• In this article for The Southern Times, TOIVO ASHEEKE shows how racial inequality is not just found in Africa, Europe and North America. Using statistics, he demonstrates how Africans shipped as slaves to Brazil are still living as sub-humans in one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
There are Africans all over the world and there is an inter-connectedness that I believe exists between the members of the African Diaspora that makes this dynamic political philosophy powerful in ways we have not yet imagined.
In this article and the rest of my work, I wish to make it clear that I define the African Diaspora as Africans living outside the continent.
So this includes black Brazilians, black Cubans, black Americans etc as well as Africans or people of the Diaspora living/studying/working abroad.
We in Southern Africa need to remember that there are many brothers and sisters of the continent living abroad and when one analyses their situations, there are striking similarities.
The African Diaspora in many places in the world suffer through the same economic, social and political oppression and can learn much through improved relations and increases in exchanges of information with each other.
In this week’s engagement, I will briefly examine some of the racial inequalities that exist today in Brazil.
Located on the continent of South America, Brazil is home to almost 200 million people 49.6 percent of which - according to The MercoPress and other scholarly sources - are the black/mulatto population.
In an article in MercoPress dated April 25, 2009, it was reported that the black population had surpassed the white population as the majority in Brazil.
However, in Brazil, many authorities claim there is no race problem and that Brazil has a “racial democracy” that treats all its citizens fairly.
But upon closer examination this claim is a fallacy that needs to be brought more into light.
For example, according to the same article cited above, illiteracy among blacks is roughly 20 percent while for whites it is six percent.
In another article written by Brazilian journalist, Italo Ramos, statistics show that blacks constitute 90 percent of the poorest people in that country.
And, as previously stated, blacks constitute at least 49 percent of the population but receive 51 percent less of the salaries of whites.
Ramos also cited a PhD dissertation by economist and sociologist, Marcelo Paixao ‑ (a black man) at the Universidade do Rio de Janeiro, in which he articulated in the field of academia the inequalities that exist in the society.
For example, according to the Human Development Index’ “Happiness Index”, Brazil was ranked 63rd in the world.
Paixao formed two “countries”; one being white and the other black.
In the white country if happiness was to be measured Brazil would rank 44th and for the black 105th.
He also showed that between 1992 and 2001 the overall number of Brazilian poor was reduced by five million yet the number of black poor increased by 500 000 showing, as Italo Ramos points out, “While the whites got richer, the blacks got poorer.”
As Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates showed in his four-part documentary on being black in Latin America, blacks almost exclusively populate the poor districts of the big urban centres.
Sao Paulo, often referred to as the City of God, is home to the largest concentration of black people in Brazil and it is one of the poorest urban centres in one of the wealthiest BRICS nations. Why is this the case?
Think about it for a minute, when you think of black Brazilians, excluding football players, what comes to mind? Where are they? What are their stories and why are they so economically disadvantaged?
Before we continue, I believe it is important to note that during the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, 93 percent of slaves taken from Africa went to Latin America.
Yes, not North America.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the largest moneymaker for the European colonialists was invested in the sugar and tobacco plantations of Cuba, Brazil and other places.
They needed fresh, cheap and strong labourers to plant and harvest these crops especially in regards to sugar as it is a very labour-intensive practice.
But why don’t we hear about these black people in Latin America?
It should also be noted that Brazil was the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery in 1885 and even then it was limited and not inclusive of all African-born people.
How is it that the black American discourse has been heard around the world but the black Latin American experience is silent except for a few institutions of higher learning, which are trying to break this trend?
There are two predominant answers to this question, the first one being that because the history of Latin America is so mixed and blended, even people with white skin have black in their blood.
Thus, as this school of thought argues, racism does not exist because Latin Americans, and in particular Brazilians, are a colour-blind society.
The other school of thought, which I say straight out I am firmly in, contends that black people in Latin America have been so repressed by dictatorial regimes that suppressed free will for generations that their voices were silenced due to economic, political, social and intellectual segregation and oppression.
In 2006, a group of African-Brazilians tried to break this silence and let some of our African intellectuals meeting in Brazil know that they did exist and that things were not as they seemed in Brazil, and Latin America as a whole.
In a scholarly article authored by Paul T Zeleza entitled “Africa and Its Diasporas: Remembering South America”, the author writes that while attending the Conference of Intellectuals from Africa and the Diaspora (CIAD II) in Salvador, Brazil, in 2006, the black population made it known they were suffering to their Pan-African brethrens. During the final plenary session of a long conference, a group of black activists forced their way into the CIAD II and read a list of demands demanding an end to injustice in Brazil for the black population.
They asserted “that racial inequality in Brazil has deep historical roots and this reality will not be modified significantly without the application of specific public policies” and “that Brazil… must repair the asymmetries provoked by policies that the Brazilian government promoted” (Zeleza 2009, pg. 144).
And, as a final shout of defiance to their fellow white Brazilian citizens and a clear sign of their connectedness with African struggles for freedom, they began to sing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, the anthem of freedom for us in Southern Africa.
So, if one examines this evidence it becomes very clear how similar the plight of black Brazilians is to say black Americans, black Namibians/South Africans, and black people all over the world.
Much of the same problems exist but indeed are different due to their respective contexts. Indeed the Brazilian government has been making some progress apparently to start affirmative action programmes but more needs to be done and black Brazilians themselves need to begin to take politically active stances in their fight for equality.
This is why I believe in Pan-Africanism because as a part of a wider Diaspora there is much we have suffered and continue to suffer under that is the same.
This notion that our connections are so far removed because of experience and time is folly because here we are in 2012 and stark inequalities and covert as well as overt suppression of the Diaspora exist as we can see here in Brazil.
In later articles, I will write on the slave revolts in Brazil and how that tracks well with revolts of the African Diaspora all over the Americas during that time period. Perhaps if it can be shown how much we have accomplished as a Diaspora separately as well as in unity more might be willing to buy into this notion of Pan-Africanism.
• Toivo Asheeke is a Namibian graduate scholar at Binghamton University in the United States. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org