Census, or “race-colour” categories in Brazil supposedly cover skin tones ranging from very fair to very dark (broadly speaking, from branco (white), pardo (brown), and preto (black), to indígena (native), whatever colour that might be), in such a way that almost 99% of the population is “white”, “brown”, and “black” (in that order, of course), and the census uses the terms “colour” and “race” interchangeably. Naturally, there are other factors at work, like age, gender, region, and socioeconomic status, so a light-skinned pardo person with a well-paying job can be considered branco, but pretos rarely escape the status branded on them—from the moment of conception—as skin colour. In categories like income, educational attainment, occupation, and socioeconomic status that researchers usually explore, these race-colour categories are already embedded in the outcomes. Colour also changes from region to region, from north to south. A person labelled pardo in Salvador, Bahia (northwest) could be preto in Curitiba, Parana (southeast). It’s harder to be branco in Rio Grande do Sul than it is in Sergipe. As always, skin colour is an idiotic, unhelpful analytical category but useful for keeping people in their place.
And it’s even more complicated than that. Racism in Brazil is usually narrowly understood as being anti-Black. But prejudice against, and hatred of Indigenous peoples (around 900,000 in some 300 ethnic groups), isn’t considered as racially motivated but, it seems, as some other kind of hostility. So, when Lula introduced the Secretariat for Promotion of Racial Equality during his last mandate, it focused on people of “African descent” and ignored Indigenous peoples and also Asians, especially Chinese (250,000) and Japanese (2.1 million – the largest Japanese population outside Japan) people who also suffer from racism, as do immigrants from countries like Bolivia and Venezuela. The logic of this way of defining racism means that some groups are ignored and others are exempt. Hence, for example, reports of anti-Semitism are rare and Jews (about 120,000) lead an open religious life and are well integrated in all spheres of Brazilian society.
After the horrors of Nazism, UNESCO published a document called “The Race Question”, drafted by a committee of white experts including Claude Lévi-Strauss, and revised by anthropologist Ashley Montagu after criticisms voiced by other experts, including Julian Huxley, Gunnar Myrdal, and Joseph Needham (and nary a woman in sight). The report muddied the waters further when the amended version, swapping ethnic group for race, came to the obfuscatory conclusion that, “it would be better when speaking of human races to drop the term ‘race’ altogether and speak of ethnic groups”, reserving race “for anthropological classification of groups showing definite combinations of physical (including physiological) traits in characteristic proportions”. And it declared that Brazil had an “exemplary situation” regarding race relations, and this “harmony” should be explored in further research. In fact, such “harmony” wasn’t all that far from what sociologist Gilberto Freyre fantasised in his book Casa-Grande e Senzala (The Grand House and Slave Quarters, 1933). It was “a near marvel of accommodation: of the slave to the master, of the black to the white, of the son to the father, of the woman to the husband”.
The inadvertent result was that the UNESCO document raised big doubts about Brazil’s supposed “racial democracy” and, eventually, with the influential study by Nelson do Valle Silva (1985), “Updating the Cost of Not Being White in Brazil”, the after-effect was a black-white dichotomisation with pardos and pretos in one single Black category, and brancos in another. The first three divisions of the official census system were denounced as an attack on “black consciousness”, while the Indigenous part was more or less ignored. By the 1990s, the government was urging the non-white population to identify as black, on the basis of African ancestry and (supposedly) irrespective of skin colour. Negro isn’t the same as pardo or preto and it certainly isn’t a non-whiteness term that represents a particular racialised social group. Most non-white Brazilians didn’t want to identify as negro but this was probably more about socioeconomic status than actual skin colour. The principle of self-identification went to the scrapheap, as did the “particularities of different collective histories”, and the question always begged is, why does skin colour trigger explicit and implicit biases and, very often, extreme violence?
In all these cogitations, the overriding background fact was skipped over: slavery automatically entailed dehumanisation of Africans and laid the groundwork for a racially based hierarchy in Brazil where the black descendants of slaves would always be subservient to whites. As for statistics, they sometimes speak clearly or, at least, give the bare bones of yet another chapter in the abominable history of global racism, a human rights story in which violations include not only a stripping of rights but also, in many cases, of the status of “human”. This story is usually avoided because it leads to questions about the human and physical destructiveness of capitalism, a system in which pretos, whose slave labour was essential in its construction, are very far from the spheres of power, wealth, and decision-making. Rather, they are underyoked to marginalisation. In Brazil, pretos account for 75.2% of the population in the lowest income group where the figure for the general population is 25.4%; a preto only gets 56.1% of the wage of a branco; and 32.9% of pretos are living below the poverty line ($5.50 per day), while 8.8% are in extreme poverty ($1.90 per day).
