Inspired by politicians such as Leci Brandão, Benedita Silva and Marielle Franco, who was assassinated in March, more black women are running for political office in the 2018 elections
By Marques Travae
In the 2018 elections, there is a noticeable surge in the number of black women candidates. It’s not just a perception, the numbers confirm the truth. There are more black women stepping forward and competing for places in politics. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of black women candidates competing for political offices increased 16%. And this number doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s one thing that more black women are running, but within this number, a significant proportion of these women cite other black women as influences and are also representing the banner of human rights in their campaigns.
Mariana Janeiro is one of them. Representing the PT, better known as the Workers’ Party, Janeiro is running for deputada federal, or federal congresswoman, for the state of São Paulo. Mariana cites legendary African-American militant and scholar Angela Davis as one of her inspirations, in addition to Marielle Franco, the brave Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman who was gunned down in a professional hit in a murder that made international headlines back in March.
Janeiro defines Davis as “amazing” and considers the former Black Panther “a milestone in the defense of women’s and black women’s rights”. And although coming from a different political positioning, Mariana also saw the possibilities for the heights that a black woman could reach in politics through the presence of Condoleeza Rice, the first black woman Secretary of State and first woman to serve as National Security Advisor in the United States government.
Mariana’s life was destined to be slightly different from that of the average black woman given the fact that she was raised by adoptive white parents and even recognizes that she was actually socialized as a white girl. But Brazilian culture definitely has a way a making a black girl knows that she is different, particularly in predominantly white environments. Mariana, like many black Brazilian girls came to perceive this difference due to a number of experiences in which her hair made her the target of this difference. Yet another commonality that Mariana shares with many black Brazilians is the fact that it was her experience as university student that racialized her identity. As we’ve seen in a countless life stories of black Brazilians, coming up in Brazil has a way of stripping its citizens of visible African ancestry of a sense of black identity. It was also university life that would introduce her to the concepts of feminism and then black feminism, which would help her to develop politically.
Janeiro affirms that her passion for politics came about in the city of Jundiaí, located in the state of São Paulo, 35 miles from the city of São Paulo, the state capital, largest city in Brazil and the country’s economic engine. In Jundiaí, she started going to city council meetings, created a collective for feminist thought and got involved in various social movements.
Considering her own political development, Mariana wants to help other women to come into political consciousness but also sees the necessity of highlighting the situation of the Afro-Brazilian population as, contrary what Brazilians would have one believe, she believes that “every Brazilian problem is first a race problem.” Accordingly, seeing herself as a representative of under-represented minorities, her campaign focuses on the demands of women, anti-racists and the LGBT community.
The candidate also sees the necessity of correcting a common belief among Brazilians about what it means to do the right thing in taking action on human rights issues. “There is still the stigma that human rights is defending criminals. The Brazilian still has a very punitive logic, confusing justice with revenge.”
In Mariana’s struggle to represent black women, to has to perform double duty in dividing her time between being an activist and being a mother, a balancing act that is common for most women, but can be particularly difficult for black women who often have to work many hours in a day outside of home without having the help of a partner. Mariana has also been able mount her campaign with the support of her extended family network, without whom none of this would be possible.
Another issue that particularly affects black women is a clear lack of respect and value for black women that one finds in Brazilian society. We’ve seen numerous headline-making examples of this in recent years that exemplify the place that black women hold in the Brazilian imagination. Just a few weeks ago, we saw a judge call the police on a black woman lawyer in court while she was defending her client. The lawyer was handcuffed and taken to jail for simply carrying out her duty. We can never the horrific sight of Cláudia Ferreira da Silva being shot down a police bullet, thrown into the back of a van and seeing her body fall out and being dragged on the ground for several feet hanging from the back of the vehicle.
And then there was the brutal murder of Rio councilwoman Marielle Franco back in March that shook Brazil and the world. Marielle’s death struck fear in the hearts of many black women who see a system that will take out any one of them in order to maintain status quo. Mariana admits that Marielle’s murder shook up many of her close friends.
Lia Lopes is a candidate of the PSB and is running for state deputy in São Paulo. Lopes echoes the views of many of her colleagues when she understands that she will automatically be discredited in the political world simply because of the fact that she is not only young, but also a woman and black. Due to Brazil’s history, black women who attempt to step forward and articulate something are met with views that she should just keep quiet and stay in the kitchen. This is a blatant contradiction in a land in which people believe “we are all equal” and especially problematic when we consider that Lopes is clearly not your average black woman, possessing degrees in Law and Economics and also having served as technical advisory to entities such as the OAS (Organization of American States) and the UN Mulheres Brasil (United Nations Women Brazil).
“It’s a matter of recognizing credibility. Sometimes they think we don’t have content to present, but when we start talking and it shows we do, this also scares them a bit. I think the empowerment of our population makes people rethink how they are going to react to us, but even so they don’t cease being prejudiced.”
Like Mariana Janeiro, Lopes also finds inspiration in the trailblazing paths of certain black women who have come before her. A few of these women include people such as Rio federal deputy Benedita da Silva, São Paulo federal deputy Janete Pietá, São Paulo state deputy Leci Brandão, and Adriana Vasconcellos, who is currently running for federal deputy out of São Paulo.
Lia has taken on a number of important issues in her campaign, including feminicide, equal pay for men and women exercising the same job and the same level of education as well as the question of legalizing abortion, an issue high on the list of many women. As black women are more likely to be victimized by dangerous, clandestine abortions, it is understandable why Lopes feels that “women have the right to decide on their own bodies”. For her, “their lives cannot be below the law. The law has to guarantee the right of these women.”
Another issue dear to Lia’s heart is the rising debate on what Afro-Brazilian activists have long defined as the “genocídio da juventude negra”, meaning the genocide of black youth. The stats showing that black youth are far more likely to be murdered than their white counterparts only tells part of the story. Although the numbers are shocking, leaders and lawmakers of Brazil must begin to consider the human aspect of these murders because, in Lia’s words, “the death of these young people deconstructs an entire family.” In Lia’s view, one way of combating these murders would be better training for law enforcement and the promotion of peace. In my own view, I don’t realistically think these ideas will solve the issue as I firmly believe that the Brazilian State has actively sought the elimination of the black population for decades and I have clear reasons for believing this (see here, here and here).
In Brazil today, many people adapt the idea that black youth are naturally criminals without ever considering the manner in which the state and the corporate structure contributes to the conditions that lead many young people to participate in petty or organized crime. People who feel excluded from the opportunities of attaining better lives know they aren’t given the same opportunities as others. And what we are seeing today in the support of a presidential candidate like Jair Bolsonaro represents a parcel of the population that KNOWS Brazilian society is based on structured inequalities that many benefit from and want to maintain (see here and here). In the view of many from this side of the political aisle, anyone who supports the defense of human rights supports criminality, an accusation leveled at Lia in the same manner as Mariana. But Lia takes such accusations in stride. For her, such beliefs “are distortions due to lack of knowledge. If people knew what a human rights defender actually does, they would look at it in a different way.”