“There is no racism in Brazil,” Brazilian Vice President Mourão said on Thursday in response to the violent death van een zwarte man. João Alberto Silveiras Freitas became that day beaten to death by two white guards in a supermarket.
It became clear almost immediately that not everyone agrees with the vice president.
Protests were made in many places by the Brazilian version of the Black Lives Matter movement. Some see in João Alberto a ‘Brazilian George Floyd’, a reference to the black man killed by a white police officer in the United States in May.
Most murders hardly get any attention. But João Alberto’s violent death was filmed by a bystander. It also happened on the eve of ‘The Day of Black Consciousness’, an official holiday to reflect on discrimination and racism.
Skin color is a complex topic in Brazil. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) uses five categories: white, black, mixed, yellow or native. In census people are asked in which category they place themselves.
In recent years, more and more Brazilians describe themselves as ‘black’ or ‘colored’. More than half now claim to have African blood: more than 100 million people. Brazilians sometimes joke that, except in Nigeria, nowhere else in the world live so many people with African blood.
In a notorious interview from 2010 (for his international breakthrough), footballer Neymar said he had never been a victim of racism. “But I’m not black,” he said as an eighteen-year-old.
Ten years later, after a racist incident on the football field, his self-image had changed. “I am black, child of a black father, grandchild of a black grandpa,” he wrote on his last September Instagram-account.
Mixed society is a legacy of three centuries of slavery. About 5 million African slaves ended up in Brazil, more than in any other country. In comparison, just over 300,000 African slaves were brought to the US.
Brazil was also one of the last countries to abolish slavery, not until 1888. The former slaves were abandoned and replaced by mostly European migrants.
In practice, modern Brazil has become a true melting pot, a fact that many Brazilians are proud of. “It is the essence of our people,” President Bolsonaro said in a video message ahead of the virtual G20 summit last weekend.
He responded to the murder of João Alberto and the protests that followed. “They are attempts to create conflict, hatred and racial division under the guise of equality and social justice,” said the far-right president.
It’s a common argument in Brazil: discrimination is based on social class, not skin color. In the words of Vice President Mourão, racism does not exist in Brazil. However, the numbers suggest otherwise.
The 10 percent richest Brazilians are mostly white (70 percent), only a small part of the socio-economic elite is black (27 percent). At the bottom of society, the picture is opposite. Of the poorest 10 percent of Brazilians, more than 75 percent are black, against more than 23 percent white.
Black Brazilians earn less, are more often unemployed and more often live in favelas, the enormous slums near cities, according to a report about inequality of the IBGE.
Black Brazilians are also more likely to be victims of violence, including police brutality. The Brazilian police kill more people than any other police force in the world: more than 5,800 fatalities in 2019.
Was in the state of Rio de Janeiro 78 percent of the victims of fatal police brutality are black or ‘mixed’. The police therefore does not have a good reputation among favela residents. Four out of ten of them indicated that they had been a victim of some form of police violence. From the same research shows that 52 percent of the Brazilians surveyed think that the police are ‘very racist’.
One of the guards who beat João Alberto to death in the supermarket in Porto Alegre was a policeman on the side.