protest pro democracy and antiracist in Sao Paulo
"Stop killing us," says the poster of a protester in São Paulo. Photo: Pam Santos/Fotos Públicas

Why Black Lives Matter protests haven't taken off in Brazil

Brazil's racial inequalities are comparable to that of the U.S., and violence from law enforcement is disproportionately meted out along racial lines. So, why hasn't Brazil followed the lead of the Black Lives Matter movement?

The U.S. enters its ninth day of protests following the murder of George Floyd, a 47-year-old black man, by the hands of four Minneapolis police officers. The case sparked daily rallies against systemic racism and police brutality, in what has become the most widespread wave of protests the country has seen in half a century.

The map below, courtesy of Al Jazeera, shows that Floyd’s killing also sparked solidarity protests in several other countries — from Europe, to the Middle East, to Oceania. But in Brazil, the wave of support was more like a drop in the ocean, with one single rally taking place in Rio de Janeiro over the weekend.


Brazil has several cases just as disturbing as the killing of George Floyd. In September 2019, 8-year-old Agatha Félix was shot in the back by a bullet fired by the police. And just a week before Floyd’s murderer, the 14-year-old João Pedro died after the police shot over 80 times at the house he was playing in. Both incidents occurred in Rio de Janeiro.

READ ALSO: From George Floyd to João Pedro: Brazilian artists join #BlackOutTuesday

Part of the problem is the fact that black and multiracial people in Brazil do not see themselves as a united ethnic group. 

In Brazil, race is self-determined–and until the 1991 census, whites represented the majority of Brazilians, amounting to 51% of the population. In 1976, when census researchers asked citizens to describe their own skin color without any options to choose from, they ended up with more than they bargained for. Between them, the thousands of Brazilians surveyed gave the researchers a list of 136 different colors, ranging from “coffee,” “cinnamon” and “honey” to “toasted,” “singed” and even “wheat.”

That is the byproduct of a deliberate political will to “whiten” the country and marginalize the black and multiracial population. Public policies encouraged miscegenation, not as a way of integration, but rather to “improve the race.”

That has changed over the past three decades. In the 2010 census, for the first time ever, more than half of the population identified as either black or multiracial — 54%, to be exact. Credit is due to the struggles of the black civil rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, which paved the way for social gains such as racial quotas in public universities.

Plenty of reasons to protest

It is not only self-identification that is growing among black and multiracial Brazilians. These people are also subjected to increasingly disproportionate levels of violence, often at the hands of law enforcement. A study by the Human Rights Ministry shows that a black or multiracial youth is murdered in Brazil every 23 seconds, meaning that, in the time it took you to read this paragraph, one young black or multiracial person was killed in the country.

A survey by the government’s Special Secretariat of Racial Equality Policies shows that 56% of Brazilian agree with the statement that “a violent death is less shocking when it is with a black or multiracial youngster as opposed to a young white person.”

Many such deaths, however, are the direct result of centuries of inequality in what was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. When Brazil finally did outlaw the practice in 1888, it did so without any compensation for the now emancipated black community, creating a destitute underclass in the country. Brazil’s structural racism has kept black and multiracial families cramped in favelas, where the state’s presence is almost non-existent.

In Brazil, racism was never defined by law, allowing the country to pretend that its profound social gaps were all economy-related–the truth is, black and multiracial people were never allowed to break certain barriers.

Black professionals earn 36% less than their white counterparts, according to data from the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socio-Economic Studies (Dieese). Another report, this time by Inter-American Development Bank and Brazilian Ethos Institute, showed that blacks are still the minority in the business market. Only 4.5% had reached positions on the board of directors among the 117 companies listed in the survey.

Still, the protests that have started to erupt in Brazil are focused more on politics than race. Indignation against violence on black and multiracial people remains mostly circumscript to these communities, struggling to be recognized as a society-wide issue.

This article was originally published on The Brazilian Report, a website that explains Brazilian politics and economics to foreign audiences.