Why the US and Brazil Should Talk About Race

On June 30, 2015, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will make her first trip to Washington D.C. She will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House almost two years after canceling a State Visit when reports surfaced that the N.S.A. had spied on the leftist leader’s phone calls. The two heads of state will discuss a range of topics, including climate change, energy, educational exchanges, science, and technology. Yet missing from the agenda is a disturbing issue that has confounded the two largest economies in the Americas: racial discrimination. Although the BRICS nation has advanced a number of public policies to redress racial inequality in recent years, the Obama administration has done little to stem the tide of a decades-long campaign waged by the right against the signature achievements of the Civil Rights Movement.

Historical legacies of slavery and institutionalized racism have long tied Brazil and the United States together. Both were major players in the Atlantic slave trade. Whereas the U.S. imported an estimated 400,000 slaves, an astonishing five million African-born men, women, and children were imported to toil as slaves in Brazil between roughly 1600 and 1888. Activists in the United States and Brazil mobilized to demand civil rights and racial equality during the 1960s and 1970s. Although observers are quick to highlight their differences, namely that Jim Crow style segregation never materialized in Brazil where half of the nation’s 200 million people are afro-descendants, observers acknowledge a shared experience of discrimination on the basis of race.

For instance, a 2012 Latin American Bureau report disclosed that 70 percent of those living below the poverty line in Brazil were black. Afro-Brazilians earned roughly half of what their white counterparts earned whereas blacks in the U.S. earned 75 percent of what whites earned. Meanwhile, 18 percent of African Americans attended a four-year university in 2009 compared to only 6.6 percent of Afro-Brazilians. High school graduation rates diverged dramatically: 62 percent of black students in the United States graduated compared to less than 33 percent of black students in Brazil. At the same time, the criminalization of black bodies has plagued both countries. African Americans account for 40 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million male inmates. In Brazil, statistics regarding the nation’s 564,000 inmates are notoriously difficult to obtain, but observers maintain that the vast majority of its prison population are young, black, and poor.

Although racial disparities are similar, the two global powers have trended in opposite directions in one major area: the law. In recent years the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and criticized affirmative action in its 2013 ruling in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. On the other hand, three consecutive Brazilian presidents- Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002), a conservative, Lula da Silva (2002-2010), a progressive, and his Workers’ Party successor, Dilma Rousseff (2010-present), have enacted a range of affirmative action policies that have eclipsed both the scope and scale of their U.S. antecedents.

This shift surprised some familiar with Brazilians’ attitudes towards race. In the aftermath of abolition in 1888, white elites sidestepped black demands for social reform. They alleged that high degrees of biological and cultural mixture between Europeans, afro-descendants, and indigenous peoples had dissolved racial distinctions and eradicated racial prejudice in Brazil. The U.S.-backed military junta that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985 embraced the “myth of racial democracy.” After the fall of the dictatorship the Movimento Negro Unificado, or “United Black Movement” (MNU), a coalition of Afro-Brazilian activists from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Salvador, challenged Brazil’s reputation as a racial paradise.

“Brazil must level the playing field for black people,” declared B. de Paiva, an Afro-Brazilian playwright and MNU veteran. He participated in the Constituent Assembly that met in Brasilia to write a new democratic constitution in 1987. “It is not enough for black people to stand out in samba and in soccer anymore,” he added. Inspired by the legislative victories of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the Afro-Brazilian caucus proposed an ambitious package of race-based rights and affirmative policies to redress racial inequality.

President Cardoso introduced racial quotas in state institutions and universities after a 1993 United Nations report exposed high levels of discrimination in the college admissions process. The federal government mandated that universities reserve between 20 and 40 percent of their slots for black students. President Rousseff required universities to set aside half of its vacancies for applicants from the nation’s public high schools, where the majority of graduates are nonwhites. On May 13, 2010, President Lula da Silva signed into law the Statute of Racial Equality, which created a federal ministry, SEPPIR, to oversee and implement Brazil’s affirmative action policies. These include a 2003 measure that requires the teaching of Afro-Brazilian history and culture in public schools and the 1989 “Cáo Act” that outlaws discrimination on the basis of race.

