Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

“We die because of our color”: lawyer, researcher and actress Dina Alves breaks down how just being black in Brazil is seen as a crime in the criminal law system


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Note from BW of Brazil: Brazil has ALWAYS looked at black people as a parcel of the population that should be eliminated. It is for this reason that the country has devised so many mechanisms to ensure that this population continues to suffer. We saw examples of this during the brutal slavery era. As Jane Ladle (1998) put it, “white masters treated their slaves as a cheap investment. An African youth enslaved by the owner of a sugar plantation or gold mine could expect to live eight years. It was cheaper to buy new slaves than preserve the health of existing ones.” After the slavery era, we saw the implementation of Lei da Vadiagem (Vagrancy Act) (1941), which considered idleness to be a crime and allowed the arrest of people who walked the streets without documents. We see it in how the educational system continues to fail black children with fully 25% of pretos and pardos (blacks and brown) being functionally illiterate in comparison to white children (15%) according to official 2010 IBGE statistics (Silva and Dias 2013). We see it in recent stats showing the murder of black women increasing by 54% in the past decade while decreasing for white women. This beside the ongoing genocide of black youthYet another area that victimizes the black population is the justice system which is anything but just when one considers how black and white defendants are treated. In an interview, Dina Alves delves further into this topic first using her own life to demonstrate how perceptions of color punishes black Brazilians starting at a very early age. 

“We die because of our color” – An interview with Dina Alves

We interviewed the lawyer, researcher and actress Dina Alves.

Her master’s thesis “Rés negras, juízes brancos: uma análise da interseccionalidade de gênero, raça e classe da punição em uma prisão paulistana” (Black defendants, white judges: an analysis of the intersectionality of gender, race and class of punishment in a São Paulo prison) is dense and impactful, is a sad and profound theme, because behind the information analyzed and presented there, there is a story, a character, a woman who experiences the day-to-day racism and the humiliation of imprisonment.

Dina, unlike the theme of which she addresses, is gentle, sensitive and brings a life story that constructs her as a human being and determines her academic career.

Dina Alves presented herself in the following manner:

I was born of the color “parda” (brown) in the city of Ipiaú, Bahia in 1975. Daughter of a farmer father named José Bananeira and a washerwoman mother, lunch preparer and writer, known as Maria Morena. As soon as I was born they denied my cor negra (black color) and tattooed the color “parda” on my skin through the civil registry office (1). I did my primary school in precariousness of the school Job Gonçalves Lopes, where we used the car tires as a school desk to read, write, add and multiply. It was there that they put me through the “x-ray of color” and was never approved to be the rainha de milho (beauty competition) beyond remaining semesters decorating the multiplication, division and addition table as exemplary punishment.

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It was then that my family received assistance from the Catholic Church by a nun, Sister Irene, sent from Italy to Ipiaú to assist the poor. She arrived on Granja street on a strong sunny day, with a bag of stale bread in one hand, and a Holy Bible in the other. It was she, the nun, who showed us the first catechetical teachings. She taught us to pray the rosary, read the Bible, sing, believe in God, in the Pope and all the saints of the Catholic Church. In the festivals of the patroness “Nossa Senhora Aparecida” (2) the affirmation of my “parda” color was naturalized in the dozens of times that I sang the song of Father Zezinho, “mother of the morena (brown) sky, lady of Latin America”, that denied the black color that I brought in my face.

My career as an activist actress began while still in my teens, in the base ecclesial communities and in the NGO Propágulos Prum Ambiente Ecologicamente Legal – PAPAMEL. In my artistic action I opted for texts of a political nature that criticized local social issues. The presentations took place, mainly in the squares of the city. In the 1990s I was pushed to São Paulo to be the breadwinner of the family. At work my northeastern face and my speech translated the experience of the policies of death implemented by the government of Antônio Carlos Magalhães and his successors of which I consider myself a survivor. Then in São Paulo, in the place I occupied as a maid in the mansions of Jardim Virginia and as a clerk in Pão de Açúcar (supermarket), I discovered my color stemmed from the slave quarters – a cor preta (the color black).

The maid’s room, the confinement of the supermarket counter, on the hill of Vila Bahia in Morrinhos III and in Areão, all these peripheral areas, demarcated historically, affirmed, day and night, what my place non-place in the society of racial democracy. The failure to pass the vestibular (college entrance exam) of UNESP (Universidade Estadual Paulista), FUVEST (Fundação Universitária para o Vestibular) (3) and UEL (Universidade Estadual de Londrina) made me become a bolsista (scholarship recipient) at the law school of UNAERP/RP (Universidade de Ribeirão Preto) in 2005. In this white, classist, racist, fascist, reactionary and masculine universe, I remained for five years, with the stereotype of the “famished northeasterner”. In 2009 I passed the test of the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil (Lawyers Guild of Brazil Lawyers) of São Paulo and became a lawyer.

