A few weeks ago, three black men were assaulted, beaten and given electroshocks from a stun gun by security guards at a concert in southern Brazil. Of course the obvious question would be, why were they beaten? Well, I think you can figure that part out. But, in this analysis which includes three other incidents of racism that demonstrate how the phrase, “What are you blacks doing here?” explains how racism works in Brazil and its connection to social constructions of race and class.
In Santa Catarina (southern Brazil, three black men are beaten and given electroshocks
It happened in São Miguel do Oeste, a city of 35,000 inhabitants in the southern state of Santa Catarina. On September 21st, three black men were beaten and expelled from the VIP section of a concert by the band Charlie Brown Jr. (popular Brazilian Rock band often compared to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine), where they had been invited by the organizers of the event, by security who were armed with electric shock devices. The irony of all of this was that the show was part of the Festival of Ethnic Groups.
|Santa Catarina in yellow|
The men were identified as Luís Henrique de Sousa, 25, a professor of physical conditioning, and a collaborator with an NGO that works with youth in conflict with the law; Luahn Henrique da Conceição Almeida, 22, accounting student at Instituto de Ensino Superior de Brasília (Institute of Higher Education of Brasília or IESB) and a resident of Sobradinho, a satellite city of Brasilia, the nation’s capital; Marco Aurelio Barbosa dos Santos, 37, driver and small business owner. They are part of a group of ten militants of Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party or PT) touring the south of the country, the Caravana da Juventude do PT (Caravan of the Young People of the PT) of the Federal District.
“As soon as they entered the VIP area, a group began to sneer at them,” says Iara Cordeiro, of the national leadership of the Young People of the PT.
The instigators were a group of young men (one of which was the son of a candidate for councilor of an opposing political party, the PSD, and also a producer of a company that is supportive of the candidacy of an opponent from the PMDB, another party) who began to mock the three black men with one of the instigators bumping into Luís Henrique, who raised his hands and said he was not there to fight but to enjoy the show. A few seconds later, a group of security guards of the Patrimonial company (whose owner had been PMDB candidate for councilor and is also supportive of the opponent), used his stun gun on Luís Henrique who had moments before put his hands down.
Luis Henrique was provoked and pushed. Soon after, more bouncers came on the scene (bringing the total to 8) and began to assault the men with electric shock devices (even though the men had raised their hands and said they posed no danger): ‘What are you blacks doing in the VIP area?’, they asked. When Luis Henrique showed them the bracelet provided by the organization, a security guard said, ‘Where did you steal that from?’, and gave him an electric shock.
Luahn, who is asthmatic, was put in a headlock by one of the security guards, beaten with a club and given an electroshock and ended up fainting. The men were called “vultures”, “monkeys”, and “shameless blacks.” Seeing the confusion, another a member of the Caravana, Pedro, a native of São Miguel do Oeste but who has lived in the Federal District for almost 10 years, rushed in to help the boys, but by this time Luahn had already passed out on the floor.
He went to military police guards who were on site, explaining what happened and asking them to accompany him to identify the attackers. The police refused and when Pedro called them prejudiced, he heard a voice saying that he would be taken to prison for contempt of authority. Another policeman came to mediate the conversation and said that would make himself responsible for directing Pedro in opening a police report.
They then waited for the arrival of firefighters to provide first aid to Luahn, who was still unconscious. Then they went to the police station to give testimony but were unable to make a corpus delicti exam which could only be performed on the following Monday (24th).
Later, the security guard who led the assault sought the Caravana to try to negotiate a withdrawal of the police report, suggesting, without any subtlety, that the episode could be detrimental to the PT, the mayor’s party, who is seeking re-election. In the conversation, he admitted to the assault, claiming that had to use his club on Luahn because it was easier to make him go down the stairs if he was blacked-out rather than struggling.
At no time was there a retaliation or counter-attack from the three men. What happened was a massacre, for the simple reason of blacks being in the VIP area of a show, in an area reserved for elites. In the Bulletin of occurrence, the incident was recorded as injury and aggravated bodily assault.
This next incident occurred in October of 2011 in the city of Vitória, (state of) Espírito Santo in Brazil’s southeast.
Domestics denied entrance through front door in upper crust condominium in Vitória, Espírito Santo: Workers instructed to enter the building through the garage; decision was made at a meeting of the condominium.
