By Wagner Miquéias F. Damasceno and Cláudio Donizete, National Secretariat for Black People of the PSTU-Brazil
Originally published in Portuguese here
May 13 this year marks 134 years since the abolition of slavery in Brazil. But there is nothing to celebrate on this date. This is because of two reasons. First, because, since its inception, this date has been wrapped in a fable that attributes the end of slavery to a benevolent act by Princess Isabel, a white monarch who came to be portrayed as a redeeming saint. Second, abolition was not accompanied by any policy of reparations to black men and women for centuries of slavery in Brazil.
Treated like objects, generations of black men and women suffered all kinds of violence, working from sunrise to sunset as the property of white masters, with no right to freedom, no right to the fruits of their labor, and no right to raise their own children since slavery also passed on to them.
But despite all of this, the famed law signed by Princess Isabel did not establish any measures to guarantee decent conditions of existence for black people and their descendants. With only two articles, the law did not establish any reparations or compensation for former slaves: “Art. 1: Slavery in Brazil is declared extinct from the date of this law; Art. 2: All contrary provisions are revoked.
What’s more, as part of the newly-republican government’s desire to deny reparations for slavery, Rui Barbosa ordered the burning of all documentation held in the National Archives that recorded the purchase and sale of enslaved people.
On the margins: Without access to land, housing, and employment
Escravidão no Brasil (English: Slavery in Brazil) by Jean Baptiste Debret
As if an abolition without reparations was not enough of an insult, the government and the ruling class created a series of measures that obstructed and even prevented black people’s access to land, be it for agriculture or just to live on.
Meanwhile, the government adopted racist discourses, claiming that the Brazilian population needed to become whiter in order to “progress”, and the ruling class justified a kind of “second trafficking”, this time of European immigrant workers, mostly poor and expelled from the countryside, to substitute the black men and women in the country’s wage labor market. Racism fit like a glove to the lucrative business network of European workers’ immigration, involving ships, lodging, agencies, banks, etc., created by the Brazilian and European ruling class.
Without access to land, disadvantaged in relation to European workers, and stigmatized by racist rhetoric, black men and women occupied the margins of the nascent Brazilian labor market and lived on the margins of the cities. The effects of four centuries of slavery and an abolition without reparations are still felt today.
Racism: The statistics of a social tragedy
The most tragic expression of racism is murder. According to the Atlas of Violence 2021, black people accounted for 77% of homicide victims in the country, comprising a rate of 29.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, while non-blacks are killed at a rate of 11.2 per 100,000 inhabitants. That is, a black person is 2.6 times more likely to be murdered than a non-black person. Taking into account as well the intersection of racial and gender oppression, 66% of murdered women are black.
Another aspect of racist violence is incarceration: according to data from Infopen – National Survey on Penitentiary Information, 67% of prisoners in the country are black. Of the total number of prisoners, more than a quarter are registered for drug trafficking, by virtue of law 6.368/1976––created during the military dictatorship––and the anti-drug law 11.343/2006 – signed by Lula (PT). A law that, among other things, gives full powers to the judge to define if a person caught with drugs is a user or a consumer.
The second paragraph of art. 28 of the anti-drug law says that “to determine if the drug was intended for personal consumption, the judge will consider the nature and quantity of the substance seized, the place and conditions in which the action took place, the social and personal circumstances, as well as the conduct and background of the agent. Translating this “legalese” into practice: if a young white man is caught with six grams of marijuana in front of his condominium in Leblon, a patrician neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, he is defined as a user. But if a young black man is caught with the same six grams of marijuana, at the bottom of a favela or in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, he is defined as a dealer. We could not come up with a more racist and bourgeois law if we tried.
On the other hand, it is worth pointing to an increased awareness of racism in the country. This is what the Yearly Report of the Brazilian Forum on Public Security (Anuário do Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública) shows: in 2020, there was a 29.8% growth in reports of cases of racism, compared to 2019. Signs of this change can be seen in the popular reaction that occurred, for example, in the São Paulo subway last week, after a white female passenger insinuated that the hair of a black female passenger would transmit diseases. Spontaneously, the workers and young people reacted and expelled the racist passenger from the car and the train station, in an impressive demonstration of solidarity and race and class consciousness.
Cut the evil at the root: Down with racism and capitalism!
Capitalism profited off of black slavery and created the myriad forms of racism we know today to justify it. Black slavery was abolished, but racism continues full steam ahead, because, through it, the bourgeoisie is able to pay lower salaries to black people because of our color and race; and by cultivating racism within the working class and the poor, it divides us into hostile camps, preventing us from fighting in a unified way against it.
Today we are under the genocidal, far-right Bolsonaro government, which uses oppression to divide workers and create scapegoats for the economic crisis in the country. Bolsonaro does not make the slightest effort to disguise his hatred for workers, black people, women, indigenous people, LGBTI people, and the poor. He intentionally took advantage of the pandemic to unleash a true genocide in our country, with more than 650,000 deaths, most of whom are black and poor.
Organizing black and poor working-class people to remove Bolsonaro from power is the most important task today. But to “cut the evil at the root” and prevent new Bolsonaros from emerging, we must build a socialist alternative that leads black people of our class to take power and build a socialist society, the only way to abolish racism and all forms of oppression in Brazil and the world.