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July 22, 2009
Racial inequality and violence ignite passions in Brazil

In Brazil, as in the United States, the issue of race raises passions. Photo: United Nations

Questions of race and poverty raise difficult problems and passions in Brazil, a colossal country of 200 million people where the answers are never any more simple than they are in the United States.

A report released today by the Brazilian government and UNICEF studied the violent deaths of adolescents throughout the country, with some chilling findings. Statistical projections show that 33,000 young people in Brazil will have died as a result of violence between 2006 and 2012, and black children are more than twice as likely to be killed than those classified as white.

The fundamental question, of course, is to determine the source of all violence — and the joint report cites drug-dealing, poverty and the availability of guns. But the question about racial differences is sensitive for Brazilians. Their tendency has often been to defensively compare their country to the United States, and conclude that Brazil is fare more egalitarian, and far more racially blended.

The problem, many Brazilians say, involves class and not race, in which poor whites and poor blacks suffer equally for economic reasons, not for reasons of skin color. The argument doesn’t convince.

It is hard in Brazil to say who exactly is African-Brazilian, and which Brazilians identify themselves as having African heritage: there must be a dozen terms for different skin hues used in common discourse. “We all have African roots,” a Brazilian diplomat once told me at the Brazilian foreign ministry in Brasilia. He appeared to be Caucasian, and his last name was the name of a Portuguese count. The only people I saw there in the Palace of Itamaraty who appeared to be black were serving coffee or waiting to drive ministers to their next meeting.

Last year, there was another report about related issues from the United Nations, quoted by a Brazilian news agency, that “infant mortality among white children…is considerably lower than that registered among black children.” The same report said that while 98 percent of Brazilian young people are able to go to school, “of 660,000 students out of school, 450,000 are of African descent.”

That U.N. report said Brazil has made great strides in combating racism, and that more needs to be done.

Much can be said the same for the United States, which now has a president of African descent.

Brazil and the United States both have far to go. One need think no further than the outrageous case this week in Cambridge, Mass., where one of the nation’s most important scholars and teachers, Henry Louis Gates, was arrested on suspicion for breaking into his own house. He is an African-American who happens to live in a well-to-do neighborhood, where few people are black.

– Peter Eisner

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Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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