RIO DE JANEIRO – Many Brazilians cast their country as a racial democracy where people of different groups long have intermarried, resulting in a large mixed-race population. But you need only turn on the TV, open the newspaper or stroll down the street to see clear evidence of segregation.
In Brazil, whites are at the top of the social pyramid, dominating professions of wealth, prestige and power. Dark-skinned people are at the bottom of the heap, left to clean up after others and take care of their children and the elderly.
The 2010 census marked the first time in which black and mixed-race people officially outnumbered whites, weighing in at just over 50 percent, compared with 47 percent for whites. Researchers suggest that Brazil actually may have been a majority-nonwhite country for some time, with the latest statistics reflecting a decreased social stigma that makes it easier for nonwhites to report their actual race.
It is a mix of anomalies in Brazil that offers lessons to a United States now in transition to a “majority-minority” nation: How racial integration in social life does not always translate to economic equality and how centuries of racial mixing are no guaranteed route to a colorblind society.
Nearly all TV news anchors in Brazil are white, as are the vast majority of doctors, dentists, fashion models and lawyers. Most maids and doormen, street cleaners and garbage collectors are black. There is only one black senator and there never has been a black president, though a woman, Dilma Rousseff, leads the country now.
A decade of booming economic growth and wealth-redistribution schemes has narrowed the income gap between blacks and whites but it remains pronounced. In 2011, the average black or mixed-race worker earned just 60 percent what the average white worker made.
That was up from 2001, when black workers earned 50.5 percent what white workers made, according to Brazil’s national statistics agency.
Brazil recently instituted affirmative action programs to help boost the numbers of black and mixed-race college students, though both groups continue to be proportionally under-represented at universities.
They made up just 10 percent of college students in 2001 and now account for 35 percent.
Those numbers probably will continue to rise because of a new law that reserves half the spots in federal universities for high school graduates of public schools and distributes them according to a states’ racial makeup.
Still, black faces remain the exception at elite colleges.
Nubia de Lima, a 29-year-old black producer for Globo television network, said she experiences racism on a daily basis, in the reactions and comments of strangers who are constantly taking her for a maid, a nanny or a cook, despite her flair for fashion and pricey wardrobe.
“People aren’t used to seeing black people in positions of power,” she said. “It doesn’t exist. They see you are black and naturally assume that you live in a favela (hillside slum) and you work as a housekeeper.”
She added that upper middle-class black people like herself are in a kind of limbo, too affluent and educated to live in favelas but still largely excluded from high-rent white neighborhoods.
“Here it’s a racism of exclusion,” de Lima said.
*Pictured above is Nubia de Lima.