Last Updated: Friday, 11 July 2014, 13:14 GMT

Assessment for Afro-Brazilians in Brazil

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Afro-Brazilians in Brazil, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 12 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Brazil Facts
Area:    8,511,965 sq. km.
Capital:    Brasilia
Total Population:    169,806,000 (source: unknown, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The social discrimination in Brazil is subtle--formal policies prohibit discrimination on a racial, ethnic, or gender basis, yet discrimination against blacks persists. Many of African descent claim that they are white or mulatto; dark-skinned persons may be able to "whiten" themselves by attaining a high economic status. However, the large majority of blacks are poor, illiterate, and uneducated in comparison to whites. Such social, economic, and political inequalities are unlikely to end in the near future, although in 2002 the government passed legislation requiring quotas for government hiring and university admissions (ECDIS02 - 03 = 1), which over time may help improve the overall status of Afro-Brazilians. Black mobilization and organization have been increasing since the 1985 democratic transition; although the weak sense of racial identity of many Afro-Brazilians has also prevented an organized, mass resistance to racism. Nevertheless, it seems likely that non-violent black movements will gain strength and that political parties will continue to incorporate racial equality into their agendas as Brazilian society continues to consider more and more issues of race and discrimination. Therefore, it seems likely that the Afro-Brazilian movement will eventually grow to a national scale. Race-inspired political violence does not seem likely, though criminal violence in the favelas is likely to persist.

Analytic Summary

Afro-Brazilians populate all regions of Brazil and are among the poorest segments of society. However, a large majority lives in the less-developed and more rural Northeast (GROUPCON = 3). Those of European descent live in the developed Southeast. African art and theater is very popular. African spiritualist religion (Candomble) is practiced by about 2% of the country's population, though most of the population is Roman Catholic (BELIEF = 2).

The Brazilian slave trade began in 1538 when the Portuguese brought thousands of slaves for sugar cane cultivation (TRADITN = 2). African slaves were also employed as laborers to build cities, ports, and churches. During the 1700s, the slave trade increased after a mining boom. In 1831, slave trade was outlawed, but increased coffee production in the mid-1800s meant that Africans from the northeast were traded to the south plantations. By 1888, slavery had been abolished. Under the leadership of Getulio Vargas in 1930, a program of "racial democracy" celebrated the mixed origins of Brazilian people, but the parallel movement "blanqueamento" (whitening) meant that blacks who

attained higher economic status were considered "whiter" than those who were poor.

During the 1960s through 1980, much of the black population migrated to cities for employment, though most live in slums called "favelas" (MIGSTR99 = 2). The percentage of Afro-Brazilians employed in cities increased from 36% to 62% between 1950 and 1980, though nearly 90% work as unskilled laborers. Most Afro-Brazilian women are employed as domestic servants. Blacks are reported to earn less than half the wages of white Brazilians (ECDIS00-01 = 3). The concept of color is very important in Brazil: the census offers classifications according to the skin colors of white, yellow, black, or brown. A distinction is made in society between "negro" and "mulatto" (or moreno). Intermarriage is very common, and many Brazilians have mixed racial heritage (RACE = 2). Activists claim that many blacks claim they are mulato rather than black in order to move toward "whiteness" on the societal color spectrum. Thus, it is difficult to determine the exact number of Afro-Brazilians through census data (ETHDIFXX = 7).

However, there remains social discrimination against darker skin colors or African features, and social prejudice favors lighter skin and blond hair over darker features. Persons of African descent are at the lowest level, along with indigenous peoples. It has been reported that blacks are sometimes forced to ride on service elevators or are targeted for abuse. Educational attainment of Afro-Brazilians still lags behind that of white citizens; only 22% of Afro-Brazilians complete middle school. While discrimination is illegal in the constitution, social discrimination continues. Over 80% of those jailed are of African descent (POLIC301-03 = 1).

The Brazilian Black Front, founded in 1931, was devoted to fighting the injustices experienced by persons of African descent. The movement was supported widely by the African community and spread to the south of the country, though the Front's activities ended in 1937, when Vargas banned all political parties and ended electoral politics. In 1956, the Brazilian Congress passed a law prohibiting racial discrimination. In 1964, the Brazilian army installed an autocratic regime that lasted until 1985. During much this period, racial or African movements existed only in cultural forums such as theater groups. In 1978, the Unified Black Movement to Combat Racial Discrimination (later called the Unified Black Movement, or MNU) was formed as a result of growing frustrations of the black population. The movement sought to raise black consciousness and organize against discrimination. By the mid-1990s, the movement reported more than 6,000 members (GOJPA00 = 2). In response to the growing mobilization of blacks, mainstream political parties incorporated anti-discrimination policies in their campaigns. In 1979, the Afro-Brazilian movement Olodum was founded, originally as a musical band; it has since grown to be a leading Afro-Brazilian advocacy group. Its projects have included a free school for Afro-Brazilian children, known as the Creative School, and theater and art festivals for the black population. Its most successful program is the Carnival, which celebrates the African history of Brazilians.

After the end of military rule, blacks again organized politically. Many joined Catholic Church organizations; liberation theology became a popular ideology of black activists. In 1982, the governor of Sao Paulo created a state agency known as the Council for the Participation and Development of the Black Community. In Sao Paulo, Afro-Brazilians were elected to federal, state, and municipal offices. During the 1980s, the Church coordinated efforts with the black population, such as meetings of black clergy in 1978 and in 1986, the creation of a "black ministry"

(Pastoral do Negro). In 1987, Benedeta da Silva became the first black woman elected to the national Congress. It has been reported that more than 600 Afro-Brazilian organizations are estimated to exist (ORG00SUP = 3). Many of these operate at the local or regional level, and none have generated a national mass movement (COHESX9 = 4).


Andrews, George Reid. Blacks and Whites in Sao Paulo Brazil: 1888- 1988.

Madison. University of Wisconsin Press. 1991.

Burdick, John. "Brazil's Black Consciousness Movement." Report on the

Americas. 25(4). February 1992: pp.23-27.

Conniff, Michael L. and Thomas J. Davis. Africans in the Americas. New

York. St. Martin's Press. 1994.

Do Valle Silva, Nelson and Carlos A. Hasenbalg. Relacoes Racias No

Brasil. Brazil. Rio Funda Editora. 1992.

Fontaine, Pierre-Michel, ed. Race, Class, and Power in Brazil. Los

Angeles. University of California. 1985.

Hasenbalg, Carlos A. Discriminacao e Desigualdades Raciais no Brasil.

Brazil. Biblioteca de Ciencias Sociais. 1979.

Lovell, Peggy A. "Race, Gender, and Development in Brazil." Paper

Submitted to the Latin American Research Review. February 1993.

Nascimento, Abdias do. O Negro Revoltado. Brazil. Editora Nova Frontera.


Winant, Howard. Racial Conditions. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota

Press. 1994.

Lexis Nexis, all news reports, 2001-2003.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Brazil 2001 - 2003.

** Other sources utilized were Reuters and Inter Press News Service.

Search Refworld