In the condition of lawyer I suffered various prejudices, commonly heard from other lawyers: “Ela tem cara de empregada doméstica” (she has a maid’s face) (4), and “the most suitable profession for you is Social Worker.”

My political formation in PAPAMEL, in the Movimento Negro (black movement), in Pastorais Eclesiais de Base and my activism as an actress engaged in the feminist, racial, political and anticapitalist struggle, were important tools for my empowerment and human emancipation. In recent years I have worked with the popular organizations of the Movimento Negro – specifically the Comitê contra o Genocídio da População Negra (Committee against the Genocide of the Black Population) and Adelinas  – Coletivo Autônomo de Mulheres Pretas (Autonomous Collective of Black Women) in the struggle for black social emancipation, in the denouncement of grupos de extermínio de jovens negros (death squads of black youth) and in the struggle for affirmative action in public universities. Either as a lawyer or as an actress, my practice in these spaces report on the processes of oppression and subordination of the população negra (black population). These are unique experiences locked in from the womb of my mother, to the present day in the difficult daily struggle of being a woman, being a northeasterner and black.

Let’s go to the interview:

You state that “our existence is already a crime.” Explain the reason for this statement.

For us, black women and men and indigenous, we are still in the fight for reaffirmation of our humanity and political existence. What was the crime committed by Claudia Ferreira da Silva, killed and dragged in the streets of Rio de Janeiro? And what about Luana Barbosa dos Reis, black and lesbian, beaten to death in front of her son by three police officers? Why are we the number two country in the Americas with the largest number of the imprisoned? What is the color and gender of prisoners in Brazil? Why are so many young blacks killed in Brazil? Answering these questions may make us reflect on the condition of our existence as black men, black women and indigenous. We die and are criminalized by the condition of our color. The Brazilian Criminal Law retains this conception of corporal control based in “racial knowledge” which reserves for black bodies guilt and punishment. It’s enough to be poor or to be black to be criminalized or killed in the frequent bloodbaths in any favela (slum)/Brazilian community.

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Let us not forget the crimes of May 2006. The mothers of these young people today are looking for the black bodies of their sons and daughters. Because of this “to exist” for us is a challenge. We have no right to be born, grow and die according to biological theory. Our death is produced daily. The formation of criminal thought permeated by racist theories of eugenics and evolutionism were fundamental to the basis of this criminal law as an anti-poor and anti-black law in force today in the mentality of the judiciary. Because of this the law appears to us always as a punishment, not as a guarantee of rights.

Are being black, poor and a woman decisive factors that influence the judicial decisions in the application of criminal law and in mass incarceration in Brazil. Who judges these women?

More and more white men, young people, coming from the upper middle class, make up the Brazilian judiciary and they are defining the future of life and death of who occupies the point of micro-trafficking of drugs. It was evident, for example, that the categories of class, race and gender produce a complex and diffuse system of privileges and inequalities that are reflected in this prison reality.

Now, it’s necessary to go beyond the demographic composition of the judiciary, it’s necessary to understand this legacy of slavery in Brazil as a constituent of the current penal system, ie, understand the continuum between slavery and democracy and realize that our justice system is only a replica of slavery.

Although the Constitution should advocate the formal and material equality that guarantees all people fundamental and social rights, for some social groups there exists mechanisms of discrimination that make some people less equal or less human or non-human. The routine practice of policing predominantly black communities, the growth in the prison statistics of black women, the bloodbaths, can well be read as a diagnosis of the insidious persistence of racism and this Brazilianized coloniality of justice, white and rich and defendants, poor and black.

Does racism, so present in our daily life, manifest itself more aggressively in the judicial environment?

Although several studies have identified a widespread pattern of vulnerability of the black population: health, housing, labor market, land rights and access to cultural goods, no other area may be more representative of racial injustice in Brazil than the prison system.

Modern prisons have the “privilege” of being the place where hierarchical structures imposed by the logic of racial dehumanization of the black body materialize. Here the criminal-racial state not only doesn’t recognize the specificities of social groups and these cumulative disadvantages in systematically denying rights, it is one of the leading contemporary instruments of reproduction of such patterns of vulnerabilities.

Can you somehow measure this?

In this research were ten black women serving time in the penitenciária Feminina de Sant’Ana (Sant’Ana Women’s Penitentiary) in São Paulo were interviewed. At the time, similarities were observed in their life trajectories: they remained deprived of liberty before the sentencing; they were punished as traffickers despite being arrested with little or no quantity of drugs, which, in summary, characterizes them as users or they would be acquitted; all are living on the outskirts of São Paulo; they are mothers and didn’t finish elementary school. I remember the meetings with one of the interviewees, who was sentenced to eight years for drug trafficking and her speech in front of the judge on the occasion of the hearing: “If I were drug dealer I wouldn’t be toothless.” The interviewee is a black woman, toothless, homosexual, homeless, a drug user and was arrested with 18 crack rocks.

