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RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Blacks Demand Adoption of Promised Measures

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 16 2005 (IPS) - The Brazilian state has failed to make good on promises to adopt a series of measures aimed at promoting racial equality, the country’s black movement complained Wednesday in a march in the capital dubbed Zumbi + 10.

Wednesday’s demonstration commemorated a similar one held in 1995 to recall the 300th anniversary of the death of Zumbi, the leader of the Palmares “quilombo” or settlement of runaway slaves and free-born blacks that survived for over a century in northeastern Brazil.

Nov. 20, the date when Zumbi is assumed to have been killed in 1695, was named National Black Consciousness Day in Brazil.

Blacks in Brazil, who officially make up 45 percent of the population of 184 million, bear the brunt of unemployment as well as the highest homicide, illiteracy and poverty rates, which reflects the racial component of the country’s extreme social inequality, Marcio Alexandre Gualberto, one of the coordinators of the march, told IPS.

Some 67.2 billion reals (just over 20 billion dollars) would have to be spent on education, housing and basic sanitation services to overcome these inequalities, says a report, “The Cost of Racism in Brazil”, carried out by the coordinators of the Zumbi + 10 march, based on official statistics.

These funds and public policies should focus on the black population, establishing affirmative action quotas in the universities, the workplace, and political office, and granting “different treatment to those who are not equal,” because otherwise they will not be effective, said Gualberto, a black activist, journalist and editor of the on-line magazine Afirma.

One of the main demands voiced by the demonstrators was the creation of a Fund for the Promotion of Racial Equality, which outlines plans and budget resources for programmes that would benefit ethnic groups that suffer discrimination.

The Statute of Racial Equality currently being debated by Congress provides for the creation of the Fund, which, however, has run into resistance in the Senate.

But Edson Cardoso, another organiser of Wednesday’s march, argued that if the Fund is not included, the new law will lack teeth.

A “racial atlas” of Brazil produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Federal University of Minas Gerais, reports that 65 percent of the poor and 70 percent of the extremely poor are Afro-descendants, while illiteracy among blacks stands at 17.2 percent, compared to 7.5 percent among whites.

Rates of violent crime also reflect racial inequalities. In Brazil, 14,000 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 19 – the most vulnerable age group – fall victim to murder every year, and the large majority of them are black, according to a U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) study.

“There is quite strong racism in Brazil,” which is why there are higher unemployment and murder rates among blacks, “and meanwhile the government doesn’t do a thing,” Dircileia Vieira told IPS.

It takes Vieira two hours by bus to get to her job as a doorwoman in a middle-class apartment building in Rio de Janeiro. “Some of the residents don’t say hello to me, maybe because I’m black,” she complained.

Vieira used to live in a favela (shantytown) near her job, but she moved to a distant neighbourhood to get away from the frequent firefights. “My 19-year-old daughter can’t find a job, in spite of all her efforts, and despite the fact that she is finishing secondary school.”

Besides jobs and more schools, Brazil’s Afro-descendants need housing, because “nearly all of the people living on the streets are black,” she added.

The march in Brasilia also called for a 25 percent quota for black students in the country’s public universities, legal land titles for those living in black communities that were originally quilombos, and the effective application of a law that stipulates that African and Afro-Brazilian history must be taught in the country’s schools.

The black movement’s demands “are revolutionary, because they are calling for profound changes in the structure of the country,” since what is needed is to create dignified living conditions for “the excluded half” of the population, said Gualberto.

He underlined that one isolated measure cannot solve the problem, and that what is required is an articulated set of measures.

Some advances have been made in recent years, such as the creation of the Special Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality, which has the rank of a government ministry, and the inclusion of African and Afro-Brazilian culture in the regular educational curriculum. But little has been done in practice, said the activist.

“The training received by high school teachers is steeped in a ‘white-centric’ conception of Brazilian history,” and they are thus not prepared to teach Afro-Brazilian history, said Gualberto. Blacks are also underrepresented in politics, and nearly all members of Congress are white. Nevertheless, many people say “there is no racism in Brazil,” he added.

The Zumbi + 10 march drew between 5,000 and 7,000 demonstrators from the country’s 27 states, in what was meant to be “a symbolic act,” said Gualberto. An estimated 30,000 people took part in the 1995 demonstration.

What happened since then is that the movement split. Another march against racism will take place on Nov. 22 in Brasilia, organised by the Central Única dos Travalhadores, which is close to the governing leftist Workers Party.

According to Gualberto, next Tuesday’s march will be “in support of the government,” while the Zumbi + 10 march was independent and was scheduled two years ago, as a demonstration organised by a large number of groups forming part of the black movement.

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