dimanche 5 juillet 2009

Racial representation and Brazilian politics. 1983-1999

Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Winter 1998 by Johnson, Ollie A III

There is a stereotype of who can be intelligent and competent, who can have power. In Brazil it is rich, white men who represent the face of power.

-Benedita da Silva, Afro-Brazilian Senator


In the 1980s and 1990s, several events highlighted the overrepresentation of whites and the underrepresentation of blacks in Brazilian politics. During this period, Abdias do Nascimento became the first black federal deputy, and later black senator, to wage a consistent and explicit defense of the Afro-Brazilian population from within the National Congress. Benedita da Silva became the first black woman to serve as a federal deputy and then a senator. Deputy Paulo Paim introduced legislation calling for reparations for the descendants of slaves. Celso Pitta became the first black mayor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city and one of the world's most populous. African Brazilian politicians Alceu Collares, Joao Alves, and Albuino Azeredo all served as state governors at the same time. Through their electoral victories, political activities, or support of race-specific public policies, these national black politicians have highlighted the question of racial representation.

This study uses the terms black, African Brazilian, and AfroBrazilian interchangeably to refer to Brazilians of African ancestry, including people whom popular discourse might call "morenos," "mulattos," or other terms indicating mixed racial and ethnic background. The official Brazilian census has five main color (or racial) categories: white, black, yellow, brown, and indigenous. The Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica (IBGE) also counts those individuals who do not declare a color or race. Following Nascimento (1978) and Andrews (1991), this study combines the black and brown categories for analytical purposes.

This essay is the first scholarly attempt to investigate the racial composition of the Brazilian Congress, to analyze black underrepresentation, and to examine the behavior of black members. The central thesis consists of two propositions: that Afro-Brazilians are dramatically underrepresented in Congress in relation to their proportion of the general population, and that racial underrepresentation and related political and cultural factors greatly reduce Afro-Brazilian effectiveness in Congress.

The black members of Congress have attempted nevertheless to change Brazilian politics in important and consequential ways. Black politicians have encouraged white political actors and the general public to address racism and racial inequality. These Afro-Brazilian leaders have organized formally and informally within political parties and government institutions to pursue race-conscious public policies. They have also advocated a new and more prominent role for blacks in Brazilian society and politics.

Most studies of Brazilian politics usually ignore or minimize the question of race.1 Experts on Brazilian political institutions avoid race for two primary reasons. First, it is argued that Brazilian society is allegedly not organized in a rigid racial manner and therefore race is not a relevant cleavage that might provoke conflict, violence, or some type of disruption to the polity (that is, mass movement or riot). Second, some commentators suggest that Brazilians do not have a strong racial consciousness and therefore do not behave racially in politically relevant ways (that is, voting along racial lines, organizing influential racial organizations and movements, or engaging in clear and persistent racial discrimination). One of Brazil's top political scientists, Bolivar Lamounier, observes,

while differences and eventual tensions in the relationship between ethnic and religious groups may exist in Brazil, there has not been to the present an explosive projection of cleavages of this type in the political arena warranting special or privileged treatment. The basic divisions of Brazilian society are essentially socioeconomic and, to a lesser degree, regional and ideological. (1993, 120)2

In addition, the numerous studies on political parties, presidentialism, and democratization in Brazil and Latin America have paid minimal attention to racial issues in general and the role of blacks in particular (O'Donnell and Schmitter 1986; Reis and O'Donnell 1988; Stepan 1989; Mainwaring and Scully 1995; Mainwaring and Shugart 1997).

Race has been relevant to Brazilian politics nevertheless. While Brazilians have not always spoken of or struggled over politics in explicitly racial terms, racial politics has played a strong historical and contemporary role in society. Racial slavery existed in Brazil for approximately 350 years (from the 1530s to 1888), even though it was intertwined with socioeconomic inequality, regional diversity, and ideological differences. Racial representation is significant because at a general level, the vast majority of Brazil's rulers in the twentieth century have been white or relatively lightskinned while the majority of the poor and marginalized have been black or of a darker complexion (Toledo 1989; Nascimento 1978). This political reality, especially following more than three centuries of black enslavement, warrants empirical investigation and theoretical reflection.


