Brazil: Racism through the lens of the developing world

Lucia just finished her first year of International Relations BA at KCL. She is interested in International development and exposing political issues in the Global South.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have actively challenged white supremacy around the world, and Brazil is no exception. However, ​protests in Rio that occurred on the 7th​ of June perhaps resonated deeper than elsewhere in the world. Although the BLM protests in Berlin, Paris, London, Sydney, and Seoul showed their commitment to fighting racism, it is worthwhile having a closer look on racism, police brutality and activism through the lens of a ​developing country with a fragile democracy and the largest African diaspora population in the world: Brazil.​ 

Brazil’s racism in numbers 

First and foremost, it is necessary to draw on some statistics that reflect the deep-rooted systemic racism of the South American country. Drawing some parallels with the US, approximately ​14.6 % (47 million) of the American population is African American, while in Brazil, ​50.7% (91 million) of the population is identified as Afro Brazilian, including black and mixed. These numbers gather a more racist connotation when research shows that while just over half the population is Afro Brazilian, they constitute the majority of the prison population at 64%. Furthermore, a black man is ​12 times more likely to be killed than a white man.​The sad truth is that it does not just end there. The numbers present a genocidal tendency when it was estimated that in ​2017 a black man died every 23 minutes; 66 black lives were lost daily, leading to 4,290 lost lives each year.​The question we should be asking is what is causing this outrageous reality that does not always receive the coverage it deserves. 

Undoubtedly, these numbers are evidence of systemic racism. Yet, in Brazil, mechanisms of oppression operate through an arguably more brutal framework – in a country where “Impunity reigns and the administration is effectively granting a license to kill” as it was stated by Ilona Szabó, director of the Igarapé Institute studying public safety. 

Below the iceberg of racism: Bolsonaro and the Favelas
Disappointingly, Brazil is a unique case wherein institutionalized violence is just the tip of the iceberg. Further analysis points to two key aspects that have radically increased the number of deaths, while entirely changing the face of the state and the methods used to perpetrate racism in the country. These are president Bolsonaro’s policies aligned with the “War on Drugs” and the historical segregationist and racist configuration of poor peripheral neighborhoods, or ​Favelas.​
It is almost impossible to discuss these issues without looking back at the past. Seven years ago, 67% of the Favelas’ population was black. These neighborhoods are the result of the abolishment of slavery dating back to ​1888 and the subsequent rapid economic growth in Brazilian cities.​The favelas were places where immigrants,​former slaves, and soldiers with no home or land to call their own settled, hoping for a better life. Since most of the inhabitants of the favelas were former slaves who possessed neither skills nor an education, social integration became a challenge for them. This struggle allowed forms of an informal economy to flourish – one of which was drug trafficking. This led to gang disputes and the stigmatization of the inhabitants of the favelas. Currently, ​Favelas are still hotspots for crime and conflict, but now they have become the main target of the far-right, former member of the military, President Jair Bolsonaro. 

The past and the present collide, resulting in a unique conflict where Bolsonaro’s attempt to exterminate drug gangs is guilty of the mass killings of innocent black lives. His strategy to end the favela’s crime and drug economy is what has been defined as a “​policy of extermination” and according to Brazil’s Senate Commission on Youth Murder as “extermination of poor and black youth.” Following this agenda, the Brazilian president has actively encouraged police brutality by stating that “​a good criminal is a dead criminal” and that criminals should “​die in the streets like cockroaches.” What he ignores is the death of Ágatha Sales Félix, an 8-year-old girl shot in the back,​or J​oão Pedro Matos Pinto, the 14-year-old teenager, shot in the back while he was walking to his cousin’s house. These were innocent deaths under the hands of the state. 

Genocidal state? 

Police tactics in Rio’s favelas transcend shootings and physical violence. Since last year, Wilson Witzel – former marine, member of Brazil’s Christian Social Party and current governor of Rio – has commanded snipers to shoot from helicopters during police operations in favelas.​This has resulted in an exponential rise during police operations:​ 5 people killed daily, and in 2019 approximately, 1810 lives were lost,​just in Rio. Sadly, ​75% of the victims of police brutality were black. In the light of these events, it is no surprise that in the last BLM protest in Rio, a young activist claimed, “​We are here because we are tired of this genocidal state.” Past and present make Brazil an alarming case of systemic racism where institutions do not provide the platforms for activism to flourish to change the status quo successfully. The harsh consequences of oppression are undeniable, as the case ​of Marielle Franco, murdered in 2018.​She was an Afro Brazilian, human rights activist, and a left-wing politician who highly criticized police brutality. She was shot four times in the head by former police militias allegedly linked to the Bolsonaro’s administration.​This was a case of censorship that was trying to silence a possible threat. Franco emerged as a martyr because she was actively denouncing the state’s undemocratic behavior and gave hope to the political and social future of Brazil, especially to the Afro Brazilian community. 

Bolsonaro’s cup of tea: Order and violence 

Although Brazil’s motto​“OrdemeProgresso”(​Order and Progress)claims a positive message, the reality is that it has acquired a darker meaning since the Bolsonaro is building ‘order’ through violence fuelled by racism. A long history of racial inequality, segregation, crime, and an aggressive government add different layers of complexity that need to be addressed. Now, with the international support of the Black Lives Matter movement leading to more coverage of the systemic racism present in many countries, Brazil needs a serious transformation of its institutions. Racism in the developing world proves to be a state of terror and extermination committed by the very hands of the state.​​In light of recent events, it is necessary to understand that racism is a global problem. At present, the BLM movement is flourishing and denouncing injustice in developed countries where the legal system protects, to a greater extent, human rights. Contrary, Brazil and other countries with fragile democracies that allow helicopters with snipers to target civil areas do not possess a legal framework that protects groups targeted by racism. Black lives in Brazil are at high risk and need urgent support. 

Image credit:
https://news.miami.edu/stories/2020/06/protests-in-brazil-highlight-racism-and-police-brutality.html

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