The Reality of Racial Inequality in Brazil


Whew! What a whirlwind of adventures we have had while traveling around the country of Brazil. After traveling to Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and while currently in Brasília, there has been clear examples of the racism this country and its citizens face on a daily basis.

Today, we traveled to Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Federal Institute for Applied Economic Research), otherwise known as IPEA (ee-pay-uh). The purpose of this institute surrounds the common goal of researching issues in Brazil and focusing on those including violence, public security, and social policy, to name a few. The institute was initially established in the mid 1960s to help organize and plan public and social policy for the Brazilian government and has since evolved into a Think Tank. To date, IPEA continues to work with the government and has various departments that are devoted to specific areas of public interest including social policy, regional, state, and international departments, along with macroeconomics and sectoral studies. Today we were lucky enough to meet with researchers Daniel, Pedro, and Milko along with some of their colleagues. We discussed the idea of inequality in the country of Brazil through research done at IPEA, along with comparing it to our own experiences we've had while traveling around the country.

Prior to traveling to Brazil, I had a very narrow idea of what the term "racism" actually meant. To me, I considered it the sporadic maltreatment of a minority race through body language or comments made whether or not it was face to face, or an afterthought of an experience. Upon our time traveling around Brazil, I have come to realize it is much more than body language or cruel comments towards an individual of another race. In Brazil, those who racially identify as non-white face racism ever single day. In Brazil, "there are two distinct citizenships-- the white and the black" (Sheriff). While whites are often seen as elites in the country, "Brazilians of African descent lag far behind their white counterparts in all of the relevant measures of economic well-being and quality of life" (Sheriff). Through our time in Brazil and discussion at IPEA today, it has been made quite obvious that this rings true throughout the country.

I feel the atmosphere of racial inequality has been most apparent during our time in Rio de Janeiro. After visiting Rocinha favela and witnessing other examples on the street, Rio is a true example of the idea that those of color are lower on the socioeconomic ladder. As discussed in Robin Sheriff's Dreaming Equality, "Color itself structures the process by which Brazilians of African descent are systemically denied access to the opportunities to pursue trajectories of upward mobility...most black Brazilian families remain at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder" (Sheriff). Most individuals living in Rocinha were of a darker complexion, and many individuals working in less desirable jobs had darker skin as well (street sweepers and waiters, as well as those who were homeless and living on the street).

Four of us visited the botanical gardens in Rio one day and wandered to a nearby restaurant. We immediately noticed that we were not the whitest individuals there, almost everyone around us drove a car, and the wardrobe of those surrounding us was very business-like and professional. We discussed the idea of racism and how it impacts social class in Brazil; it was clear that the whites were "well-off" based on the caliber of the restaurant and the clothing they were wearing, compared to the condition of those living on the street and in the favela. While this idea of class by race is not written in stone anywhere, it is something one must witness to truly believe the idea that one's social class is based off of the color of their skin.

While one might argue this idea can be reciprocated in the United States, it is a very different feeling in Brazil. Often times, it can be argued that the key to success in life is a quality education. While this is made a priority in the United States, it's not as easily accessible in Brazil. Commonly, most individuals of color in Brazil complete at most, 9 years of schooling and do not move on to university (Mauro). However, those who are white typically finish high school and go on to university. The access individuals have to a quality education can be used as evidence to explain why the social class system in Brazil functions as it does; those with access to a quality education (whites) are able to obtain better jobs, resulting in a higher income and ultimately landing them at the top of the social class ladder.

While in Salvador, the feeling of racial divide was a bit different. Known as the blackest city in Latin America, we as white individuals stuck out like a sore thumb. I have never had so many people staring at me while walking down the street! Salvador was a popular city during the slave trade and its culture and history are built on the legacies of slavery. Most important to come from this is the religion of Candomblé (Gates). It was very commonly practiced among those who came from Africa and is still a popular practice today. However, Candomblé raised racial questions as it was not taken seriously because it was introduced to the region by slaves. Because it did not align with traditional Catholic traditions, (commonly practiced by whites) it was often not recognized as a religion. As the population in Salvador continued to grow, so did the number of those who practiced Candomblé. While we did not see much resemblance of this religion in Rio, it was obvious upon our adventures in Salvador that it was a practice that came with the slaves and has stayed true to the identity of the population in Salvador. Personally, I did not feel as though the racial divide was as significant or noticeable in Salvador as it was Rio, but it impacted life in a different way (Candomblé) for those living in Bahia.

Our final stop on this trip is in Brasília, the third and current capital of Brazil. It has been interesting to see how people function in Brasília. Most people drive cars, hardly anyone takes public transportation, and we very rarely see individuals walking along the sidewalks. While visiting IPEA, all of the researchers we met with were white. As a research institution, most of these individuals have obtained their Masters if not Ph.D. in an area of study and are now conducting research through IPEA. The idea of a quality education leading to a higher quality of life was apparent through this example: the individuals were white with a graduate level education, ultimately leading one to assume they are well off socially and financially. The researchers at IPEA are evidence of the idea of a social class system that is dependent on race. Through the many individuals we have met here, it has been made clear that individuals of color do not find themselves in high paying jobs or in a rigorous vocation. We met a friend of our professor's named Jamir- he is interning as an engineer through the Brazilian government and is considered non-white. He is the only black intern for the company and 1 of 5 black individuals working for the company of 200 people. Race inequality is an issue in Brazil.

While our course is titled "Race, Inequality and Development in Brazil," we have definitely taken a closer look on how racism impacts everyday life for those living in Brazil. Throughout the three cities we have visited, racism has impacted individuals differently, but has still been apparent that it is an increasing issue. While Gilberto Freyre's idea of racial democracy (Gates) is still a topic of debate in Brazil, this trip has made it very clear that racial democracy is far out of reach for Brazil anytime soon. There is definitely room to improve the racial inequities in the country, but I am unsure if racial democracy will ever be reached in such a racially divided place.

I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to embark on such an adventure and feel as though I have been exposed to a life I would have never known if I did not travel to Brazil. I am thankful to have had this experience and know my views of racism have changed, causing me to think and act in a more open minded way. While my views of racism were very narrow upon the start of this trip, they have now widened and it has been made clear that racism is an increasing issue around the world. One can only hope that the world will one day achieve the idea of racial democracy.

USA, we'll see you soon!


-Gates, Henry L. Black in Latin America. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
-Mauro, José. Racial Inequality, lecture. Rio de Janeiro, January 12, 2017.
-Sheriff, Robin E. Dreaming Equality. EBSCO Publishing, 2016.
-IPEA. Reasons of Inequality, lecture. Brasília, January 23, 2017.

Students at the NGO in Rochina Favela in Rio
The group with a professional basketball team in Brasília
Learning to play the drums at an NGO in Salvador