After the abolition of slavery, Brazilian national politics can be divided into five basic periods: the early republican period of constitutional oligarchy, 1889-1930; the Brazilian Revolution and first regime of Getulio Vargas, 1930-45; the period of competitive politics,1945-64; the period of military authoritarianism, 1964-85; and finally the period of (re)democratization, 1985 to the present. One of the remarkable consistencies over this more than one-hundred-year history is the elitist nature of Brazilian politics. As Senator Benedita da Silva notes in the epigraph (Silva et al. 1997, 61) and throughout her autobiography, most Brazilian leaders have come from white, wealthy, male, privileged sectors of the society (see also Lamounier 1989; Conniff and McCann 1989; Roett 1992) while many poor and black Brazilians have been prevented from participating in politics through literacy requirements for the franchise and other elite control mechanisms (Leal 1986; Love 1970).

Political elites over the years have held racially explicit views. In the first period, the dominant elite view can be described as overtly racist (Skidmore 1993b; Schwarcz 1993). There was even widespread concern that Brazil's population was too black or too dark. This view contributed to a malign neglect of the recently "freed" population and a motivation to import "lighter" and "better" immigrant workers. Thus embranquecimento, or whitening, became unofficial policy for those who believed in white superiority and black inferiority. This policy was explicit in the state of Sao Paulo, which received most of the country's European immigrants during that period (Andrews 1991, 54-89). Blacks were seen as physically and intellectually inferior to whites (Nascimento 1978).

By the 1930s, the country's racial and ethnic composition had changed dramatically. The proportion of blacks had decreased and the percentage of whites had increased. The European (especially Portuguese, Italian, and German) influence was strongest in the southeastern and southern regions. During this period, whitening as an ideology was formally challenged by part of the Brazilian elite. Many politicians and intellectuals were repulsed by one of the ultimate expressions of white supremacy, Hitler's Nazi Germany. In dramatic fashion, the elite reversed itself: Gilberto Freyre and other intellectuals began to argue that Brazilians were a people of mixed blood and that this was the key to their allegedly harmonious race relations.

Freyre's major book, Casa grande e senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), exploring slavery and miscegenation, appeared in 1933; in 1934 Freyre organized an Afro-Brazilian congress to examine the contributions of blacks to Brazilian society. The elite began to take pride in comparing the Brazilian racial situation and the racial segregation in the United States. Brazil, however, soon entered one of its most repressive periods, the Estado Novo (New State), which lasted from 1937 to 1945. Ironically, while Brazilian white elites were celebrating harmonious race relations, the most prominent black political group of the postslavery period, the Black Brazilian Front (Frente Negra Brasileira), was banned, as were all other political parties. The banning serves as a strong example of how a formally nonracial policy (that is, elimination of political opposition) can have explicit racial consequences (the disorganization of a black political movement) (Fernandes 1969, 1978; Leite and Cuti 1992).

The third political period (1945-64) was characterized by competitive politics and the notion of racial democracy. For the first time in its history, Brazil had national parties with mass participation (Santos 1986, 1987). It was an optimistic time politically and racially. Freyre and others continued to promote the notion that Brazil was unique in its solution of the racial problem with racial mixing, fluidity of racial identity, and no explicit racial division or segregation. To confirm that racial discrimination was intolerable in Brazil, the Congress passed the Afonso Arinos Law in 1951. This law punished overt acts of racial discrimination, such as denying someone a hotel room because of race. The government continued to argue that all Brazilians had equal access to channels of social advancement (Skidmore 1993b, 212-13).

At the same time, black intellectuals and politicians were having great difficulty getting their concerns heard and black candidates elected to office. The most notable achievement may have been the work of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater), a forum for black cultural and political expression (Nascimento and Nascimento 1994, 24-33).3 In an important but neglected article, Souza (1971) has argued that in the early 1960s there was a racial polarization of party preferences in the state of Guanabara. Blacks favored the populist Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) while whites supported the conservative National Democratic Union (UDN).

In the fourth period, from 1964 to 1985, the military governed harshly and tolerated only moderate civilian participation (Sorj and Almeida 1984; Skidmore 1988). Most radicals and progressives were exiled or banned; such opponents of the military dictatorship were often tortured and killed. The military did allow two political parties to exist, a promilitary party, ARENA (National Renovating Alliance), and a moderate opposition party, the MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement). The Brazilian economic miracle of 1968-73 was a period of high growth rates that brought some economic relief, especially to the middle and upper classes.

The first half of this period represented a challenge to Brazil's racial elites. In the United States, the civil rights movement had triumphed; blacks gained the right to vote in the South and defeated so-called Jim Crow laws mandating segregation. In Brazil, explicit black political activity was considered subversive. Brazilian intellectuals began to call the concept of racial democracy a myth that, to a certain degree, perpetuated racial inequality and discrimination by diverting attention from racial oppression and black subordination (Fernandes 1969,1978; Hasenbalg 1979; Hanchard 1994).

