October 4, 2002

Black Brazilians emerge from margins

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) --When a 1999 government survey asked Brazilians
their skin color, it turned up a kaleidoscope ranging from "sour white" to "blue,"
"cinnamon," "coffee-with-milk" -- even "dirty." Not many said "black."

For decades, blacks seemed to be slowly disappearing in the rich blend of
Brazil's racial melting pot. But now come figures from the 2000 census,
showing that 6.2 percent of Brazilians call themselves black, up from 5 percent
a decade earlier. And the segment called "pardos" -- a vague Portuguese term
for "dark" -- has declined from 42.6 percent to 39.1 percent.

The increase in those calling themselves black is the first since the 1940s, and
researchers believe it reflects a newfound racial awareness among descendants
of the 4 million African slaves brought here during Portuguese colonial times.

Brazilians "were always a mixture, so there was a lot of indecision about what
people should call themselves," said Nilza de Oliveira Martins Pereira, a
researcher with the government-run IBGE institute that conducts the census.

The rise "indicates a greater consciousness among blacks," Pereira said. "They
begin to understand the importance of differentiating between 'dark' and 'black'
and to relate as a group."

Government responds

The University of Brasilia reserved one-fifth of its entrance slots -- 800 a year
-- for black and mixed-race students. Bahia State University set aside 40
percent of its graduate and postgraduate slots for "Afro-descendants." And the
Foreign Ministry recently created 20 scholarships for Afro-Brazilians in its
diplomats' school.

In May, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who has African ancestry but
is considered part of the white elite, announced the government would set
quotas reserving 20 percent of all federal civil jobs for Afro-Brazilians.

Meanwhile, Benedita da Silva of Rio de Janeiro state has become Brazil's first
black female governor.

But despite its cherished belief that it is a racial democracy, Brazil has long
suffered from rampant but covert racism, and today a gulf divides black and
white in this nation of 175 million. Black and mixed-race Brazilians comprise 64
percent of the poor. The average salary for black Brazilians is less than half that
of whites, while the illiteracy rate is twice as high.

Dark-skinned executives are rare in high corporate and financial posts. In the
two houses of Congress, Afro-Brazilians hold just 14 of the 584 seats, and
none of Cardoso's cabinet ministers is black.

Although racial discrimination is a crime, it is easily disguised. Doormen
routinely direct black visitors to the service elevator, and help-wanted ads long
stipulated "good appearance," a code term for white. Zeze Motta, star of the hit
movie "Xica da Silva," has complained that most of the roles available for black
women are slaves, prostitutes and housemaids.

Many feel that simply bringing the discussion of racial identity into the open is a
step forward.

"The idea that prejudice exists and is something we have to deal with is very
recent," said Rosana Heringer, head of the Center for Afro-Brazilian Studies at
Rio's Candido Mendes University. "To speak of racism 10, 15 years ago was
very difficult. It was almost as if it had nothing to do with Brazil."

Cardoso was the first Brazilian president to openly admit that racism was a
problem. In 1995, the celebration that marked the 300th anniversary of the
death of Zumbi, a runaway slave leader, was a watershed, Heringer said.

Heringer says black purchasing power is becoming a market factor, and black
actors are more noticeable in productions.

"The country is showing its black face, or rather, blacks are admitting who they
are," columnist Zuenir Ventura wrote in the news magazine Epoca. "They
abandoned the euphemisms that prejudice imposed. Racial pride ... is reaching
all the way to the statistics."

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.