In May 2020, police were responsible for the death of a young black man after resorting to violence to restrain him. The story of George Floyd has swept the world, creating a movement of outrage and a plea for change. But this is not just the story of George Floyd in the United States (US); João Pedro Matos Pinto, a fourteen-year-old Afro-Brazilian, was also killed by police in a raid of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
Pinto’s story of racial inequality is widespread in Brazil. Afro-Brazilians number at forty-eight per cent of Brazil’s total population, yet are subject to ongoing and systematic social and economic discrimination. Statistics show that 78 per cent of Afro-Brazilians live below the poverty line.
In response to the anti-racism protests in the US following George Floyd’s death, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council have revealed an intention to vote to dismantle the police force. This outcome suggests that some American authorities are listening to the protests and are beginning to contemplate ways of making meaningful change.
But the same cannot be said about Brazil. Hundreds have been marching in Rio de Janeiro in protest of systemic racial inequality in Brazil and police brutality against Afro-Brazilians. Rather than acting, the head of Brazil’s Palmares Cultural Foundation, Sérgio Camargo, has labelled this movement “useless”.
While it may be clear that the Brazilian people are crying out for social change, government action has stagnated and remarks such as Camargo’s suggest it is unlikely the authorities will act. Although it is a well-known fact that police were responsible for 25 per cent of murders in Brazil in 2018, and the government has refused to do anything to change police brutality. Ending racial inequality in Brazil necessarily requires leaders to accept that racism is an issue and produce policy and legislation to combat it.
However, the roots of equality trace much further back than recent politics. 4.5 million Africans were enslaved to Brazil in the 19th century, and since the abolition of slavery Brazilians of African descent have continuously been underemployed, underpayed and excluded from political decision-making. As a result, combatting racism requires more than just government policy, but also a change in social attitudes. Inequalities have become systematically entrenched in Brazil after centuries of being disregarded, and this cannot be ended with just political change.
Many non-Afro-Brazilians, who have never experienced ongoing systemic discrimination, do not perceive racism to be prevalent in Brazil. Brazil has historically praised itself for its ‘ideology of racial democracy’–its perceived escape from racial prejudices and inequality. This ideology emerges from the fact that Brazil did not have a period of systematic segregation (as occurred in the US or South America) and the subsequent belief that Brazil must, therefore, be an integrated, racially tolerant country. Resultingly, when Afro-Brazilians have tried in the past to highlight issues of racism, they have often been perceived as importing racial problems (from the US, for example) into Brazilian society. Rather than creating awareness of the issue, it has stigmatised it. For the issue of racism to be combatted, it needs to be taken seriously.
The current protests in Rio de Janeiro are certainly raising the issues of inequality in Brazilian society again. But how is this any different to previous spotlights on the issue? With the pervasiveness of social media has been an increased awareness of discrimination. Non-Afro-Brazilians are being exposed to video-footage, photography, and first-hand recounts of racism online. The existence of racism in Brazil has become harder to deny, and with this change comes an increased awareness and opposition to systems of inequality. The outrage expressed by non-Afro-Brazilians and Afro-Brazilians alike on social media and on the streets in protest indicates that the Brazilian people may be seriously questioning the structures of discrimination in their country.
This changing social attitude will likely have a significant impact on the systems of inequality. These systems are being foregrounded, questioned, and critiqued by society, and solutions will start emerging. This is a positive and essential first step in stopping racial discrimination. It may even have the effect of forcing the government to listen. However, the next step requires Brazilian authorities to stop disregarding matters of race as “useless” and start implementing political reform to accompany the much-needed social change. Unless pressure on the authorities is significantly strengthened and the government is forced to act, this next step still seems distant on the horizon.
Jessica Honan is a third year Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts (Human Rights major) student at the Australian National University.