The second half of this period further challenged that myth. Blacks in the major urban areas, especially Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, organized a movement against racial discrimination and for black pride, political democracy, and improved black social and economic conditions. In the context of political liberalization of the late 1970s and early 1980s, blacks participated in all the social movements challenging the status quo, including the labor movement, the student movement, and the women's movement.

During this same period, black activists began to struggle for recognition within the various political parties. The military government had allowed multiple parties to organize as a way to divide the opposition and prolong authoritarian rule. The opposition did divide, but the military did not anticipate that some elite opposition leaders would embrace the racial question and attempt to mobilize and incorporate blacks. Leonel Brizola, a veteran leftist politician who spent 15 years in exile, was the first major white politician to address the race issue as an important national problem. He also advocated socialismo moreno(brown socialism) as a way of linking race, class, and the need to redistribute wealth and power (Nascimento and Nascimento 1994, 68-69; Soares and Silva 1987). Brizola's political party, the PDT (Democratic Labor Party), identified blacks as the fourth-priority group in its program, after children, workers, and women (Monteiro and Oliveira 1989, 122).

The military withdrew from government in 1985. Since then, Brazil has experienced its most profound experiment in democracy. The Constitution of 1988 guaranteed practically all Brazilian adults (including illiterates) the right to vote. This context has given black politicians the opportunity to voice their concerns. Although blacks are underrepresented in the Congress compared to their percentage in the national population, they are visible in elective office as never before. This presence has already had identifiable consequences for Brazilian politics and society.


Before the 1980s, very few blacks were leaders in national parties or had been elected to the Congress. Adalberto Camargo from Sao Paulo and Alceu Collares from Rio Grande do Sul are two rare examples of black federal deputies from the 1970s. The emergence of the black movement in the 1970s contributed directly to the rise of the current group of black politicians.


Since 1983, an estimated 29 black representatives have served in the Congress. Seventeen have been elected to two or more terms. Table 1 lists these representatives by state, party affiliation, and terms in office. In the Chamber of Deputies, blacks were 4 of 479 members (0.84 percent) between 1983 and 1987, 10 of 487 members (2.05 percent) between 1987 and 1991, 16 of 503 members (3.18 percent) between 1991 and 1995, and 15 of 513 members (2.92 percent) between 1995 and 1999.

Afro-Brazilians clearly represented a very small percentage of the total number of deputies.


Fifteen states have no black representation in the Chamber of Deputies. They are located in each of the five major regions. The largest gap between the Afro-Brazilian population and Afro-Brazilian representation occurs in the Northeast and the North, precisely those regions with the largest percentages of Afro-Brazilians in the population. In both regions, the average gap is nearly 70 percent. The Central-West and Southeast have gaps of approximately 50 and 40 percent, respectively, between AfroBrazilian population and representation. The South has the smallest AfroBrazilian population and the smallest average percentage of Afro-Brazilian underrepresentation, at 14 percent. If blacks were represented in the Chamber of Deputies in numbers equal to their percentage of the general population, there would be 236 black deputies. The current official national percentage of African Brazilians in the population (blacks, 5 percent, and browns, 42 percent) is 47 percent. The country has 69,651,215 African Brazilians (IBGE 1991).

A socialist political party, the PT (Workers' Party), has sent by far the largest number of black representatives to Congress. Twelve of the 29 black members of Congress since 1983 have come from the PT.(...)

The state of Rio de Janeiro has sent more black politicians to Congress than any other state. Seven black politicians have represented Rio de Janeiro and four, Bahia. Still, the small number of black elected officials from Bahia deserves mention. Bahia is universally recognized as the state with the strongest black cultural and social presence. Its population of 12 million is approximately 80 percent Afro-Brazilian. The number of black Bahian politicians elected to Congress, however, historically has been very low. Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest state in population, also has a large black population and one of the country's best-organized and most effective black political movements (Hanchard 1994). Nevertheless, this state has had minimal black representation in Congress over the past 15 years.

A final notable characteristic of black members of Congress is that they are generally male. Only three black women have been elected to Congress since 1983. Benedita da Silva is the most prominent and has been elected regularly since 1986. The underrepresentation of black women is similar to the general underrepresentation of women in the Congress and in Brazilian politics generally. This picture confirms that Brazil's political leaders have been white and male (Silva et al. 1997, 60-67).



Aucun commentaire: