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Controversy Dogs Brazil’s Racial Equality Law

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 9 2010 (IPS) - The Statute of Racial Equality, soon to be signed into law in Brazil, is at the centre of a controversy between those who consider it a historical achievement, like the abolition of slavery in 1888, and those who see it as failing to satisfy the demands of the black movement.

The ceremony at which Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will sign the statute into law, scheduled for Jul. 20, will not be the brilliant occasion hoped for by the government’s Special Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR).

After nearly two decades of debate, the statute approved by Congress on Jun. 16 has not left everyone happy.

It is “a watered-down text that does not include some of the major demands of the social movements linked to the cause of black people” and also “waters down political aspects,” the Collective of Black Entities (CEN) said in a declaration.

CEN, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), was referring to the suppression of clauses recognising the nature and origins of racism, which it regards as decisive for “properly overcoming it.”

According to the state Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 50.6 percent of Brazil’s population describes itself as black. In spite of this, the term “race” was expunged from most of the text, Marcos Rezende, general coordinator of CEN, told IPS.

Senator Demóstenes Torres of the rightwing Democrats Party, who steered the statute through Congress, amended terms in the text like “racism” and “racial inequality” to expressions like “ethnic differences or discrimination.”

The senator said the reason for the changes was that the concept of “race” is outdated, because genetic research shows there is only one human race.

Rezende pointed out that sections of the statute establishing racial quotas for university admissions and political parties, and tax breaks for companies with over 20 percent of black employees, had also been eliminated.

“They want to deny that skin colour affects access to certain positions,” he complained.

In 2004, barely two percent of university students were black, but in 2006, after quotas were adopted at some universities, the proportion of black students increased to 12.5 percent, he said.

In Rezende’s view, other education and public health statistics also “show that black people receive a different, and lower, standard of care.” In the state Unified Health System (SUS), black and mulatto women are given less anaesthesia during normal childbirth, he said.

The SUS is free to the entire population of 190 million Brazilians, and is used by 80 percent of them.

In the labour market, the same situation occurs. Black people with the same qualifications are paid less than their white colleagues for doing the same job.

And in the political arena, black people are under- represented in the circles of power, Rezende said.

The lower house of Congress, for instance, is made up of 513 lawmakers of whom 10 percent are self-declared black and 33 percent mulatto. Out of 81 senators, only one is self- declared black, he said.

“Discrimination against black people in Brazil is the result of the racist structure of our society, which preserves privileges for some and excludes others,” the activist said.

“Black people have greater difficulty in obtaining public goods and services, entering the labour market and higher education, getting access to land, and securing rights, even when they are guaranteed by the constitution,” he complained.

According to IBGE, two-thirds of poor people in Brazil are black, half the Afro-descendant population live below the poverty line, and a white youngster is three times more likely to go to university than a black one.

“This is the friendly Brazilian form of racism. No one is racist, but the statistics confirm what we say,” he said.

In the view of Ivanir dos Santos, the head of the Centro de Articulação de Populações Marginalizadas (CEAP), an NGO working with marginalised people, although the statute is silent about many of the black movement’s demands, it does address important issues.

The statute reaffirms freedom of religion, already enshrined in the constitution, and so guarantees the right to practise religions of African origin, he told IPS. Dos Santos emphasised that this is the first time this has been acknowledged in an official document.

Other criticisms refer to the elimination from the text of the need to make reparations for slavery, and of the description of the slave trade as a crime against humanity, with no period of limitation.

On the other hand, the non-governmental National Afro- Brazilian Congress, which works to raise black consciousness in the black movement, said the statute is “the most significant political event in recent centuries.”

Among other gains, they highlight the reaffirmation of compulsory teaching of the history of African people and their descendants, as is already provided by law.

They also celebrate the document’s reaffirmation that the black population’s rights to health, housing, culture and so on, must be guaranteed by federal, provincial and municipal authorities by means of social and economic policies.

The minister in charge of SEPPIR, Eloi Ferreira de Araujo, said the statute is “a diploma in its own right, an affirmative action law.”

“This is an extraordinary victory, 122 years after the abolition of slavery,” he said.

In Ferreira de Araujo’s view, criticism about the elimination of racial quotas from the text is baseless. The statute stipulates that the government shall adopt affirmative action programmes to reduce ethnic inequalities, which will include quotas, he said.

He also downplayed the elimination of the terms “racism” and “racial discrimination”, on the grounds that the concepts of race and racism are defined in several parts of the text, and the term is included in the statute’s title.

Certain sectors of the black movement also complain that the text does not adequately define the modern remnants of the “quilombos”, free communities originally founded by runaway slaves.

The government has recognised 1,345 such communities, and will now proceed to demarcate and register their land. Proposals for the social integration of these communities, and for providing credit, health care and housing, will now be examined, the minister said.

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