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The application of the drug law is a mismatch with the legal leniency to middle-class young people involved in drug trafficking and the physical existence of this gap-toothed interviewed, that doesn’t seem to suggest a degree of dangerousness to the “social body”, threatened by the impurity of  “evildoers” suggested by the white judge in her sentence. Another woman I interviewed told me that she was arrested with 88 grams of marijuana and received a sentence of 5 years and 10 months in prison. At the time of the research, a decision of the Goiás Court caught my attention. The Court unanimously granted Habeas Corpus to two French tourists caught in the act, with approximately 85 grams of marijuana, the same amount by which she was given a 5 year sentence. The sentence for these women interviewed followed a pattern of racial punishment where all are considered “dangerous traffickers with personalities for going back to crime.”

Then I perceive in the research that drug policy is another genocidal face of the state against the black, poor and indigenous population. The police here is just a tip of a system of domination of gender and race in which the penal state is its main promoter of lethality and incarceration. Brazil currently has a prison population of 622,202 and is the number two country in the Americas that most imprisons young black men and black women. If we could draw a line of color and gender in Brazilian prisons it would be possible to see who is really imprisoned in each jail, in each Febem (5), in each foster home, in each prison, in each detention center. The Departamento Penitenciário (Prison Department) statistics of 2014 shows that 63% of incarcerated women are responding to drug trafficking. A guerra às drogas pode ser lida como guerra aos negros e às negras (The war on drugs can be read as a war on black men and women).

The Iniciativa Negra (Black Initiative) brings new proposals for discussion of policies about drugs, how do you assess the current drug policy in relation to your research and how you do see these new proposals?

The Iniciativa Negra por Uma Política Sobre Drogas (Black Initiative for A Policy on Drugs) becomes a very important instrument for the debate because it is as guarantor of rights, especially for black youths from the suburbs who are the main victims of the racial-penal-state in this racist drug policy. The challenge is launched and INNPD that has a big job ahead, because it will mess with the structures, especially the judiciary which is white, conservative, homophobic, racist and classist. It will mess with, for example, the prison administrative structure that survives on the human suffering in this complexo industrial da punição (industrial complex of punishment).

Discussing this policy without factoring in the main issue which is racism, is to maintain the historical hypocrisy of fascists and sectors of the left that (maintain) silence on the regulatory principle of the social relations that structures the nation which is race.

Source: Iniciativa Negra. Ladle, Jane. Brazil: Insight Guide. 1998 Langenscheidt. Silva, Tarcia Regina da and Adelaide Alves Dias. “O racismo sob a forma de violência silenciosa e as contribuições da pedagogia institucional no seu enfrentamento.” Revista Reflexão e Ação, Santa Cruz do Sul, v.21, n.1, p.72-92, jan./jun.2013

Notes

  1. A common experience for countless Afro-Brazilians. For just a few examples, see here, here and here.
  2. Our Lady of Aparecida (Portuguese: Nossa Senhora Aparecida or Portuguese: Nossa Senhora da Conceição Aparecida is a celebrated 18th-century clay statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the traditional form associated with the Immaculate Conception. The image is widely venerated by Brazilian Catholics, who consider her as the principal patroness of Brazil.[1] Historical accounts state that the statue was originally found by three fishermen who miraculously caught many fish after invoking the Blessed Virgin Mary. Source
  3. Institution responsible for college entrance exams in the state of São Paulo
  4. It’s very common to hear Brazilians say that someone has or doesn’t have the face, or look like something. A black doctor or lawyer will often hear that they “don’t have the face” of a doctor/lawyer, while any black woman is subject to hearing that she has the face of a maid. See a few examples here.
  5. Fundação Estadual para o Bem Estar do Menor or State Foundation for the Well-Being of the Minor (FEBEM) – Foundation whose function is to carry out educational measures applied by the judiciary to adolescents aged 12-21 who have infractions, as determined by the Statute of Children and Adolescents. Today is known as Fundação Centro de Atendimento Socioeducativo ao Adolescente (FUNDAÇÃO CASA/SP)

2 comments on ““We die because of our color”: lawyer, researcher and actress Dina Alves breaks down how just being black in Brazil is seen as a crime in the criminal law system

  1. maurice smith
    December 27, 2016

    My solidarity is with your cause.

  2. james O
    December 27, 2016

    Same thing here… the U.S.A is number one in imprisonment of the black population,
    prisons are the new form of slavery.

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