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Society

Race, The Great Unspoken Issue In Brazil’s Elections

Brazil is the country outside Africa with the largest black population. However, blacks have been shut out of Brazilian politics for generations. This month’s Congressional elections showed some signs of getting better, but it could also get much worse with another Bolsonaro victory.

photo of black women demonstrating in sao paulo

A demonstration against racism in Sao Paulo on November 2020.

Vanessa Sarmiento

Damazio Santana dos Santos, known as Mazo, was running for Congress in Brazil when his house was sprayed with the words Fique na senzala: “stay in the slave quarters.”

For the 43 years-old candidate from the northeast region of Bahia, the September 20 attack was not the first time he’d been targeted, having received multiple racist calls complaining about his candidacy. “I've been through so much in my life that I'm kind of num to it. I can handle it,” he told O Globo daily. “Now imagine someone who can't handle that. For that, it’s important to continue running for office, since many in our society do not want to see black people in a space where they think we don’t belong.”


Sadly, such episodes of racism have been on the rise in a country led by right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has compared black people with slaves and called African immigrants the "scum of the world." Needless to say, there is much at stake for Brazil’s black community as Bolsonaro seeks a second term in Sunday’s runoff against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has long been popular among blacks.

But the question of race and politics runs much deeper than any one presidential election. Brazil is the country outside Africa with the largest black population, as more than half of its 213 million citizens are black.

What's the legacy of slavery in Brazil?

This traces its origins from the legacy of slavery, which lasted for more than 300 years and brought an estimated five million Africans to Brazil. In fact, as Laurentino Gomes writes in his book Slavery ('Escravidão'), there was a time when 86 of every 100 inhabitants of Brazil were slaves.

It wasn’t until 1888 that slavery was abolished and black men were given the right to vote. And yet, blacks have long been shut out of the hallways of power more than a century later, as systematic racism and voter suppression created a troubling shortage of black politicians at all levels of government.

It is a hard-to-break cycle, as the lack of representation keeps perpetuating the idea that somehow black people do not belong in politics, with racist commentators regularly using words about candidates such as "incompetent,” “incomplete” and “inefficient."

In socio-economic terms, a 2019 survey showed that whites earn 74% more than blacks in Brazil.

According to Vanessa Nascimento, executive director of the Reference Institute Negra Peregum, the structure of the main political parties doesn’t help, where whites (mostly men) hold the main positions of power and decide which candidates to put forward and invest resources on. She notes that many of the candidates come from the “black movement and act in the logic of social movements,” while the parties have the resources and experience to run effective campaigns.

“Political parties are hostile environments for black people,” Nascimento says.

New wave of black and women candidates

A potential breakthrough came last year with a national resolution that aimed to increase the number of black and women candidates in the lower house of the Brazilian Parliament, by linking government funding for parties to the number of minority candidates that they field in elections.

The impact of the new law were evident in this month’s national elections, which included the Oct. 2 first round for the presidency (where Lula arrived five points ahead of Bolsonaro) and the single-round voting for Congress. A record number of black and women candidates ran for seats in Congress, with 135 black deputies (26%) elected. It is still far short of the majority, in proportion to the overall population, but a marked improvement from the past.

An interesting fact about the black people elected, is that the right-wing parties are the ones that selected the highest number of deputies that are self-identifying as black, including Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, which had a total of 25 (which represents 25% of the party's deputies).

Commentators noted that 20% of elected black deputies had changed their race declaration for the 2022 elections. In total, 2,510 candidates made the change, and more than one-third of them changed their self identification from white to black.

Bolsonaro riding to reelection?

photo of jair bolsonaro on horseback

Bolsonaro shows no signs of changing his message on race in Brazil

© Igor Do Vale/ZUMA

Bolsonaro’s racist history

Looking ahead to Sunday’s runoff, what can we expect from and for the black community?

With the history of racist comments from Bolsonaro, and the expected inclusion of black people in Lula’s government, some 60% of Black or mixed-race voters cast their ballots for Lula in the first round, with a similar divide expected for the runoff.

The true breakthrough that many are waiting for is the arrival of black president in this black-majority nation. In this year’s first round, the two black presidential candidates (Leonardo Péricles and Vera Lúcia) only registered 0.07% of the votes between them.

Of course, looking north to another country with a legacy of slavery and racism, offers inspiration, but also a cautionary tale. Barack Obama became the president of the United States, where blacks are only 13% of the population. It was great progress, but also a reminder that no one man or woman can solve the race issue alone.

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