September 1, 2001

Brazil grapples with long-ignored racism problem

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- In the 1994 presidential campaign, candidate
Fernando Henrique Cardoso used a popular phrase to refer to his African ancestry.
"I have one foot in the kitchen," he said with a laugh.

Brazilians knew what he meant -- menial workers are overwhelmingly black -- but
despite some scattered complaints that the remark smacked of racism, few saw
anything wrong with it. Cardoso, who is light-skinned and considered part of the
white elite, won the election.

The idea that it's a "racial democracy" has long been one of Brazil's most cherished
myths. But as it participates in the U.N. conference on racism in Durban, South
Africa, the government finds itself forced to deal with a problem back home.

Although black Brazilians make up nearly half the population of 170 million, they
make up 63 percent of the nation's poor and less than 16 percent of graduating
university students last year, according to government figures. The illiteracy rate for
black Brazilians is 26 percent, compared to 10 percent for whites.

In the job market, things aren't much better. A black man earns on average 48
percent less than his white counterpart in the same job, according to the Sao Paulo
State Socio-Economic Research Foundation, which monitors labor statistics.
Although racial discrimination is a crime, help-wanted ads often require "good
appearance" -- which is widely taken as code for white.

"Poverty in Brazil has a color," read an opinion article this week in the financial daily
Gazeta Mercantil, considered Brazil's Wall Street Journal. "From the racial viewpoint,
Brazil and the USA are different -- there, whites and blacks are equal but live
separately; here, they are together but unequal."

While soccer player Pele and pop star Gilberto Gil may be Brazil's multiracial face to
the world, outside of sports and entertainment black Brazilians find few

In Congress, only 12 of the 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies and two of
the 81 senators are of African ancestry. None of Cardoso's cabinet ministers is
black, and black Brazilians are rare in top corporate or financial posts.

In the Brazilian delegation to the Durban conference, members of human rights
groups are pushing for a commitment to concrete affirmative action policies.

One idea is to set quotas for Afro-Brazilians in public universities.

A recent survey revealed that only 12 of the University of Brasilia's 1,400 professors
and 80 of its 18,216 undergraduate students are Afro-Brazilians, political science
professor David Fleischer said. The university plans to reserve one-fifth of its
entrance slots -- 800 a year -- for black and mixed-race students in 2002, he said.

However, Education Minister Paulo Renato Souza opposes quotas for all universities.
He says Brazil will seek $10 million from the Inter-American Development Bank to
fund groups that offer special courses to train Afro-Brazilians for Brazil's college
entrance examination.

Not good enough, some critics say.

"A policy of racial quotas for blacks isn't ideal, but it becomes necessary as nothing
else now exists to put blacks and whites on equal footing," said Ivanir dos Santos, a
leading rights activist and head of the Outcast Coordination Center. "It's time to
create mechanisms for compensation."

But black pride has not taken root in Brazil outside of African-culture centers like
Salvador, the nation's colonial-era capital. Many black Brazilians simply deny they
are black -- a 1998 census found more than 300 descriptions for skin color,
including "cinnamon," "coffee-with-milk," "blue," even "encardido," the Portuguese
word for "filthy."

Still, some see progress in the simple recognition that racism exists in Brazil.

"We always refused to discuss this question because we said we didn't have this
problem," said Roberto Martins, head of the government-run Applied Economic
Research Institute. "Now the debate has begun."

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.