Brazil’s Independence Day is celebrated on September 7. The largest Latin American nation became independent in 1822 after being colonized by Portugal since 1500.

Today, Brazil is still considered a developing country. With an estimated population of 220 million people– It holds the largest African-descendant population outside of Africa.

According to official data, between 1600 and 1800, Brazil imported approximately 5.1 million enslaved Africans, whereas the United States slave imports are estimated at 400,000 slaves

Despite being the majority, representing 56% of Brazil’s entire population, Black Brazilians lag behind in almost every segment within the country’s society. Racism, neglect, police brutality, extreme poverty are items that compose the reality of Black people across the country. 

Part of the explanation lies in history.

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery in 1888, 66 years after Brazil’s Independence Day. Although former Black enslaved people did not experience formal racial segregation like Black people from South Africa or the American South, poverty and laws criminalizing Black culture and African religions had impacted generations of Afro-Brazilians for centuries. 

“In Brazil, racism is a result of social structure. It is normalized in politics, economy, civil rights and even in social relationships. Racism (in Brazil) is structural. Individual behaviors and institutional processes are derived from a society whose racism is the rule and not the exception,” explains professor Silvio de Almeida, a lawyer and Philosopher who is one of the most prominent voices against racism in Brazil. 

Professor Silvio de Almeida | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The majority of Black people in Brazil face extremely poor conditions. Most of them live in shantytowns, and they are seen as cheap labor for factories and white families who live in wealthier neighborhoods. Currently, Black Brazilians are 56% of Brazil’s population, but 70% of the poor. The unemployment rate is 17% for Blacks versus 12% for whites. White Brazilians earn almost twice as much as black ones do.

Even in Salvador, Bahia, where 83% of its population are Black, the situation is far from being good. The city, which is considered the largest Afrocentric hub in Brazil, has never elected a Black mayor.

“It shows how racism structures power relations and social relations. This is because racism turns a majority into a political minority. It transforms an ethnic-racial minority in that city into a majority, because it ends up occupying the best spaces. The end of slavery in Brazil has not extinguished racial hierarchies  It is seen the reproduction of what was before,” Salvador’s congressman Silvio Humberto told a local newspaper. 

Lacerda Elevator, one of the main tourist attractions in Salvador | Credit: Bahia State Government/ Teresa Torres

For Humberto, even Black carnival in Salvador works more to the benefit of the white people in the city.

“It is a fantastic thing. At the same time that we sell, we have fun, we sing the songs of Ilê Aiyê, Muzenza which we sing about our pains, our joys during the Carnival, our people making money circulate among us. But this is also a picture of an extremely unequal city. And the inequality in this city has a name, it’s called racism. Salvador is a Black Rome, an Afrocentric capital, but Salvador is the paradise of whites. According to economic data, the gap between the richest 10%, when compared to the poorest 40%, is huge. Blacks only own 10% of what they produce. It means that this Black mass does not have the same opportunities as whites,” he said. 

Police brutality is also a big issue among the Black Brazilians.

In 2019, Brazilian police officers killed 6,357 people. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, cops killed 1,814: nearly twice as many people as cops killed in the United States, which has a population 19 times as large.

Eight out of ten Brazilians killed by police are negros, a grouping that combines the official racial categories of preto, “black”, and pardo, “brown” or “mixed.” Police killings tripled between 2013 and 2020, and now represent around a third of all homicides in some states, according to data compiled by the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, an NGO.

Police raid in a Rio’s Favela| Photo Credit: Agência Brasil

The most recent shocking police raid occurred on May 6, in the Favela do Jacarezinho, when 27 favela residents were killed by the police, and one police officer was shot dead by drug traffickers.

It was the deadliest police raid in the state’s history.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who is known for being against any kind of Black activism, praised the operation.

“I wanted to congratulate Rio de Janeiro’s police officers for the operation. We cannot treat them as victims once they rob, kill and destroy families. They cannot be compared to the law-abiding citizens,” he wrote on his social media accounts. 

The high levels of violence against Black people in Rio are not enough to make white Brazilians show some empathy towards the victims of police brutality. Quite the opposite. Some of them support bloody police raids in favelas, arguing that they are needed to combat criminals.

However, those who support police brutality in Black communities in Rio are the same who deny the existence of racism in the country. Recently, Brazil’s vice-president Hamilton Mourão said that Brazil is a racial democracy, and social problems in Brazil affects everybody regardless of color. 

Despite severe issues, Black people have made advancements over the past few decades. Brazil’s government implemented affirmative action programs in public universities and civil service jobs. Today, Black students account for 47% of all students in Brazil’s public universities.

Entrepreneurship has increased, creating Black millionaires such as cosmetic mogul Zica de Assis, and Brazil’s recycling tycoon Geraldo Rufino.

Also, Brazilian companies are more open to discuss inclusion programs for Black people, something that has never existed before.

Activists’ voices are starting to be heard and highlighted.

Djamila RIbeiro, a philosopher, Black feminist and human rights activist, was elected as one of the 100 most influential women in the world, according to BBC.

These movements show that some progress is being made, but still there’s a long road ahead to achieve numbers that bring social justice to Black people in Brazil.

For professor Flávio Gomes at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), dates, events and even statues that symbolize Brazil’s Independence Day have been questioned.

“In 2022, Brazil will celebrate 200 years of independence. After ‘Brazil’s Independence Day’, slavery was maintained and expanded in Brazil and until 1861 at least half a million Africans entered the country. What do we want to know and already know about this and other stories and memories? Some narratives need to be revisited,” the professor told Alma Preta, an Afro-Brazilian news outlet.