Is What We’re Seeing In Brazil The Dismantling Of Racism, Or The Perpetuation Of It?
FRIDAY FILE: Women’s groups from the movimento negro in Brazil are disappointed with the Racial Equality Statute recently passed in that country. Jurema Werneck from Criola, a black women’s NGO that confronts racism, sexism and homophobia, explains why.
By Masum Momaya, with Diana Aguiar
On July 20, 2010, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed the Racial Equality Statute – legislation designed to combat racial discrimination in Brazil.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 50.6% of Brazil’s population describes itself as being not “white” but “black”, “brown”, “yellow” or “indigenous”. Members of this non-white population are the target of discrimination that takes a variety of forms: for example, they are often paid less than their white counterparts even when they are doing the same job and have the same qualifications. Non-white Brazilians also receive health care of a lower standard, and they are significantly under-represented in the political arena. In Brazil, race and class are closely related: two-thirds of the country’s poor are black.
After right-wing senators argued that there was only one “human race”, the terms “race” and “racism” were replaced in the statute by “ethnic differences” and “discrimination”. Other provisions were also removed before the final version, including racial quotas for university admissions and political parties, and tax breaks for businesses in which at least 20% of the workforce identified themselves as “black.” Furthermore, during the debate all references to the historical roots of racism, the need to make reparations for slavery, and the slave trade as a crime against humanity, were deleted from the text.
Jurema Werneck of the NGO Criola gives us her views.
AWID: What are the main problems and challenges faced by black women in Brazil?
Jurema Werneck: The main problem is that racism is ingrained in the country’s political and social system. This means that Brazil as a nation is organized around the need to guarantee economic, political and symbolic privileges for white people, and especially men. It also means that to the Brazilian nation it seems natural for people who are black, indigenous or gypsies to be regarded as inferior. And as a result, the challenges we have been facing are huge – stretching from the micro-economic level, the day-to-day relationships and the subsistence needs to an ideological challenge, with the need to change the way the country thinks about itself. And in between are the political disputes, involving civil society and the institutions.
AWID: How would you sum up the content of the Racial Equality Statute?
Jurema Werneck: Although it was supposed to strengthen the constitutional provisions by denouncing racism and affirming the need to have legal and institutional mechanisms for overcoming it, the statute has ended up not achieving what it set out to do. Because the process took so long, and because of the government’s lack of interest, it may actually end up undoing some of the gains we managed to achieve over the last decade.
AWID: What are the main problems with the statute?
Jurema Werneck: One key problem I see is that, by removing the direct reference to racism and the need to combat it, by going back on what has already been achieved, by going along with the State’s ways of doing things in this area, what we’ve ended up with is a devaluation of the meaning of racism and its impacts. It’s as if it were possible for our country – for the government authorities, for the Brazilian State – to give up on repairing the terrible, relentless damage racism has done over the centuries. As if it were acceptable to say that we could live with it – with children, women and men of all ages, and generations, and physical and mental conditions, subjected to such a high level of violence. As if there were no way out of the political, moral and ethical dilemma posed by all those people who are living off racial privilege. That’s really rotten, isn’t it?
AWID: What is the biggest challenge in trying to get the government to acknowledge racism and the history of racial discrimination?
Jurema Werneck: The biggest challenge is to set up mechanisms, within the State structures, that will stimulate, introduce and reinforce the structural changes demanded by society, to end white people’s appropriation of the country’s wealth – and the State – so that they can be shared between all of us.
AWID: Does the statute send out a symbolic message about the political climate and race relations in Brazil?
Jurema Werneck: No. I think what it shows is a regrouping of the elites, who are going back on a range of achievements, including some to do with Brazil’s commitment to anti-racism. I think society in general has come farther than this moment would seem to suggest.
AWID: Are there any provisions in the statute that you think are beneficial to black women? Is it a step forward in any way?
Jurema Werneck: Someone looking in from outside might say it was: after all, here we have a law that focuses on ways of dealing with the black population, that recognizes the struggle of the black movement and its influence on the institutions. But the statute is generic, which means that it gives no guarantee that structural issues will be tackled. And besides that, any mention of concrete projects (many of which have already been designed, and are currently under way) has been taken out, leaving room for inertia, for not doing anything.
AWID: What impact do you think the statute will have on overcoming racism in Brazil?
Jurema Werneck: I don’t know. We’re assessing its impact at the moment, and looking at how to overcome the problems it raises. Maybe it will reinforce what we’ve been pointing out all along: that it doesn’t matter who is in control of the government, we still need to carry on our struggle with just the same intensity. Now we’re still in the process of publicly critiquing its undesirable effects. And stepping up our campaigns.
Read this interview in Portuguese here.