Unlike America, miscegenation—also swept under the carpet with the two-tone colour streamlining—had an important role in Brazil’s nation building. White settlers (only 38% of the population in 1872) were overwhelmingly male and heavily outnumbered by non-whites, so the colonial authorities encouraged (usually non-consensual) relations with or, let’s say, rape of Indigenous and slave women. It wasn’t a question of rainbow harmony but a “way to erase black identity” especially after abolition when the government set out to “whiten” Brazil, with policies like closing the borders to African immigrants, encouraging European workers, and denying land rights to descendants of slaves. There was a wider ideological basis too, as was evident when anthropologist João Baptista de Lacerda, did his bit for eugenics at the First Universal Races Congress in London (1911) with the article Sur les métis au Brésil in which he predicted that, “The currents of European immigration, increasing every day the white element of this population, will end up, after a certain time, by suffocating the elements in which some traces of the black could still persist”. If these policies didn’t “breed out the colour” (as was also attempted in Australia) with genocidal intent, they did shift to the vacuous (and vicious) attempt to classify people by skin colour (in 136 different tones, as the Census Department discovered in 1976). Racial inequality was simply inherent to colour. Born black. Born poor. For life. Tough luck.
Jumbling pardos and pretos also has the convenient spin-off of hiding the vibrant, combative social history of the quilombos, a word that contains hints as to why this story has been so distorted with daft racial categories. Thequilombos date back to the mid-1500s when groups of escaped African slaves and their descendants joined forces to resist recapture in fortified close-knit communities in hard-to-reach lands far away from the plantations. The word quilombo comes from kilombo (literally “war camp”) in the Bantu language Kimbundu and is often translated as palenque (stockade) in Spanish. So, it’s a fighting word that has also come to mean trouble in other parts of Latin America, as in Argentine Lunfardo where it means “brothel” or “big mess”, and a quilombero is a troublemaker. For the Brazilian ruling class, escaped slaves were a “big mess”, especially when these quilombolas or Maroons (from the French, meaning feral) not only founded settlements in the hinterland but also gave refuge to other minorities, including outsider Portuguese, Indigenous people, Jews, Arabs, and other non-black Brazilians. They managed their land communally, planting seeds they’d brought from West Africa and the plantations, and crops like manioc which Indigenous peoples taught them to cultivate and harvest. The quilombolas have preserved heritage seeds for centuries and have passed on their agricultural skills to neighbouring small farmers, as well as developing complex and sustainable agroforestry systems.
In 1988, quilombo rights were acknowledged in the new Constitution after two decades of military dictatorship in an attempt to recognise minorities that had previously been deemed non-citizens, and to contest the general idea of a docile slave population. But this only reclassified the rebellious quilombos as “wealth of Brazilian patrimony”, now defanged by being lumped together, in Article 216, with sites of artistic, historic, archaeological, and ecological value. The Palmares Cultural Foundation, which was tasked with identifying and legalising quilombo lands, was placed under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and not the Institute of National Colonization and Agricultural Reform, which actually dealt with land claims. The evidence to be used in claims referred to categories like “ethnic identity”, a “myth of origins”, and “quilombo memory”, thus perpetuating the old problem. Then, in the next seven years, no community had its land rights recognised. Why? Because duly recognising quilombolo rights with such a large-scale redistribution of land would have constituted a veritable revolution.
By 2018, 130 years after the abolition of slavery when at least four million African slaves were freed, some sixteen million quilombolas, as their descendants are known, were living in about 5,000 hinterland settlements. Only about 250 quilombos representing 31,000 families have title deeds to the land they occupy, but many still lack access to electricity and running water. The rest are denied benefits like subsidised housing and are vulnerable to threats from illegal loggers and miners. For example, in 2021, and in the state of Maranhão alone, nine people, mostly land rights activists were murdered. As historical spaces of black resistance, quilombos—especially the huge community of Palmares (1600 to c.1700) in the hinterland of Bahia, with more than 30,000 citizens, about the size of Portugal, and famous for its warrior dance capoeira—are not only powerful symbols of resistance, struggle, cultural strength, and political and territorial autonomy but they’re also land and homes so precariously held that the quilombo struggle still continues 500 years later. Only about a million of the twenty million hectares of territory claimed by the quilomboshave been granted title.
In the 1970s, the black rights activist Beatriz Nascimento (who was murdered in 1995) described quilombos as not just specific geographical spaces, but also political and cultural practice, and a means of survival for black Brazilians, expressed as ways of life and community survival strategies in the favelas today. She thus linked history, time-and-space (transatlantic, too, because of the spatiality created by the slave trade and the long shadow it cast), memory, community, identity, struggle, and political possibilities. For Nascimento, quilombos weren’t fixed places. They existed in literature, history, and in persons. In the favelas, the quilombo spirit is expressed in balie Blacks (Black dance parties) and the terreiros (the candomblé ritual house) which are also regarded as autonomous, and historically branded as criminal. Younger people, faced with intensified racial conflict today, have seen a need to aquilombar and have gone about it in the social media, art, and literature. The writer and activist Bianca Santana observes, “We’re seeing a proliferation of aquilombamentos—in favelas, in universities, in literary movements, in hip hop—because the Black community needs to reorganize”.
