it has always been like this” and “that nothing can be done”. It also penetrates deep into our institutions and social structures to the point of appearing to be a “natural order of reality”. But it is not, and Sílvio Almeida shows us very well how and why.

*Jose Costa Junior Professor of Philosophy and Social Sciences at IFMG –Campus New bridge.


ALMEIDA, Silvio. What is structural racism? Belo Horizonte: Literacy, 2018 (

APPIAH, Kwame Anthony. In my father's house: Africa in the philosophy of culture. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 1997 (

GIANNETTI, Eduardo. “The Brazilian Paradox”. In: The Mutt's Praise and Other Essays. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018 (

NABUCO, Joaquim. Essential Joaquim Nabuco. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2010 (

SOWELL, Thomas. Affirmative action around the world: An empirical study. Yale: Yale University Press, 2004 (

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