Bauru, Brazil – In 124 years of history, this medium-sized, predominantly white city in Brazil’s thriving agricultural belt has never had an Afro-Brazilian mayor. So far.

Inauguration Friday

Suellen Rosim,

Thirty-two years of the entry of thousands of black and mestizo politicians of all tendencies into local government in Brazil are applauded as a victory for People of Color and an important step against racism in Latin America’s largest country.

Awareness of Brazil’s African heritage and the growing importance of influential black politicians are the driving forces behind this change. Brazil has the largest black or mixed population of any country outside Africa, almost 120 million – more than half of the population – but only 4% of the politicians in Congress are black.

A Supreme Court ruling last October requiring parties to allocate part of the funds for the state campaign to black and multi-racial candidates also mobilised coloured politicians and encouraged more people to identify with them.

We show that it is possible to be a woman, to be black, to be mayor, governor or even president, said Roshim, a gospel singer and former news anchor in the 380,000-strong city.

Demonstrations broke out in Porto Alegre and throughout Brazil in November after a black man was beaten to death by guards outside a supermarket in the southern city.


Silvio avila/ Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

In November’s local elections, black and mixed politicians formed the majority of candidates for mayor and councillor across the country for the first time – out of a population of 210 million. This is an increase compared to the 48% in the 2016 local elections. More than 40 percent of the black or mestizo candidates were elected in the first ballot, including some 1,700 mayors and some 26,000 municipal councillors, according to the Brazilian Electoral Court. The most common racial mix in Brazil is that between blacks and whites; political candidates of black origin can identify themselves as black or mestizo.

The result in some parts of Brazil suggests a new strength: More than 50 people from Kilombos, isolated communities made up of descendants of runaway slaves who had no political representation, will find work as councillors in towns outside these settlements. In big cities like Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, normally represented by whites, black politicians have invaded city councils.

There are few blacks and mestizos in politics in the big cities of Brazil, and some Afro-Brazilian leaders say that racial equality comes too late. But there’s a change going on. By 2019, the percentage of Brazilians professing an African legacy and identifying themselves as black or mestizo has risen to 56 per cent of the population, up from 51 per cent a decade earlier, according to the government statistics agency.

people in Rio de Janeiro celebrated on 20 November: Black Awareness Day in Brazil.


Ricardo Moraes/Reuters.

While the left-wing parties have traditionally been the first to advocate racial equality in the country, the emerging generation of black politicians in Brazil also includes people with little appeal and many others who are conservative and pious.

Roshim, the daughter of an evangelical Christian pastor, ran for the right-wing Brazilian Patriota party, which is an ally of the president.

Jair Bolsonaro,

accused by his opponents of racist rhetoric. In 2017, Mr. Bolsonaro sowed anger when he declared that the inhabitants of the Kilombs were not even fit to breed.

said that Patriotic Party officials suggested to run, hoping that he would use his familiar face in Bauru.

Although she says she doesn’t always agree with the way the ardent Brazilian leader expresses herself, she shares his socially conservative agenda.

A third of Brazilians define themselves as evangelical and support values such as sexual abstinence before marriage, according to a Datafola study, with a Pentecostal belief especially popular in poor black communities. But black conservatives are politically underrepresented.

Because people were conservative, they wanted to label me, they told me I was acting against my own race, Rosim said.

Like many black leaders in Brazil, Rochim said she finds inspiration in African Americans, mentioning…

Michelle Obama

as a model, despite their ideological differences. She said she hopes that one day the election of black politicians in local positions will lead to greater representation at the federal level.

Brazil received far more African slaves than any other country in America and was the last country to abolish this practice in 1888. Unlike the United States, there was no civil war, no broad civil rights movement and no national debate on race.

Instead, Brazilian leaders propagated the idea of racial democracy and imagined a society in which people of all skin tones would blend harmoniously. Human rights activists say it’s a myth that has left racism in the shadows.

I think racism is worse here than in the United States, said Paulo Paim, one of the few black senators from Brazil. The United States has a problem and society is dealing with it anyway….. But here people just refuse to see him.

White Brazilians not only dominate politics, they are usually richer, have a university degree, hold management positions and live longer and healthier lives. Among the poorest 10% of Brazilians, three quarters of the population is black or of mixed race.

Black Brazilians are also responsible for three-quarters of the murder victims and almost 80 percent of the 6,375 people killed by the police in 2019.

Fury against the violence against black Brazilians increased here and abroad in November, when security agents filmed a black customer being beaten to death outside a grocery store in Porto Alegre, a city in the south of the country, a region largely made up of descendants of European immigrants.

For Ms. Roshim, she said racism has always been subtle.

She remembered the college professor who told her to straighten her tight curls to get a job. She said she had received dirty looks from the store staff, after which she yelled at them and concluded that she did not have enough money to make a purchase.

In politics, she said, prejudice is clearer and more extreme. The death threat came in an anonymous e-mail sent last weekend during a leak at the end of November calling her a monkey.

He said: I’m going to kill you, that awful haircut, how can there be a mayor like you in town, I know where you live, Miss Rossim said. Other anonymous messages on WhatsApp called it a slum and said no one of color is competent to run the city.

The mural in Rio de Janeiro shows Brazilian councillor Marielle Franco near the place where she was murdered in 2018.


AFP via Getty Images

Despite the threats, social media have, according to some, become a factor that paves the way for more black politicians to enter politics. Murder

Marielle Franco,

A black councillor in Rio de Janeiro, who died in an unsolved murder in 2018, has also conquered black political hope.

We’re seeing new leaders emerge… I think we’re on a one-way street, said Bia Caminha, a 21-year-old biracial student who was elected the youngest member of Belém city council in the Amazon.

The recent policy of positive action, including scholarship programmes and racial quotas at universities, is also helping, according to human rights activists and coloureds. But there is also a growing awareness of black culture, with more Afro-Brazilians on the covers of fashion magazines or playing in everyone’s favourite soap operas.

The most important thing for Ms. Roshim, she said, is to be seen, whether on television or in government. I want people to see themselves in me, she said.

Email Luciana Magalhaes at [email protected] and Samantha Pearson at [email protected].

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