World Cup Brazil must prove its “democracy” serves all interests

By Thomas L Blair ©

Brazil has successfully promoted an international reputation as a “racial democracy”. Once hosting the 1950s World Cup and again in 2014. But that image is largely undermined by long-standing urban inequalities.

Afro-Brazilian urban workers suffered in the World Cup 1950s era

Sixty years ago an American scholar warned that Afro-Brazilians were triply handicapped. Once for being Black, second as denizens of the favelas, and third because they were bypassed by the new industrial, technological, and political changes in the Brazilian society (Blair, The Negro Urban worker in Urban Brazil 1954).

Rio de Janeiro’s, sprawling hillsides were already Black colonies of the rural dispossessed in the 1950s – as much by law and political attitudes as by discrimination and benign neglect.

Popular humour was sprinkled with abuse. “What did one Rio carioca say to another when they saw two whites running bye? They must be athletes. But when I see two Negroes, I know they are criminals fleeing the police.”

Protests for Afro-Brazilian rights marked the intervening years

In response, outraged Afro-Brazilians formed new political and anti-defamation groups. Severino de Mello’s Union of men of color (UHC) led the fight for better jobs and recorded every incident of racial discrimination. Abdias Nascimento of the Negro Experimental Theatre (TEN) used music, dance and drama to establish, protect and extend Black cultural rights.

Political and cultural action were natural expressions in a society where people of colour faced increasing discrimination. But none of this was spoken of, and if so, only harshly, in government circles, the press or academic research.

White over Black still evident in World Cup Brazil 2014 era

There is solid evidence that change has not come much farther in the last 60 years. Sao Paulo, a 2014 World Cup venue, shows the starkest signs of inequality for Blacks since slavery abolition in 1888 (Andrews, Black and White Workers).

Moreover, the 2010 census exposed a divided society. The proportion of people declaring themselves black or mixed race rose from 44.7% to 50.7%, making African-Brazilians the official majority for the first time (The Guardian).

Evidence shows a huge gap separates Brazil’s white and non-white populations, and persists. In major cities whites earned about 2.4 times more than their black counterparts. In the largely Black city of Salvador, a former slave port, whites earned 3.2 times more.

Afro-Brazilian inclusion is the test of democracy

Despite the country’s enormous economic gains since the beginning of this century, there has been very little benefit for Black workers and favela-bound households.

In sum, the facts refute the idyllic picture of Brazilian racial relations. Black workers and the précariat will lose out in the competition for jobs and wages in all except the low pay manual, domestic and commodity export sectors. All these factors foreshadow grave race-class problems in an increasingly deprived and marginal Africanised Brazil.

The litany of contradictions is damaging to a country of such vibrant ethnicities and colours, astonishing landscapes and wealth of indigenous heritages. Hence, politicians, civil society and the media s must revise their branding Brazil as a “racial democracy”.

All democracies should be inclusive or else they are not. Therefore, democracy in Brazil can only be possible and plausible when all interests are served, and white over Black domination and its damaging colour hierarchy join slavery in history. It should not take another century or another World Cup hosting to prove it.

Thomas L Blair, The Negro Worker in Urban Brazil

George Reid Andrews, Black and white workers: Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1888-1928

The Guardian