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Brazil’s So-Called ‘Racial Democracy’: Beneath the Illusive ‘Progressive Rug’

Dilma Rousseff’s (PT) victory over centre-right candidate José Serra (PSDB) last October transformed Lula’s former Chief of Staff into the first female President in Brazil’s history. It is fair to say that Rousseff’s victory gained ample international media attention for two central reasons: first, the “economic marvel” of Brazil’s booming economy, currently sitting at a 7% annual growth rate, would be continued under another PT administration; and second, the prospect of having a woman as the head of a traditionalist, predominantly-Christian, and deeply patriarchal state signaled the birth of a renewed progressive—dare I say secular—era in Brazilian politics. Unfortunately, however, this illusive, somewhat romantic, prophecy endorsed by numerous political commentators worldwide was astonishingly short-lived.

Only moments after Rousseff’s victory was officially announced, another woman made the headlines and gained almost as much national media attention as the President herself—albeit for a very different, if not ironically opposing, reason. Mayara Petruso, a law student at FMU (Faculdades Metropolitanas Unidas) in São Paulo, made a series of comments that served as the catalyst for a surge of xenophobic, classicist, and racist posts that flooded the social network websites Twitter and Facebook following Rousseff’s victory. On her Twitter account, Petruso wrote: “Northeasterners aren’t people, do São Paulo a favour, [and] drown a Northeasterner to death!”

The political, cultural, social, and economic context of Petruso’s xenophobia is likely to be a familiar topic to most Brazilian citizens. The Northeast of Brazil is not simply the poorest and most destitute of Brazil’s five federal regions, it also encompasses the densest concentration of nonwhite persons in the country. The state of Bahia, for instance, has a nonwhite population of over 80%—or what amounts to 11.2 million people. As American sociologist Howard Winant has argued, the idea of a Brazilian “racial democracy” or a “post-racial” Brazilian society is an absolute fiction. Petruso’s comments, as well as the many others that followed suit in her support, bring forth Winant’s point.

As late as 1987 black literacy rates were half those of white Brazilians, who were also 4.5 times more likely to have completed high school than were Afro-Brazilians. In fact, democracy was only extended to Afro-Brazilians once the military dictatorship ended in 1985—almost a century after the abolition of slavery and the formation of the First Republic. Despite a movement towards racial inclusion over the past decade, informal mechanisms of racial exclusion are still at work within Brazil’s racial hierarchy.[i] What is particular to Brazil’s geopolitical makeup, however, is that the overwhelming majority of nonwhite persons—those who are most vulnerable to the effects of systemic racism and poverty—are concentrated in the Northeast. This fact gives rise to a territorially induced form of xenophobia that is as much racist as it is classist. A binary racial dynamic divides Brazil in two fictitious and opposed racialized socioeconomic camps: the predominantly white and affluent south versus the nonwhite and impoverished north.

Petruso’s political message, then, is quite clear: Rousseff, who received more than 70% of the vote in certain ridings of the Northeast, owes her victory to what Petruso called the “vagabonds” of the Northeast, who “reproduce in order to qualify for social welfare programs.” Petruso’s comments disclose a sad reality veiled beneath the Brazilian “economic marvel,” a reality that is particularly eminent in the state of São Paulo and the bulk of the southern, chiefly white, regions of Brazil. The richer, whiter, and industrialized southern part of the country has, not coincidently, been at the forefront of Brazil’s economic development programs from Vargas’s corporatism in the 1930s to Cardoso’s neoliberalism in the 1990s.

Petruso’s attitude is nothing new to Brazilian domestic affairs. The country’s political history is shaped by a long-standing tradition of systemic racism and ethnic prejudice (Brazil’s incredibly late abolition of slavery in 1888 is one among many historical illustrations of its profoundly racist sociopolitical structure). Clearly, the contextual underpinning of Petruso’s comments has its roots in the geopolitical make-up of Brazilian demography, and the ways in which ethno-racial groups have constructed—through three predominant waves of immigration (or “transactions” in the case of African slaves) from Europe, Africa, and Japan—distinct racialized territories.

Finally, then, before the progressive forces of Brazilian politics celebrate, under much international acclamation, the recent Supreme Court ruling to grant same-sex couples equal rights, it is necessary to acknowledge that a long political struggle lies ahead; a struggle that is as old as the country itself, and arguably endemic to Brazilian politics, to wit, racism. Racism in Brazil is a complex, multifaceted, historical issue; it is a battle that cannot be fought solely on the grounds of a liberal rights discourse. The punitive legal instruments used to combat structural racial inequality are already in place within the Brazilian legal framework, and in the case of Petruso—who faces legal prosecution—such instruments are being enforced. There remains, however, a need for a serious international awareness of this important issue that plagues Brazilian democracy. It is time for the international community and media to look beneath (and beyond) the illusive “rug of progress,” a misleading caricature that has traditionally hinged upon Brazil’s “economic marvel” and a superficial characterization of Brazilian politics as being more progressive and centre-left due to PT’s national eminence. It is worrying that this fallacious “idea” of Brazilian domestic affairs has been almost indissociable from the study of “Brazilian politics” for well over a decade.

[i] Winant, Howard. 2001. The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II. Basic Books: New York, NY, pp. 219-220.

  • Wrenigade

    Dear Sir,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and fair consideration of this sensitive issue; and for shedding light on a topic that may be unfamiliar to those outside of Brazil. I look forward to reading more of your blog in the future; and to follow-up on this topic as it will not go away and, in fact, may be a recipe for social upheaval in Brazil in the future.

    Wren Lockwood
    Raleigh, NC

  • Marcel Pilatti

    They say the same against argentineans. I commented about this episode in my blog, and mentioned a very, very similar one that didn’t have any media involved.


Lucas G. Pinheiro
Lucas G. Pinheiro

Lucas Guimarães Pinheiro is a Foreign Policy Association blogger on Brazil. Lucas was born in São Paulo and holds a BA from the University of British Columbia and a Masters from the University of Cambridge. Lucas has worked as a Research Assistant, served as President of Journalists for Human Rights, and spent a year studying political science at Sciences-Po, Paris. Lucas's chief interests in Brazilian politics relate mostly to questions of gender, race, sexuality, and economic inequality.