Global Voices

‘Racism is the shackles holding back our Republic,’ says Brazilian anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz

The killing of an unarmed black teen inside of a supermarket was the last reminder of racism in Brazil. Global Voices talked to Moritz Schwarcz to understand this context

Anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz. Photo: Leonor Calasans/University of São Paulo, used with permission.

In Brazil, nearly 72 percent of homicide victims are black, according to 2018 statistics. In 2016, the total number of violent deaths reached 61.283. This staggering figure is equivalent to the average yearly number of deaths in war-torn Syria, as anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz points out in her efforts to highlight the issue of racism in her country.

A professor at the University of São Paulo and Global Scholar at Princeton University, Moritz Schwarcz is a leading Brazilian historian and anthropologist who is widely acclaimed for flashing out the legacy of Brazil's slavery past.

Her extensive body of work includes an 808-page “biography” of Brazil spanning 500 years of history, which she co-wrote with Heloisa Starling, and a popular YouTube channel where she delves into the country's most pressing contemporary issues. Her new book, about the historical roots of Brazil's authoritarianism, will come out in May 2019.

While Austrian author Stefan Zweig marveled, as he traveled in 1936 in the northeastern part of the country, at the country's “racial democracy” in his essay “Brazil: Land of the future”, Schwarcz has shown how the wounds of around 400 years of slavery are still open today.

A recent reminder of Brazil's racial problem happened on February 14 when a security guard killed an unarmed black teen at a supermarket, in Rio de Janeiro. The incident was recorded on a mobile phone and shared widely on social media.

To understand how racism was constructed in Brazil, and how it remains rooted in society, Global Voices interviewed Moritz Schwarcz over the phone. The below interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Global Voices: As soon as the news of a black teen murdered by a security guard in a supermarket spread, part of the public complained that the case didn’t have the same reaction as when a dog was beaten to death, also at a supermarket, in December. How can this be explained?

Moritz Schwarcz: Está gerando, eu vi muita reação. Eu acho que o que explica a pouca reação por parte de alguns setores é isso que chamamos de racismo estrutural. A gente chama de racismo estrutural porque ele pode ser percebido na área da saúde, na área da educação, na área da moradia, do transporte, do lazer, nos índices de mortalidade. Um racismo que é de fato estrutural, ele é tão enraizado, que ele passa a ser naturalizado pela sociedade, no sentido de que a sociedade não se comove mais. Dito isso, acho que estamos mudando. Acho que não são mais tão invisíveis como eram.

Moritz Schwarcz: I’ve seen many reactions to it. I think that what explains the subdued reaction of certain parts of the public is what we call structural racism. We call it structural racism because we perceive it in public health, education, housing, transport, leisure, as well as in death rates. A racism that is in fact structural is so rooted that society internalized it, in the sense that it is no longer moved [by racist acts]. Having said that, I think we are changing. I think those issues are not as invisible as they used to be.

GV: Do you mean internalizing in the sense that Brazilian society creates narratives that justify violence against the victims?

Moritz Schwarcz: Nós sabemos que temos índices de violência contra jovens negros nas periferias, como é o caso que vimos agora, de genocídio. Eu faço uma comparação em um livro que vou publicar em maio. Os índices de morte no Brasil são índices da guerra na Síria. O que é a invisibilidade? A população brasileira já pensa: olha, essa pessoa, com essa idade, com esse cabelo, com essa cor, já explica tudo. Não explica! É dessa maneira que a naturalização age. Você acha que é tão natural, que não é preciso nenhuma comoção mais forte. Esse é o lado perverso desse racismo estrutural.

Moritz Schwarcz: We do know that we have violence rates against young black people living in urban outskirts that compare to genocide. I make this comparison in a book I’m going to publish next May. The death rates in Brazil today are the same as those of Syria during the war. What is the invisibility? [It's when] the Brazilian population thinks: look, it's a person with this age, and this hair type, and this skin color, so the explanation is obvious. But it's not! That's how internalization acts. You think it's so natural [that a black person will be murdered], that there's no need for a stronger comotion. That's the most cruel side of sctructural racism.

GV: Days after the murder of Pedro Henrique (the black teenager), we have seen many black Brazilians sharing their testimonies about what it's like to live under constant suspicion. Have our security forces always had this attitude towards black people? 

Moritz Schwarcz: O Brasil foi o último país a abolir a escravidão nas Américas, depois de Estados Unidos, Cuba, e Porto Rico. Se pensarmos que recebemos quase metade dos africanos e africanas que saíram do seu continente de origem, se pensarmos que a escravidão estava tão disseminada que não havia território no Brasil onde não tivesse escravos, a gente vai pensando que um sistema que pressupõe a posse de uma pessoa por outra pessoa já produz uma sociedade muito violenta. Violenta por parte dos senhores, que compunham uma minoria que tinha de oprimir e controlar uma maioria, e também por parte dos escravizados e escravizadas. Desde a época da escravidão, o Estado criou aparatos de repressão às manifestações dessas populações. Nós sabemos que a polícia dá mais flagrantes em negros, quer dizer, as batidas se dão sobretudo com negros. Não vemos negros circularem em alguns espaços de sociabilidade brancos. Eles são abordados em shoppings. O fato de não repararmos que existem espaços de sociabilidade distintos, são facetas disso que chamamos de racismo estrutural.

Moritz Schwarcz: Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery [in 1888], after the United States, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. If we think that we have received half of the African men and women that were taken from their original continent, if we think that slavery was so widespread that there was not a single territory in Brazil without slaves, we realize that a system in which a person is entitled to own another, in itself will produce a very violent society. Violent on the part of the slave owners, a minority who had to oppress and control a majority, and also on the part of the enslaved people. Since the slavery days, the state has come up with tools to repress the expression of those populations. We know that the police is more likely to arrest black people. We don't see black people circulate in white social spaces. Black people are stopped and frisked in shopping malls. The fact that we, white people, don’t notice the existence of different social environments, is an aspect of what we call structural racism.

