Brazilian racism

Image: Afeez Ajibola Yusuf


Brazil is a country in search of its identity. The affirmative action policy, despite having been ridiculed then, is today, fortunately, an achievement

Racism dominated science and Western civilization in the first half of the XNUMXth century. After the disaster of the Second World War, Brazil, then considered a racial paradise, was an example to be followed. “Brazilian racial democracy” was the subject of research by UNESCO in favor of overcoming racism at an international level.

However, the research Perceptions about racism in Brazil, carried out in April 2023 on the initiative of the Peregum Black Reference Institute and the SETA Project – Education System for an Anti-Racist Transformation, reveals that 8 out of 10 people consider Brazil to be a racist country.

Gabriel García Márquez said he lived to tell the story; I count for a living. Although he doesn't wear blackness on his skin, my father was a slave in Ebensee. But he only came across black people for the first time in his life when he was liberated by American soldiers from the Nazi concentration camp in Austria. After staying in refugee camps, my parents went to live in a tenement, where I was born. My mother had never seen a black person in her life until she disembarked at the Port of Santos in 1953. Joseph Roth, in A Jew goes to America, wrote in 1927, “on the other side of the ocean, there are Jews even more Jews than Jews, that is, blacks.”

My parents didn't even know where the Colégio Estadual de São Paulo was, where I attended high school. But one day, I met my mother at school, who had been called by the principal. We were in the midst of the military dictatorship and the director, in my presence, told my mother that I was subversive, one of those who “said” they married black women. I was somewhat disturbed because the principal did not restrict herself to politics, including, as a subversion, my friendship with one of the few black girls at the school, which, for me, had no relation whatsoever to my political preferences (or should it have? ).

The racial issue, evidently, is a cultural construction. On a bus, my four-year-old son asked something about “that white woman in front of us”. I wasn't seeing any white woman in front of us and he, not wanting to point at her, started to get irritated with me, “how come you don't see that white woman in front of us?” She was a black woman with a white blouse.

As a professor at the university, due to an incident, I found myself involved in coordinating research in the health area. In public health we are faced with the issue of violence; and, starting with the homicides, we come to the racial issue. Research on violence led us to drug trafficking and the conclusion that the majority of homicide victims are drug dealers themselves, more precisely small and disposable retail dealers, who live on the fringes of organized crime.

Homicides related to drug trafficking have three sources: the caustic criminal code established by drug trafficking which, in poor neighborhoods, leads its young members to death; the bloodthirsty competition between drug gangs, derived from the extraordinary profits of this (illicit) trade; and confrontation with the police, in many cases with corrupt police officers who demand their share of the profits. The “law of silence” guarantees the protection of the hierarchy and authorities involved in trafficking. A noia is killed for a default of 70 reais, to impose morality; and the elite, who collect their chips with the help of a squeegee, are protected.

The profile of homicide victims is male, young, poor and black. But, if the victims are the traffickers themselves, this is equivalent to saying that the profile of the traffickers is male, young, poor and black. When we close the article “Fatal victims of violence and the drug market in the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo”, published in the Revista Brasileira de Estudos de População, we found it more convenient to only mention the variables gender, age group and income level, excluding the variable race /color… to then focus on the study we call “Victims of color”.

In the research, we came across key demographic questions to understand the greater participation of black people among victims (and among retail traffickers). We discovered that black people, in addition to being the majority in the poor population, are also the majority in the male population and among the young population, that is, there are proportionally more black men than white men and there are proportionally more young people among blacks than among whites. The research revealed that poor and young men, black and non-black, are equally likely to be murdered (and retail drug dealers).

Although the homicide mortality rate is higher in the black population, the homicide mortality rate for young, poor men is the same among blacks and whites. In other words, the work confirms that the majority of retail drug dealers (and homicide victims) are small and disposable drug dealers, poor and young men, black and white, who live on the fringes of organized crime.

Our results, published in Public health notebooks of Fiocruz, were not properly understood. At scientific conferences in the area of ​​public health, several black representatives thought that we were minimizing the importance of black homicides, and we were not. We were also invited to present our work at the Barro Branco Military Academy. The Military Police officers were very happy with our work, because they wanted to believe that it meant that they were not harassing black people. In other words, our plan backfired.

After this fiasco, we dedicated ourselves to research on “Concentration and distribution of income by race in Brazil”, which was published in Contemporary economics magazine from UFRJ. Based on these studies and evidence, in 2000, we began to advocate for the regulation of quotas at universities; and, in parallel, we opened vacancies for black people to carry out research on racial issues in the country. But we were very surprised by the racism prevalent among left-wing professors in Brazilian universities.

In a meeting with all program coordinators of the university's postgraduate dean's office, only three programs spoke in favor of the quotas, all others were against. One coordinator took the trouble to read a manifesto she wrote against quotas for black people, defending quotas for homosexuals; another, laughing, said that we all had a foot in the kitchen, to which I replied, “I don’t”.

Brazil is a country in search of its identity. The affirmative action policy, despite having been ridiculed at the time, is today, fortunately, an achievement. The university, at the time I entered college, was in Belgium. Today, fortunately, due to affirmative actions, the public university is becoming more like Brazil, even if only among its student body. The professors are still Belgian, but the university is certainly producing black intellectuals who, a generation from now, will be occupying teaching positions, like the geographer Milton Santos.

*Samuel Kilsztajn is a full professor of political economy at PUC-SP. Author, among other books, of 1968, dreams and nightmares (

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