Maids who work in a building of a luxury condominium in Praia do Canto, an upscale neighborhood in the city of Vitória (state of Espírito Santo, southeastern Brazil), were banned from entering through the front door of the building. The employees were required to enter through the garage. This decision had been made at a meeting between the residents and the administration of the condominium. The workers felt humiliated by the situation.
Some residents of the building didn’t want to be recorded for an interview, but said that the rule didn’t have majority support. The decision was overturned at a meeting on the following Wednesday night (October 26), and starting from Thursday (27th), the professionals would again be able to enter the building through the main entrance of the building.
The domestic Benedicta Adriano, who works in the building, was relieved with the end of the prohibition. “We are all equal in this world,” she said.
According to the president of the Union of Domestic Workers of Espírito Santo, Valceni Santos, this custom should be extinguished in Brazil. “The problem is old. People talk about freedom, saying that prejudice is over, but that’s a lie. This is much more common than people realize,” she said.
Attorney Djailson Martins Rocha, of the Ministério Público do Trabalho (Public Ministry of Labor or MPT), said cases like this, if there is no convincing justification, characterize discrimination. “In the case of displacement of goods or wearing swimsuits, it is justifiable that you use the service elevator, for example,” he said. “Any other limitation or charge that is not based on a plausible condition, is illegal, discriminatory and goes against the Constitution, which says that there should not be prejudice by origin, race, color, gender or any other social conditions,” he said.
This next episode happened in February of this year in Salvador, Bahia, a city and state in Brazil’s northeast known for its black majority and strong African cultural expressions.
Student suffers racism within the building in Salvador
The veterinary medicine student Marcos Davi Silva, 26, claimed to have suffered racism within the building where he lives in the neighborhood of Pituba in Salvador. It happened on the Saturday morning of February 11th and was committed by an elderly woman and her daughter in the hall of the building, located on the Emilio Odebrecht street.
After returning from the gym, Silva waited for the elevator and, at the time that a vehicle appeared, the woman and her daughter were leaving the location. When encountering the black student, the woman did not allow the resident to enter the elevator. When asked why she took an attitude and he heard a series of loud racist insults, reinforced by the woman’s daughter, who contributed to the continuation of insults. The incident was witnessed by a janitor and doorman of the building.
|Salvador, Bahia, Brazil|
Immediately, the man contacted a lawyer and went to the 16th Police Precinct to record an occurrence of racism. According to the student’s lawyer, Edimário Maia, both residents committed two serious and unbailable crimes: racist insult – when the offense is related to skin color and racial segregation on the prevention of access to sites due to the criteria of color prejudice.
|The Help (Histórias Cruzadas)|
“Segregation is much worse than being cursed at. Racial segregation is the case of denying access to a site due to racism. This is very serious. He was prevented from using the elevador. And even more so in a time when we have a movie playing, The Help (known as Histórias Cruzadas in its Brazilian release) which talks about the issue of racism in 1960s Mississippi,” says Marcos Davi.
The incident was captured on the condo’s security cameras and also verified by the two witnesses. Speaking in a low-pitched voice due to the embarrassing situation, Marcos Davi Silva revealed that he was sad and offended, and could not understand why he was insulted with the name calling and racist attitude and also that it was done in the blackest city outside of Africa. He has also never had problems in the neighborhood.
“I felt very bad. And I just, I’m such a good person, I don’t make a distinction of anyone, I treat everybody well. I believe we are all equal. I am very offended, upset, I can’t understand how anyone can take this attitude today. Especially me, I don’t do anything to anyone,” he said in a disappointed tone.
The elevator in Brazil is in some ways a place of social and racial segregation. There are two types of elevators: the service elevator that employees and maids are expected to use and the social elevator which residents and guests of residents are expected to use. Because maids are still very common in Brazil as well as the fact that they are very revealing of the social hierarchy, the film The Help resonated with many black Brazilians as facets of this film are still common in Brazil today. The elevator was also the scene of a highly publicized incident in the early 90s (also in Vitória, Espírito Santo) that exposed a social standard that has existed in Brazil for many years.
