How the city of São Paulo excluded blacks from the job market: After abolition in the 19th century, elites passed over blacks for European immigrants


How paulistas excluded blacks from the job market: After abolition in the 19th century, elites preferred Europeans for free labor, which turned slavery into an exclusive legacy

Note from BW of Brazil: In my extended experience in São Paulo, one thing has always struck me when considering the job market. Having been in countless office and apartment buildings over the past decade, there seems to be an unwritten rule. When there are clean up women employed, they’re almost always black. I’m not saying there aren’t any white or near white clean up women, but I am saying that black women, specifically darker-skinned black women are vastly over-represented in this area of work than their populational representation in the city. It simply never fails. I’ve witnessed this trend on the city’s most famous avenue, Avenida Paulista, on another wealthy street, Faria Lima, as well as in middle class neighborhoods such Tatuapé. If there’s a cleaning woman, she’s probably black.

The same thing can be applied to black men.

Garis in São Paulo

If you pay attention to city workers dressed in the green and yellow, prison-like uniforms collecting trash throughout the city, you notice a higher percentage of black men, again, often darker-skinned, than in the general population, in which darker skin is already a small percentage of the overall black population. On the other hand, if you enter most middle-class apartment buildings in which you must be buzzed in before entering, it’s very common to find black men serving as porteiros, or door men. I must always make it clear that my intention isn’t to demean the honest work of these men and women, but rather to point out the clear differences of occupations according to color in cities like São Paulo. The same can be said about Rio de Janeiro, the only difference being that city employees wear bright orange in that city. 


Even though I was familiar with the history of the job market in São Paulo through the books of people like Florestan Fernandes and George Reid Andrews, it’s still striking to personally see how this labor is still racialized even decades after the works of these authors were released. Andrews’ book, Blacks and Whites in São Paulo, Brazil, covered the century between 1888, the year slavery was abolished in Brazil, and 1988. Brancos e negros em São Paulo by Fernandes and Roger Bastide was released in the mid-1950s, but provides an excellent historical perspective for understanding how more than 60 years later, this division of labor is still very striking for anyone who spends a little time just observing in the mega-city which is the economic engine of Brazil. 

If you were to ask why there seems to be a color code in which the darker the skin the more menial the labor and people will surely resort to responses such as, “there are white people doing this work too”, or perhaps, “blacks don’t try hard enough to succeed”, but the truth is that this division of labor has historical roots. And this history is directed influenced by skin color. 

A racist society admitted blacks as slaves; for free labor, it brought the European, claiming that blacks didn’t have the mentality to integrate into the modes of production

How the São Paulo job market excluded blacks

By Raphael de Lima Vicente

Slave labor, the nucleus of the productive system of colonial Brazil, was gradually replaced by free labor during the 1800s. This substitution, however, occurs in a particularly exclusive way.

One of the most important consequences of slave labor and its racist developments in the first decades after abolition, according to the professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Karl Monsma (2016), is what is called the “split labor market spun”.

A racist society admitted blacks as slaves; for free labor, it brought the European, claiming that blacks didn’t have the mentality to integrate into the modes of production.

Overwhelmed by the legacy of slavery, blacks didn’t constitute a significant productive force and didn’t define themselves as a working class. Ironically, the black lost importance when he became a free man: he didn’t achieve emancipation, nor did he reach the stage of a worker engaged in the new forms of production that emerged in the country.

Immigration gained strength in the late 1870s, and in 1886, at the suggestion of the governor of the province and with the support of state funds, the privately owned Immigration Promotion Company was established to coordinate the São Paulo campaign to attract European workers. In 1895, these functions were assumed by the Department of Agriculture of the State of São Paulo.

The labor market in São Paulo, in the years immediately following the abolition of slavery, was shaped by an unusual direction and intervention by the state.

Echoes of slave labor

The Brazilian Constitution of 1891 specifically prohibited African and Asian immigration to the country, and national and state governments made the attraction of European immigration to Brazil a priority for national development.

And when immigrants arrived, Brazilian sociologists and scientists engaged in research and writing that demonstrated to themselves and the world how Brazil was rapidly transforming itself – from a backward and miscegenated place that looked “more like a corner of Africa than a New World Nation” in a progressive republic populated by Europeans and their descendants.

However, the vast majority of European immigrants who came to Brazil were also illiterate or read very little.

There were particularities regarding the transition from a slave-based economy to an economy based on free labor. On the one hand, a process of regrouping the slave labor in the most dynamic regions can be observed, especially in São Paulo, where most of the immigrants went at a later stage.

In addition, immigrant employers favored their countrymen, which amounted to discrimination against everyone else, and many white employers, especially foreigners, showed attitudes openly hostile to blacks.

In the city and in the countryside, immigrants enjoyed the same preference in hiring. The 1893 census of the City of São Paulo showed that 72% of trade employees, 79% of factory workers, 81% of workers in the transport sector and 86% of artisans were foreigners. The Correio Paulistano estimated that 80% of construction workers were Italian; and a 1912 study of the workforce in 33 state textile industries found that 80% of textile workers were foreigners, the vast majority of whom were Italians.

According to available data, at the beginning of the 20th century, 92% of industrial workers in the city of São Paulo were foreigners, mainly of Italian origin. In Rio de Janeiro, then the country’s capital and the city of greatest economic importance, the participation of foreigners in the industry represented almost half of the workforce there.

We can observe with the development of commerce and industry, the birth of a proletariat and also of an urban middle class, but black workers didn’t have the opportunity to join the ranks of those groups.

This persistent preference for Europeans and Euro-Brazilians directly affected Afro-Brazilians. Florestan Fernandes wrote that in 1920 their position in the urban economy was even worse than it had been 20 or 30 years before, despite the phenomenal development of industry, construction and commerce that occurred in the meantime.

Blacks were almost completely barred from work in factories, and black artisans disappeared entirely from the city. Poor and working-class blacks found their job opportunities restricted to domestic service and what could now be called the informal sector.

Nowhere in Brazil has this effort to Europeanize the country been greater than in São Paulo, and nowhere in Brazil has its effects been more strongly felt. A massive state program to subsidize European immigration to the state resulted in more than half of the Europeans who came to Brazil during the republic came to São Paulo.

However, in addition to the objective of Europeanizing the state, the program’s main purpose was to reverse the economic consequences of the “revolution” of abolition, the end of slave labor and to restore the landowner’s control over the labor force. In the early 1890s, its impacts were already evident, particularly among the recent beneficiaries of abolition: Afro-Brazilians.

Source: Rede Brasil Atual


About Marques Travae 3382 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. After Slavery there was a greater move to employ many Europeans to the North, Central, and South America’s. The reason was to whiten up the countries that was previously over populated with freed Slaves. Another tactic which could have been used was to starve them out by not hiring former slaves to continue the work they were doing for free.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.