Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

BRAZIL: Class, Gender, Race Interwoven, Says New Equality Minister

Marcelo Pereira

MONTEVIDEO, May 9 2003 (IPS) - In Brazil, where a majority of the population is black or mixed-race, people of colour are disproportionately represented among the poor – and the poorest of the poor are black women, one of whom has been named minister for the promotion of racial equality in the government of leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Matilde Ribeiro is the head of Brazil’s brand-new ”Special Secretariat of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality”, which has the rank of a ministry. She was interviewed by IPS in Montevideo, Uruguay on Thursday, where she was attending a meeting of the Strategic Afro-Latin American and Caribbean Alliance, on her first official trip abroad.

Ribeiro, a social worker who has been active in the struggle for racial and gender equality since the late 1980s, assumed her new position on Mar. 21, International Day for the Elimination of Racism, which was overshadowed this year by the U.S.-led war on Iraq, declared a day earlier.

She helped coordinate the platform and governing programme of Lula’s leftist Workers’ Party (PT), and formed part of the transition team that prepared for the new president’s inauguration on Jan. 1. But she did not know she was to be named to the cabinet until the day before it actually happened.

When Ribeiro took office, she underlined that the creation of the Secretariat reflected ”the accumulation of centuries of resistance,” and was the outcome of a collective building process by ”many heads, hearts and hands.” But, she added, ”it could only have occurred in a government like this one.”

Q: The state government of Rio de Janeiro decided to reserve 40 percent of spots in its two universities for black students. Who does the Brazilian State consider ”black”?

A: ”Black” is a political term. In Brazil, the terms ”pardo” (roughly ”brown”), ”mestizo” (mixed-race) or ”mulatto” are also used, but the movement against racism prefers to call all descendants of Africans ”black.”

Q: The affirmative action system was questioned in court by white students in Rio de Janeiro, who obtained entrance exam scores that qualified them for admission, but were turned away because of the number of slots that had been filled by black applicants under the quota policy.

A: Historical, economic and social causes result in higher school dropout rates among blacks, and incentives must be created to keep black students in school. In the short-term, it might look like whites are losing out, but in the long-term, the winning of full participation and rights as citizens by the black population will benefit all Brazilians.

Q: Education Minister Cristovam Buarque has raised doubts about the effectiveness of quotas, and said the key lies in improving public education, in order for blacks to be better prepared for taking the university entrance exam.

A: Quotas are not the only necessary element, but they are important, along with other affirmative action measures both within and outside the educational system.

Q: You already saw all this before, when you participated years ago in the debate on quotas for women in the PT and in parliament.

A: Yes, and over a decade later I see that the quota policy helped bring about an increase in the participation of women, in quantitative terms.

Q: Are affirmative action measures also being planned for other areas?

A: The previous government launched a national affirmative action programme, which responded to social demands, and included incentives for black men and women in public educational institutions, as well as support for black youths interested in studying diplomacy. The Lula administration is evaluating that programme and preparing to reshape it.

Q: Another important effort for the black community that was initiated by the previous government but has only been implemented slowly so far is providing land titling services for ”quilombolas”, residents of communities that see themselves as the continuation of the ”quilombos”, fortified communities established in remote areas by escaped slaves, to resist slavery, starting in the 16th century.

A: The remnants of the ”quilombos” are historic communities that merit the full attention of the government, in order to recognise the black population and restore their dignity. The previous administration registered 2,000 such communities, but the ”quilombolas” or residents of quilombos claim there are between 3,000 and 4,000.

The first step is to recognise the existence of these communities, and grant them legal property rights over the land they occupy. But the communities are also poverty-stricken and precarious, and suffer social marginalisation, and must be included in the government’s social welfare programmes.

The historical legacy of the quilombos is very positive. Zumbi (a 17th century black leader who for decades headed the resistance waged by escaped slaves in northeastern Brazil) created a space where blacks, Indians and poor whites (people who had run into problems with the law or with the colonial regime also took shelter in the quilombos) lived as equals.

Q: Lula recently appointed the first black person to Brazil’s Supreme Court, Joaquim Benedito Barbosa Gomes.

A: His naming is a very important symbol in a process of changing Brazilian culture and attitudes, as were the designations of four black ministers in strategic areas (Benedita da Silva in the area of Social Assistance and Promotion, Gilberto Gil as Culture Minister, Marina Silva in the Environment Ministry, and Ribeiro herself).

Q: Minister Marina Silva stresses the need to incorporate the question of the environment in all action by the state. What steps do you foresee towards doing the same in terms of the fight against racism?

A: The main role of the Secretariat is not to execute policies, but to design them in joint policy-making efforts with the other ministries, and coordinate their implementation in the short, medium and long-term.

That is a tough challenge, because there is a strong traditional separation between public bodies, and each area acts on its own. Experience in local governments taught me that it is not easy to change day-to-day conduct, even when laws, other tools, and the political will exist. But incorporating the fight against racism in all areas is the key for the work of the Secretariat to be effective.

We know, for example, that the educational system should be a liberating instrument, but its procedures, norms and routines have not allowed it up to now to incorporate the racial component and the history of the black population.

The same could be said of each area – labour, health, tourism…blacks also travel as tourists, they are also consumers.

Q: In the Mercosur (the Southern Common Market trade bloc, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), there are no institutions like the one you head. Do you have ideas for action on a regional scale?

A: The Secretariat was created 40 days ago, and our first contacts and tours have been in Brazil, to coordinate actions with municipal and state governments. In this meeting (in Montevideo) I began to make contact with black organisations from around Latin America and the Caribbean, to see what could be done in association with their governments. Brazil could become a model in this area, but in order for that to happen, we have to function well, we have to be exemplary.

Q: You worked as an adviser to the Sao Paulo metalworkers unions, from which Lula emerged. What is the biggest challenge among trade unionists – raising awareness on racial questions, or on gender?

A: (Laughs). I have managed not to separate one from the other in theory. In my own life experience, my professional career, politics, feminism and action against racism have been interwoven. That has been the focus of my studies and my militancy. Class, gender and race are three angles that shape life and inequality, and that can also shape equality.

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