On Saturday, June 26th, 1993, 19-year old black college student Ana Flávia Peçanha de Azeredo held open the social elevator door in a building in Vitória, Espírito Santo, while saying goodbye to a friend. On another floor, someone started banging on the elevator door. Ana Flávia allowed the door to close and, after talking a few moments, she summoned the elevator. After getting on the elevator, she ran into businesswoman Teresina Stange, a 40-year old blonde with green eyes, and her son, Rodrigo, 18. Ana Flávia revealed that Teresina was wondering who had held up the elevator. “No one,” she said. “I only held it up for a few moments.” The woman apparently didn’t like her answer and started screaming. “You have to learn that the bosses in the building are the residents, preto (black) and poor do not have their turn here,” she warned. “Ma’am, respect me”, Ana Flávia said to the angry woman. Teresina shouted back: “Shut up. You’re just a empregadinha (little maid).” Upon entering the hall, the woman’s son stepped into the dispute. “If you say anything else, I’ll put my fist in your face,” he shouted. “I asked if they knew me and insisted that they respect me,” says Ana Flávia. Rodrigo threatened her again: “Shut up, shut up. If you keep talking, I’ll shove my hand between your legs. Teresina then grabbed the girl’s arm and Rodrigo punched her on the left side of her face. This situation may or may not have made headlines if it weren’t for one important fact: Ana was the daughter Albuíno Azeredo, the black governor of the southeastern state of Espírito Santo.
These three incidents highlight the association of race with social status in Brazil. Even with reports of the huge increase of Afro-Brazilians entering the middle class, the association remains the same. If one is black, it is perceived that the person is poor, a maid, a thief or many other negative stereotypes. The first situation was that of actual maids who were told to enter the back of the building as if it were still the 1940s. The second and third incidents highlight the fact that it was assumed that Marco and Ana didn’t belong where they were. These discriminatory attitudes are reflected in the racial slurs used against Marcos and the terms “preto (black)” and “empregadinha (little maid)” used in Ana Flávia’s situation.
There are a few other details that must be fully understood in regards to the case involving Ana as they are very revealing about race and class as they are seen in Brazil. First, Ana can be defined as a “mestiça”, or a person of mixed race, as her father, the governor of the state, is black and her mother white. This is important to note because it is often argued that lighter-skinned persons of African descent don’t experience discrimination in the same manner as their darker brethren. In reality, social statistics show that darker, brown or light-skinned African descendants are in the same boat as darker-skinned persons in nearly every social category that define quality of life (health, education, salary, etc.) and are in a worse social situation vis-à-vis the situation of persons who define themselves as white. The second detail is that the white woman referred to Ana, who is light-skinned, as “preto” which in Portuguese means black, but also dark-skinned, which signifies that for the woman, Ana was part of the black race regardless of her light skin, which would normally classify her as “parda” meaning brown or “mulata”, meaning a woman of mixed Afro-European ancestry of any degree. The woman also referred to Ana as a maid signifying that because she was black and in an upper crust condominium, she must have been a maid.
As the title of this article suggests, the uniting theme in all of the above cases is the question: “What is this/these black/s doing here?” It is an issue of perceived status, citizenship, rights and equality or lack thereof upon which people assess the belonging of themselves as well as others in the social hierarchy.
These cases are but a few of the perhaps thousands of cases of racial discrimination associated with the perception of class based on racial appearance that occur everyday in Brazil, many of which go unreported. The last note I’d like to point out reveals a lot about how black Brazilians often react to incidents of racism. For many years, Brazil proclaimed itself to be a “racial democracy” where discrimination didn’t exist based on race. Since the early 1950s, this proclamation has exposed as a lie by possibly thousands of reports and research on the topic of racism in Brazil. But the ideal still exists in the minds of many citizens. Both Marcos, the resident of the apartment in Salvador, and Benedicta Adriano, the maid from Vitória, stated the belief that “we are all equal (Somos todos iguais)”*a phrase uttered by black Brazilians time after time after being victimized by racism. If fact, I note that many white Brazilians will also say this phrase after they witness a scene of racial discrimination. It’s not that I disagree with this assertion. Indeed, we are all human beings and thus all equal. The problem with this phrase is that it ignores the social world that is based upon penalties and privileges that are in some cases earned and fair and in other cases unearned and unfair. The Brazilian “racial democracy” myth, although proven false, is still a strong force in the consciousness of the population, so when a case of racism occurs, it almost seems as if people think to themselves, “how could this happen?”
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming a perfect world, but uttering the helpless phrase “we are all equal” is not what changes the world.
What are your thoughts on all of this? Feel free to comment.
* – As proof of this, Google the terms: “Somos todos iguais” and “racismo”.