Class, creed and colour: How others deal with it

Beyond boundaries

This month the first ever ‘black Brazilian’ was nominated to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, an event understandably causing much discussion here, but different from what I as an Indian would have normally expected.  We have pride in our enormous diversity–ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural.  But sometimes we forget that we are not the only country with such diversity. It is instructive to see how different the policy approaches can be in countries which are similar.

Brazil is in many ways like India: a mature democracy with full separation of powers and an independent judiciary, a multi-ethnic society with huge disparities, a political agenda to address centuries of oppression against the underprivileged and the poor and so on.

It is also a distinctively multiracial and today over fifty percent of the population of two hundred million are reckoned to be ‘black’, some African blood somewhere. Except that unlike the US or South Africa,  there is no standard classification of race in Brazil and no clarity as to who is ‘black’ or ‘white’ or mixed. There are stories sometimes in the media of twins in Brazil, one curly haired and black and the other blue-eyed and blond.

A quick look at Brazil’s history explains this. When the Portuguese landed in 1500, there were an estimated maximum of  five million indigenous population, the so called native ‘Indians’  in a huge land mass, two and a half times the size of India. The land was rich with immense potential for mining and agriculture. Successive waves of   immigration occurred from different parts and ethnicities in Europe, the British, Dutch, Spanish etc.

The cultivation of cash crops, rubber, cotton, sugar, coffee and the mining required plenty of labour. This   reality of a small population in a rich and huge land also resulted in the largest number of slaves brought into the new world from Africa.

Multi-hued country

Unlike in the US, the  black people too got absorbed in the society after the abolition of slavery in 1888.  Thus in the Brazilian self- perception, the whole country is multi-hued after centuries of  immigration, intermingling,  and the practice of that old term  ‘miscegenation’ i.e. sexual relations between persons of different race or colour. Till recently Brazilians had generally believed that they were colour blind, that there were no prejudices or discrimination based on race in their country.

The reality is not so simple, obviously. All people enjoyed equal rights constitutionally, but if you were to look at the power structures or the privileged elite, one did not see many people of colour.  Or from backward regions in the north and the north-east of Brazil.  Groups of ‘black movement’, have been agitating for greater fair play. 

Against this background, is the appointment of the next Chief Justice seen as a social correction? Not necessarily. Justice Barbosa himself is proud that he is ‘black’, though that does not constitute his primary  identity. A child of a brick layer and a domestic worker, having studied in public schools and not in one of the elitist private schools, he recognizes merit alone as the reason for his rise. No quota or affirmative action has ever helped him, as such a system has not been the policy in Brazil so far.

There have been other great stars or success stories in Brazil from impoverished or underprivileged backgrounds, but as far as I can see, they do not claim ‘victimhood’. Race or colour has never been an issue with Pele, Brazil’s most famous personality. He is Brazilian, that is all, and no one ever talks of their ethnic or racial background.

Similarly with its famous musicians who are great stars such as Gilberto Gil.  In the political life former President Lula came from a backward region and extreme poverty, became a lathe worker and never went to a university. He was the very antithesis of the establishment elite ruling Brazil, brought in a great deal of social transformation, but was not an advocate of identity politics.

For me, the clinching argument is the personality of another promising political figure Marina Silva, an environmental activist and a Presidential aspirant. Black in terms of race, from a remote backward region, a daughter born out of wedlock, and self-educated while working as a house maid, she never claims prejudice or discrimination. She does not see herself as a ‘victim’ of injustice and fights for her space and position like any other political figure. Responding to the need for balance and equity, Brazil is about to initiate affirmative action, or in other words, quotas, for university admissions. Under changes being brought about this year, fifty percent of the seats in government funded universities will be reserved for students from public schools, which imply that they are from  low–income families or for black students on the basis of their self-certification.  The system will be reviewed after ten years.

What is noteworthy here is that at one level, a consciousness to make the upper layers of Brazilian society more inclusive. Similar to our policy. At another level is a policy sensitive to economic conditions of the family as reflected in the public school education.

An approach not anchored in racial or ethnic or any other genetic factors and thus not including the ‘creamy layer’. No two countries are identical, but still there is a case for similar countries in the developing world to learn from each other.

(The writer is India’s ambassador in Brazil)

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