Brazil Runs into the Reality of Race

When I think of Brazil, what comes to mind initially is Aquarelo Do Brazil [Water Color of Brazil], an absolutely glorious samba written by Ary Barroso in 1939, which went international when Walt Disney made a breathtaking cartoon in 1942 using the song as backdrop. The animation begs description, and one finds it hard to believe that it could have been made decades before computer graphics. The song is hypnotic and beguiling, like Brazil itself. However, the image is deceptive, as is much of Brazil.

In 2012, Brazil surpassed Britain in economic output to become the sixth biggest economy in the world. However, with five times as many people as Britain, that achievement is not as impressive as it seemed in the headlines. In reality, Britain has a 5 to 1 advantage in per capita income.

Brazil is commended for its use of gasohol, with a commensurate reduction in fossil fuels. What is ignored is that Brazil has one-quarter the number of the cars in the USA, with an equatorial climate which can support sugar cane production like no one else.  Her success is suspect, and is not exportable outside Brazil.

Brazil still gets lauded as the leader of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), and as the economic powerhouse of the future; but there is a dark secret to Brazil, something the media rarely touches, but when addressed will chill the optimism of Brazil supporters.

Brazil is actually two countries: The very white European south, and the very African north. The dichotomy could not be clearer; however Brazil's own history and political correctness has conspired to hide it. Instead the world is tendered a false pretense to the siren tune of Aquarela do Brazil.

Aquarela do Brazil caricatured Brazil as a gloriously sly mulatta woman.  The lyrics intoned ...

Meu mulato inzoneiro [My sly mulatto]

Bota o rei congo no congado  [Put the Congo king dancing the Congo]

In the 1930s, it was an astounding to find any Western people willing to caricature themselves by means of a woman of color, but that is exactly what Brazil did, decades before the rest of the West embraced multiculturalism. Brazil's chief intellectual, Gilberto Freyre, touted "Brazil's racial roots and social harmony."

Born into a family of privilege, Gilberto Freyre converted to Protestantism and was university educated in the United States. When he returned to Brazil, Freyre wrote a series of books that made him famous in its exultation of Brazil's African roots.

[I]n the 1930s, Freyre introduced controversial [sic] the “Brazilian racial democracy” theory, which argued that the racial mixing (which was looked down upon in Brazil) was enriching the culture.   - - Biography

In the United States, Freyre could have been lynched for this. In Brazil, he was given a chair in sociology at the University of Brazil. Officially, his ideas were touted as social policy.

Consider that Freyre was advocating race mixing during an era when the world stood in awe of Hilter's Aryan Übermenschen. This was no mere theory for Freyre. He would re-embrace the Catholicism of his youth since it was syncretistic with the relic pantheon of Afro-Brazilian Candomblé gods. Even Brazil's populist strongman, Getúlio Vargas, got into the act, and encouraged a celebration of Brazil's racial diversity.

The samba, formerly suppressed by authorities, was now extolled. Later on came Brazil's celebration of bossa nova, as best exemplified by Black Orpheus, the favorite movie of Obama's mother. Both samba and bossa nova would become world famous, but only when done by whites. The more African tropicalismo, while still impressive, would not succeed nearly as well.

Eighty years later, Brazil is simultaneously awe inspiring and frightening. Its industries are world class. Brazil is now a major player in aviation and arms production. São Paulo has a metro area of 20 million, and is famous for its abundance of helicopter-padded skyscrapers.

No Brazilian city is enjoying the current economic boom more than São Paulo, where executives buzz above the skyscrapers in helicopters wearing $10,000 suits. - the Guardian, 2008

Sounds futuristic, until one realizes that the rich use helicopter not only to avoid traffic jams, but to avoid driving home through slums, slums which are heavily Afro-Brazilian.  Brazil's racial democracy only worked on paper. No one actually believed it. The dichotomy between black and white is still there.

Despite improvements, Brazilian blacks still earn less than half as much as whites, according to DIEESE, a federal research institution for Brazilian labor unions. - Latin American News Dispatch

Behind all the hype of Brazil's success stands the heavily Afro-Brazilian favelas, slums where the local gangs attack the police and drive them off. The Manguinhos favela in Rio was so violent that it was nicknamed the Gaza Strip.

These favelas are built by the poor on any free space available in a city, next to white prosperity -- and yes, they do look similar to the Arab Silwan neighborhood in Jerusalem, next to well groomed Jewish areas. Analogies to the Gaza Strip may not be that far off.

The Brazilian government cleaned out a few favelas for the World Cup in 2014, but most favelas persist; and yes, they are still horrendously violent.  The racial divide, though hidden, defines Brazil.

However, while whites are only 48% of Brazil's population, in the Southern regions, they are a clear majority.

The South region [red] is 79% white, a ratio slightly higher than the US average. The São Paulo state [green] - adjacent to the South and the industrial powerhouse of Brazil - is 63% white. Rio de Janiero State [blue] is 54% white, which is just above the national average. Mixed in with the Portuguese are a massive number of Germans, lots of Italians, along with Ukrainians, Dutch, Spanish, and even a few Confederados, among others.

Some of these whites are rejecting Freyre's vision. Drawing on a history of past south Brazilian separatist rebellions, groups like O Sul é o Meu País [The South is My Country] are advocating a Southern secession.  In 2010, with the discovery of massive oil fields off of Rio de Janiero, separatism reared up again. 

Brazil may talk about racial democracy, but it that not a reality. Affirmative action was recently introduced in Brazil; and it did not go over well with the richer whites.

In a system comparable to that in the U.S., rich whites tend to get top spots [in free federal universities] while the other 5 million students attend for-profit colleges. Now, the government is trying to change things.  -- The Atlantic

Now that Brazil's economy is collapsing, according to Zero Hedge, government options may be limited. Those already wide racial fissures may grow. Separatism is small now, but economic distress may magnify the differences, and prod things along.

Who is to blame? Who knows?  Clearly, Brazil's past was ugly. Black slaves were worked to death on sugar plantations, where life expectancy was only a few years. Brazil was the last country to outlaw slavery in South America in 1888. Even though Brazil never legislated Jim Crow laws, old prejudices die hard.

Were it not for language differences, Southern Brazil could easily join Argentina, a nation which until recently prided itself on its European ancestry. Even more ironic, South Brazil was originally part of the Spanish concessions, and were it not for war, would have remained with Spain, and later Argentina. The hidden secret of South America is that Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and South Brazil are very European.  The Spanish even have a name for this region: The Southern Cone.

"Black people do not exist in Argentina, Brazil has that problem"  - Argentine President, Carlos Menem, 1996

Brazil is a case study.  For a while it was touted as the example that very diverse races could get along harmoniously and peaceably. Its prosperity - which only emerged among the whites - is now cracking; and if it breaks, Southern Brazil may split away, leaving a Northern Brazil as ethnically African and as poor as many countries in Africa itself, while Southern Brazil may end up as white and as prosperous as areas of Europe. South Europeans started moving to Argentina and Brazil after the EU economic crisis started.

As lovely as the multicultural dream was -- and still is -- it may prove yet to be a phantasm. It is one thing to assimilate an Irishman, German, or Italian into an Anglo or Latin culture, and another thing altogether to assimilate millions of blacks, or Muslim Arabs.  I hope I am wrong, but I can find no large-scale contrary evidence, apart from exemplar individuals who may not be representative.

The world may have to accept that while all men are created equal, they are not always created compatible.  I am not happy about this.

Mike Konrad is an American who writes on various topics.