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Racial legacy that haunts Brazil

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Salvador, Bahia

A Baiana woman selling traditional food
The African influence is evident in Bahia's food and music

There are few Brazilian cities as steeped in their African heritage as Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia.

This was, after all, the first colonial capital of Brazil, and the point of entry for many of the millions of slaves who were brought into South America's largest country.

Around 80% of the population is said to be of black African ancestry, a legacy that can be found in food, music and culture. The religion of Candomble, which has its origins in Africa, still thrives in the city.

In recent years, the region has even attracted African-American visitors from the United States eager to see a part of the world where African traditions are well preserved, a trend sometimes uncomfortably known as "ethnic tourism".

Blighted by violence

But despite this heritage, Salvador has never had an elected black mayor, although one was appointed during Brazil's military dictatorship.

Some critics claim the majority of Brazilians of African descent in Salvador are an example of continuing discrimination, living in the poorest areas, their lives often blighted by violence and largely excluded from political power.

Others insist that any prejudice which does exist is based on social factors and not race.

Claims of racism simply do not apply, they argue, in a country where racial identity is so fluid, and the distinction between black, white and mixed race often unclear, even among Brazilians.

Whipping post

The city's historic Pelourinho district is where slaves were once auctioned - and brutally punished; "pelourinho" is Portuguese for whipping post. Now the highly acclaimed Bahia Folklore Dance Company puts on nightly shows there, celebrating this region's strong cultural links with Africa.

Vava, executive director of the Bahia Folklore Dance Company
It is important that the population here has an awareness of their self-esteem and value, of their race, their own culture
Walson Botelho
Bahia Folklore Dance Company

The executive director of the company, Walson Botelho, known as Vava, says celebrating these cultural links challenges attitudes imposed by slavery which in some ways still persist even today.

"The Europeans came here with a preconceived idea that they were the only people who could do good things for Brazil," he says.

"And that the indigenous [citizens] - the native Brazilians - and the Africans were people who didn't have the intelligence, the minimum of reasoning, and this was why they were treated as slaves and animals.

"It is important that the population here has an awareness of their self-esteem and value, of their race, their own culture."

But just how the descendants of slaves are faring today on the busy streets of Salvador is a question which divides opinion.

Pelourinho, Salvador
Slaves were once auctioned in Salvador's Pelourinho district

Studies show that in recent years the gap between the income of black and mixed race Brazilians and the higher salaries of white Brazilians has been falling - but there is still a sizeable difference.

Across a range of areas, from access to a high quality education to health and housing, Brazilians of African descent are worse off than their white counterparts.

A report issued this year also concluded that a young black teenager in Brazil was nearly three times more likely to die as a result of violence than a white adolescent.

'On the periphery'

In Salvador, critics say you only have to compare the poorer districts with the wealthier neighbourhoods to see the difference.

"In my opinion, the quality of life of the black population is terrible," says Professor Jocelio Teles, of the Federal University of Bahia, using black as an umbrella term to cover broadly those who are not white, including people of mixed race.

Professor Jocelio Teles
Professor Jocelio Teles says it will take time to achieve equality

"If you think in terms of the localisation of most people in Salvador, black people, these people are on the periphery."

He says that while there have been some improvements recently, Brazilians of African descent in Bahia still face many disadvantages.

"The black middle class is very small. The majority of people in our city are black and poor. The majority of people with access to higher education are white.

"So where is the democracy until now? How will the future be for the black population in our city and our country?" he asks.

Professor Teles believes affirmative action policies adopted by the federal and state government in education and the labour market in recent years need to continue for another 20 to 30 years in order to achieve equality.

'Preferential treatment'

In the busy market street in Liberdade, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Salvador, people say discrimination on the basis of skin colour is not uncommon.

"Mainly in the area of employment there is a lot of difference, a lot of preferential treatment," says Janaina das Virgens Santos, 29.

Judge Luislinda Valois Santos, with a child
Here in Bahia, what you see is the exclusion of the black race from the decision-making process of the state
Judge Luislinda de Santos

"If you have 10 black people and one white, the white person would get preference."

At a nearby school, the children give a warm welcome to Luislinda Valois Santos, said to have been the first black woman judge in Bahia, who says equality of access must be expanded.

"How will you achieve this? Through education, employment and also giving opportunities to black people to be ministers, deputies, senators, governors, president of the Republic," she insists.

"Here in Bahia, what you see is the exclusion of the black race from the decision-making process of the state."

But, as in other parts of Brazil, there seems a large divide between those who think people of African descent do face prejudice, and those who argue that the only real gulf is between poor and rich.

Colonial legacy

Edvaldo Brito is the only black man to have been mayor of Salvador - but he was appointed to that post during Brazil's military dictatorship, not elected.

Edvaldo Brito
Edvaldo Brito is the only black man to have been mayor of Salvador

Now the city's deputy mayor, he argues that Salvador's black population has the same rights and opportunities as its white citizens.

The challenge, he believes, is to give help through affirmative action to those who still have not had the opportunity to reach their full potential on their own.

"What do you have in Brazil? In Brazil there is the inability to achieve social mobility," he says.

"For historic reasons the blacks never had the same position in colonial times. And when they abolished slavery they continued without the ability to advance in society."

Jutahy Magalhaes Junior represents Bahia in the Brazilian Congress. While he regards himself as mixed race, he says that in his own state he would be seen as white, a view that in itself reflects the complexity of centuries of racial mixing in Brazil.

Lack of money

He also argues that racial prejudice is not a factor behind inequality in Salvador.

"Everyone, whether they are white, mixed race, black or indigenous, that doesn't have money, will struggle with transport, public health, and education," he says.

"The discrimination is social, it is not racial."

A vibrant expression of the cultural legacy of Africa is evident everywhere in Bahia and seems highly valued.

But here in Salvador, there seems less consensus on whether Brazilian society is doing as much as it should be for those of its citizens who are of African descent.



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