Race and Social Inequality
As part of an ongoing program jointly sponsored by Brazil's Ministry of Culture and Brazil @ The Wilson Center three scholars presented their findings after two months of research at the Wilson Center. Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil and his staff also participated by live videoconference, from Brasília, DF Brazil.
Debora Carrari, who arrived this summer with her recently completed Masters Degree in Conflict Analysis from Nova Southeastern University, discussed the implications of police behavior in the context of the concerns with racial equality. Based on the assumption that discriminatory practices in law enforcement have a significant impact on racial equality, she focused on racially biased police behavior in Brazil and the United States. Utilizing publicized documents and statistics, she compared police behavior in both countries, and investigated the structural mechanisms that help perpetuate racial inequality through discriminatory law enforcement.
Katia Santos, from the University of Georgia, focused on Afro-Brazilian women and their struggle to gain access to education in a context of social and racial oppression. She was also concerned with disenfranchisement in a society that she believes is still shaped by the rules of what many in Brazil would term an era of "amiable" slavery. By examining literature produced by African-American scholars on issues related to black women and blacks in general, she is interested in discovering ways to empower Afro-Brazilians. Katia felt that because black populations in Brazil and the U.S. are both derived from forced African diasporas, U.S. civil rights accomplishments could be used as a guide by Afro-Brazilians.
Liv Sovik, from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, discussed the influence of popular culture on the formation of new identities and the resulting increase in attention towards the margins of Brazilian society. She focused on the demand by Afro-Brazilians for equality as well as more specific policies designed to address social inequalities. Liv is concerned with the impact of "whiteness" as an aesthetic ideal and a social determinant. She believes that social limitations stem not only from prejudice against Afro-Brazilians, but also from the elevation of "whiteness" to the top of the social pyramid. She posed the question: "What can be done to remove whiteness from the top of the social scale?" Sovik believes that it is necessary to consider whiteness not in demographic terms, but instead as a social value that has a broad impact across all areas of society. Nevertheless, she believes that although the self-perception of black identity is increasing in Brazil, this does not indicate that Brazil is headed for a dynamic similar to that in the U.S. after the civil rights movement. There are, however, affinities and similarities between Brazil and the U.S.— whiteness, for example, continues to be valued in both countries as a social and aesthetic ideal.
Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil underscored the difficulties in comparing realities in Brazil and the US. He noted that despite superficially similar conditions, race relations have evolved on different paths in Brazil and the U.S. In Brazil he noted that after slavery, blacks were not formally segregated, as in the US. He pointed out that, despite the lack of ideological segregation, there were social, political and economic separations in place.
Minister Gil also observed that, soon after slavery, there were important contingents of blacks living well with whites and other races in Brazil. In the US, however, segregation was a pervasive and largely accepted practice for an extended period of time.
Ron Walters from the University of Maryland agreed with Carrari's findings on the similarities between rates of incarceration in Brazil and the U.S. In the U.S., although rates of arrest are higher for whites, 53% of the prison population is black – and blacks compose only 13% of the American population. Walters highlighted the lack of legislation to address racial profiling, equalization of sentencing, and targeted policing which are generally limited to black communities.
Dr. Walters applauded Santos's description of her experiences and challenges as a black woman coming up through the educational system in Brazil. He raised the issue of identity, and in particular highlighted the concept of being both black and a woman. As Walters sees it, the black female identity is one of double oppression, which historically has only guaranteed diminished access to the opportunity structure. Walters also stressed the importance of viewing the black-white paradigm in light of the struggle for civil rights.
On Sovik, Walters continued his discussion of civil rights noting that the struggle which resulted in this regime benefits all, in the form of laws relating to public accommodation, voting, and housing. This raises the issue of the intersection between power and identity; in America, a unified collective identity meant power, and with struggle, resulted in the establishment of a civil rights regime. Walters agreed with the need for activism in the federal government, positing that if the civil rights agenda in the US had been put to a vote it would have failed. He feels it is necessary for the federal government to look beyond the dangerous and regressive politics of fear by "adopting an enlightened view of its own future."
For Dr. Walters, in both countries the future will require the development of regimes that "promote, enrich and give citizenship of full meaning to all individuals," regardless of race, creed or color. Walters concluded by noting that accomplishing these goals would expand the historically limited circle of democratic participation to the entire population.