GV: What is unique with racism as it is experienced in Brazil?

Moritz Schwarcz: O fato de o Brasil ter convivido por tantos anos com um sistema que foi abolido com uma lei curta e conservadora, que não previu a inclusão [dos negros libertados]. Isso criou uma espécie de racismo à brasileira que, todos os racismos são ruins, mas o nosso acomoda a ideia de inclusão cultural com absoluta exclusão social. Isso também fez com que os brasileiros dissessem, durante muito tempo, que aqui não havia preconceito, que vivíamos em uma espécie de democracia racial, quando acontecia o oposto. Esse tipo de preconceito retroativo produz mais dificuldades no que se refere à construção de movimentos sociais, de inclusão, de sociedade, porque se supõe que não existe o preconceito.

Moritz Schwarcz: The fact that Brazil has had, for so many years, a system that was abolished with such a succint and conservative law, one that didn't provide for the social inclusion [of the newly-fred black people], created a kind of a racism that is particular to Brazil. All racisms are bad, but ours rests on the idea of cultural inclusion with absolute social exclusion. This has led many Brazilians to believe, for a very long time, that there was no prejudice here, that we lived under a sort of racial democracy, when the exact opposite was happening. This kind of denial makes it difficult to build social movements for inclusion because supposedly there is no prejudice.

GV: We are now entering a new context, with a new government that is proposing an anti-crime package of bills that, according to experts, will allow the authorities to treat some communities even more poorly. On the other hand, the government endorses the “we are all equal” rhetoric. 

Moritz Schwarcz: Essa ideia da igualdade universal só existe se partisse do mesmo patamar. O que não existe. É preciso que existam políticas de ação afirmativa, que não são para sempre, mas a ideia é que é preciso desigualar para depois igualar. Como é que em um país que é campeão em desigualdade social, em concentração de renda, de terra, como você transporta um conceito se a situação é absolutamente distinta? O Brasil entrou tarde na discussão dos direitos civis, no final dos anos 1970, começo dos anos 1980, graças ao ativismo negro, indígena, das mulheres, das mulheres negras, que mostram que é balela legislar igualdade em um país tão desigual quanto o Brasil.

Moritz Schwarcz: That idea of universal equality is only real if everyone started at the same level. That doesn’t exist. It’s necessary to have affirmative action policies, that are not meant to last forever, but we need to treat things unequally before we can treat them equally. How can you introduce such a concept to a country that is the champion of social inequality, of land and income concentration? Brazil entered the debate of civil rights very late, in the late 1970s, early 1980s, thanks to black, indigenous, women, and black women activists, who have shown that is foolish to legislate equality in such an unequal country like Brazil.

GV: And how do you see these issues in light of the government’s package to fight crime?

Moritz Schwarcz: O país é muito violento, não só contra negros, mas que pratica feminicídio, campeão em estupros. É um país onde a violência se apresenta de uma forma disseminada. Acho que esse foi um governo eleito em cima do clamor correto dos brasileiros por mais segurança, por menos violência. Se de um lado é preciso isso, é preciso tomar muito cuidado com o tipo de medida que vai se estabelecer. Eu não sou especialista nessa área, mas a ideia da livre defesa, em um país como o nosso, num país em que um dos grandes medos da população é a polícia, segundo pesquisa recente, que tem números da população encarcerada imensos, não se pode legislar sobre a violência sem pensar com que país você está lidando.

Moritz Schwarcz: Brazil is a very violent country and not only against black people, it also leads in femicide and rape rates. It’s a country where violence is widespread. I think this government was elected on the basis of a justified claim for more safety, less violence. We do need proposals containing the levels of violence we have now, so that Brazilians can go out in the streets safely. However, it is paramount to be careful with what kind of policies we'll adopt. I'm not an expert in this area, but the idea of free self-defense, in a country like ours, in a country where the population deeply fears the police, as a recent study has shown, a country that has an immense incarcerated population, one cannot legislate about violence without considering the kind of country one's dealing with.

GV: Is there a way we can change how Brazilian society perceives black lives?

Moritz Schwarcz: Claro que tem que ser respeitado o lugar de fala, mas acho que a sociedade brasileira também precisa de grupos brancos contra o racismo, porque é uma questão da vida brasileira. Transformar esses episódios em episódios politicamente relevantes é um papel que cabe a todos nós. Evitar que eles caiam no véu do obscurecimento, de uma sociedade que costuma baixar o véu sob essas questões. Acho que esse é um papel de todos nós.

Moritz Schwarcz: Of course we must respect the place from where each individual speaks, but I think Brazilian society also needs white groups taking a stand against racism, because this is a matter of Brazilian life. To transform those episodes in politically relevant episodes is a something that we should all do. [We must] keep them from sinking into oblivion, as a society that usually covers up these issues. I think this is a role that we all have to play.

GV: Can we do this regarding Pedro Henrique‘s death?

Moritz Schwarcz: Eu penso que sim, penso que estamos conseguindo finalmente dar visibilidade a esse problema. Penso que não existe sociedade democrática com racismo. O racismo é uma trava à nossa República, uma trava forte. Quanto mais a população brasileira, de forma geral, reagir a esses episódios de violência, quanto mais politizar esses crimes, melhor para todos nós.

Moritz Schwarcz: I think so, I think we are finally giving visibility to this problem. I think there can be no democratic society when you have racism. Racism is the shackles restraining our Republic, and they're very tough shackles. The more the Brazilian population reacts to violent episodes, the better for all of us.

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