There’s even been a move to organise a quilombo in Congress since, as Gaby Conde writes, “no door is open to us by offer”. In 2017, the movement Vamos de Preto (Lets Go Black) was launched as a present-day quilombo aiming to train black leaders to challenge spaces of power in institutional politics. Pretos represent 54% of the population but, in Congress, only 24 out of 513 (4.7%) members were black in 2018. Conde connects the favela and the quilombo: “we are the people who are kept in the favela-senzalas [slave quarters]. And that is why we want to make our quilombo in the National Congress! For if there is still a senzala, let there be the strength of our insistence in existing and resisting. Just like our ancestors!”
In São Paulo, the Comunidade Cultural Quilombaque, “a cultural political movement governed by drums”, is coping with the problems and dilemmas of a peripheral neighbourhood, especially poverty, violence, and threats to the loss of the community’s physical space. However, Selma Dealdina, executive secretary of the NGO CONAQ, which represents most of the rural quilombos warns that the urban communities using the term quilombo must work for the rights of the rural quilombos, and not merely appropriate the term: “to aquilombar has to mean helping others. Otherwise, it’s just a trend.”
President Jair Messías Bolsonaro has a version of history that absolves the state and society of any crime of slavery and the resulting entrenched racism. The pretos themselves, he says, are to blame for slavery because the Portuguese never set foot in Africa. “It was the blacks who handed over the slaves.” After visiting a quilombo, he pronounced, “They do nothing! They are not even good for procreation.” He was undeterred by being fined for hate speech, as he knows that it does what it sets out to do, namely rip to shreds Brazil’s fragile image of unity, and let rip the real violence on which it was based. So 77% of homicide victims in 2019 were black, and the United Nations has recently decried the racialised brutality of police who are given free rein to kill and terrorise favela dwellers. The Brazilian journalist Manuella Libardi asks whether the term “genocide” applies in Brazil because, “the numbers point to a systematic murder of the favela population, which is mostly black… What are the chances that these victims are recognized and that those responsible for their suffering are brought to justice? I would say none.” This judgement isn’t unduly pessimistic when Bosonaro and his Minister of Justice, Sérgio Moro, proposed immunity for crimes committed by police officers in action. Bolsonaro preaches that killing is the solution to “public security problems”, by which he means favelas and quilombos that look restive.
Official policy is designed as a form of slow strangulation. In 2019, the president appointed the self-described “rightwing black man” and “anti-victimist”, Sergio Camares, as head of the Palmares Cultural Foundation. True to form (“The black movement, those bums from the black movement, bloody scum”), Camares has drastically slowed the process by which quilombos are granted official recognition. And, in July 2020, Bolsonaro blocked sections of a law requiring the state to provide emergency support to quilombos and Indigenous communities during the pandemic, stymied the agency that deals with land disputes, and cut by 90% funding for the department responsible for recognising the rights of quilombos, channelling the money instead to his support base of rural landowners. For Givânia da Silva, member of the National Board of CONAQ, “It is as if we have to continue to fight for the end of the slavery of our people, because when the State does not kill them, it lets them die.” Questions about genocide are well founded. As are those about the related crime of ecocide.
No amount of racial and social quotas, or scrappy land title grants can remedy the situation of Brazil’s pretos. Piecemeal measures only draw (usually hostile) attention to marginalised groups and reinforce fragmentation of the population by skin colour and ethnic groups. Moreover, the Bolsonaro government has attacked all the institutions that apply even these cautious policies. If, as the polls suggest, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wins the October elections, merely restoring the powers of these institutions won’t solve the problem of racial discrimination and violence. There are two steps a new government could take to bring about swift, major, if not almost total, change. First, an unconditional universal basic income above the poverty line would (statistically, at least) eradicate poverty and also include the whole population as true citizens, whatever the colour of their skin, thus eliminating the official classification that has cruelly punished a large part of the population ever since the years when slavery built the country. Second, a strong Ministry of Human Rights—a super-ministry through which policy from all the other ministries would pass—should work closely with an Indigenous Affairs Ministry run by Indigenous people, both ministries with a strong accent not only on protecting human rights, but also healthy and sustainable living conditions for all the other life forms on which human lives indisputably depend. Genocide and ethnocide (and ecocide too) can only be seriously addressed by resolute measures that recognise and respect the human condition of everyone. And also the shared condition of all humans as just another animal species whose survival demands not dominance over, but interdependence with others.