Alternative names: “people of colour”, various specific terms
Location: throughout Brazil, especially in Bahia province
Population: 13-57 million
% of population: 10%-44%
Religion: Catholic, indigenous African beliefs
Language: Portuguese

The Afro-Brazilians are the descendants of the African slaves who were brought to Brazil by the Portuguese colonizers and who today comprise one of the largest groups of people of African descent in the world, larger in fact than in many African countries. According to the 1980 census 44% of the population are preto or pardo (black or coloured). Yet it is difficult to define the meaning of the term “black” in the Brazilian context. Some 20 different shades of colour are recognized by Brazilians, ranging from white to black. The term “people of colour” covers almost all groups who are recognizably non-white while “mulatto” signifies a mixed race group which is neither black nor white. There are probably about 10% of the population who are recognizably black or distinctly dark and considerably more who have some African ancestry.

These factors make it particularly difficult to draw conclusions concerning legal, political, social and economic rights. Although Brazil prides itself on being a racial democracy there exists strong pressure to aspire to “whiteness”, Afro-Brazilians are almost completely unrepresented in any area of decision-making in the country’s administration or commerce.

West African slaves were imported by Portuguese colonists from around 1530 to work the sugar cane plantations. Slavery continued until 1888, 66 years after Brazil had obtained independence from Portugal. It is estimated that during those years some 3.65 million men, women and children were imported, of whom about 1.2 million were sent to the province of Bahia. Salavador Bahia has become the most African of Brazilian cities and even today many aspects of African influence are present. Other provinces and states to which slaves were sent include Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Sāo Paulo, Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Sol and Parana.

The blackness of the population is believed to have been diminished by significant, often subsidized, European migration between 1850 and 1900, and the tendency for marriages and unions to involve the mixing of races. The Portuguese are often considered to be less bigoted than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts and an ecclesiastical belief in the possibility of slaves possessing souls, and therefore human rights, became recognized in law. In theory, slaves were allowed to buy their freedom and even take out complaints against their masters. In practice however many of these rights did not exist.

There exists in Brazil today the potential to create a genuinely racially egalitarian society. The 1951 Alfonso Arinos Law made discrimination based on race or colour in public establishments, education and employment a criminal offence punishable by a jail term or fine, and Brazil is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All-Racial Discrimination. Yet at present blacks, almost without exception, find themselves outside the mainstream of political decision-making and it seems that the only areas where they can achieve prominence are in entertainment and football.

In any case Brazil is a highly stratified society within which upward mobility is difficult for the working class and poor. Decision-making is in the hands of a tiny elite, which used to comprise the landowners but now includes members drawn from industry, the armed forces, the intelligentsia and church. Furthermore from 1964 to 1985 the country was ruled by a military elite and political parties were forced to operate within a narrow spectrum. The introduction of democracy has not however brought greater equality and recent “economic restructuring” has severely affected the poorest groups.

The distinction between theory and practice is very important in an assessment of the Afro-Brazilian position because there are no legal impediments to his or her advancement in society. The claim that “people of colour” are not discriminated against is only valid if the broadest definition of that term is applied and it is not true for Africans and dark mulattoes. It seems that the social, economic and political structures are such that, by their very nature, they act against the interests of the Afro-Brazilian. The result is that the few blacks who make the leap to “whiteness” tend to perpetuate the myth that Brazilian society is egalitarian. With the abolition of slavery no measures were put in place to give the ex-slave a position where he could take advantage of the competition he would encounter in a rapidly expanding economy. Thus he was handicapped from the start and a series of ultimately self-reinforcing myths were perpetuated about blacks. A popular saying has it that: “In Brazil there is no racism; the negro knows his place.” In a society which denies the presence of discrimination, racism surfaces in more subtle guises. The term boa aparentica — good appearance — is a typical example of how, in advertisements for housing, employment or education, blacks can be discriminated against with total impunity.

The latest census figures confirm that Afro-Brazilians fare worse than whites in terms of their education, health, employment and earnings (even when they are doing the same job as whites) while their infant mortality and life expectancy rates are lower. In the 1985 Congress there were only three black members of a total of 548 while in the Catholic Church out of 12,000 priests only 20 were black and of 340 bishops only six were black.

While Afro-Brazilians have been encouraged to believe that they are the most fortunate of all the blacks in the Americas, especially in comparison with those of the USA, political action on a small scale has continued since the 1930s. A group formed to unite “people of colour”, A Frenta Negra Brasileira — The Black Brazilian Front — proposed improving political, social and economic conditions for all blacks and mulattoes. The group gained considerable support but was suspended following a coup d’etat. When the ban was finally lifted the group emerged without its political programme emphasizing instead cultural and recreational activities.

In 1978 the first racial demonstration in living memory took place in Sāo Paulo. Five thousand people took part in the event which was organized by the Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination. But incidents like this tend to be sporadic, symptomatic perhaps of a general disregard for the issues raised by race in Brazil. 1988 was the centenary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil and Afro-Brazilians used the occasion to again draw attention to their disadvantaged position in Brazilian society, even though official celebrations ignored the descendants of the slaves and their contribution to Brazil.

(See also Afro-Cubans)