Brazil has even broached the subject of reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates explored the topic in the context of the United States in his 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations.” He advocated cash payments to African Americans not only as restitution for slavery but also for damages sustained under Jim Crow. Black activists sought similar benefits in Brazil. Although conservatives defeated a reparations proposal at the 1987-88 Constituent Assembly, Transitory Article 68 passed and raised hopes of achieving land reform.

Article 68 extends federal recognition and land rights to communities descended from fugitive slaves called quilombos.” Palmares, hidden in the rugged backcountry of the northeastern state of Alagoas, was perhaps Brazil’s most famous quilombo. It was home to over 20,000 runaways who repelled the assaults of Portuguese troops for nearly a century until its destruction in 1698. Yet Palmares was the exception and not the rule. Most quilombos were much smaller and hundreds of them emerged around the sugar plantations of Bahia, the banks of the Amazon River, and on the fringes of major cities. Today, the Brazilian government recognizes more than 3,000 quilombos and the number is growing.

São Pedro is one of these communities. Populated by afro-descendant subsistence farmers, São Pedro endures as one of 66 recognized quilombos in São Paulo’s Vale do Ribeira. The region is home to 20 percent of what remains of South America’s Atlantic Forest and safeguards the last reserves of endangered species in Brazil’s most industrialized state. São Pedro traces its origins to the 1740s when Paulista miners colonized and then abruptly abandoned the region after a gold rush. A labor shortage crippled their ambitions as scores of slaves deserted the mines and settled along the Ribeira de Iguape River. The river represents São Pedro’s lifeline. When the São Paulo government and cement giant Votorantim Corporation unveiled plans to construct four hydroelectric dams along the Ribeira de Iguape, São Pedro fought back. São Pedro and its neighbors became the first quilombos to sue the federal government in 1994 for land rights in accordance with Article 68, in part to block the dams.

The quilombos’ lawsuit was largely successful in preventing the dams. The state government tasked anthropologists with certifying São Pedro’s status as a quilombo in 1996 and bestowed on the community a collective land title five years later. However, conservative opposition diminished the law’s effectiveness. After a contentious debate, the Brazilian Congress established an onerous certification and titling process for quilombos. The certification process has embroiled thousands of quilombos in litigation for decades. For instance, São Pedro secured title for nearly three-quarters of its land from the state. The remaining quarter is located on privately owned land. Where quilombos claim private land, the Brazilian government must indemnify the landowners. INCRA, the federal ministry in charge of titling quilombo lands and compensating property owners, has rarely moved forward with these cases. In fact, of the more than 3,000 quilombos recognized by the federal government, only 195 have obtained land titles. Of these, only fifteen communities fully occupy their lands.

Twenty one years after suing the federal government, São Pedro waits. Patience is waning. “We’re talking about a country that has thousands of quilombos but only a dozen or so have received full benefits. That’s shameful,” says Aurico Dias, 52, a farmer and community leader from São Pedro. “Remember, Brazil waited almost 500 years to recognize quilombos and confront its history of slavery in the first place. Now it feels like we will have to wait another 500 years for our government to comply with its own laws.” Dias shakes his head. “Brazil has the resources to do so much better than this. But here we are, beating our chests, demanding the same rights afforded by our Constitution 27 years ago: recognition, land, and respect for quilombos.”

The gap between the law and its enforcement is a troubling development that President Rousseff and President Obama should address. The United States has much to learn from Brazil. For instance, the Obama administration would be wise to study Brazil’s successful defense of its affirmative action programs in the courts. Proponents of Rep. John Conyers’ (D-MI) reparations bill should examine how the Afro-Brazilian caucus overcame conservative opposition to ratify the quilombo law. On the other hand, the Brazilian government should be held accountable for its glacial pace in titling quilombos. Claims of a lack of funding for quilombos ring hollow in a country that spent $15 billion on the 2014 FIFA World Cup, invested another $14 billion on the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and recently earmarked over a quarter-billion dollars to construct a shopping mall next to the senate chambers in Brasilia. President Rousseff’s attempts to secure several hundred million dollars in additional U.S. aid should be conditioned upon her government’s sponsorship of existing social programs.

Edward F. Shore is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Texas at Austin.