Supposedly George W. Bush once asked Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then president of the land of order and progress, Brazil: “Do you have blacks, too?” Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s Brazilian wife, stepped in to save the day by explaining, “Mr. President, Brazil probably has more blacks than the USA. Some say it’s the country with the most blacks outside Africa.” There is some doubt about whether the story is really true; but it seems right, one of those recurrent moments that persuaded one Bush was not merely dumb but had fried some sequence of synapses during a massive drug trip at Burning Man or Bohemian Grove years before, and now had flashbacks in which Africa was entirely populated by clones of the Osmond family and all the mosquitoes buzzing round the White House bore the face of Saddam Hussein.
I mention this only because Brazil’s 2010 census results, just released, show that for the first time a majority of the country’s residents define themselves as black or mixed-race: 50.7% of the population, as opposed to 44.7% ten years ago. (To be precise: 7.6% identify as black, and 43.1% as mixed-race.) The percentage calling themselves white fell from 53.7% to 47.7%.
At the same time, according to the Guardian, the census “found that in major cities white inhabitants were earning about 2.4 times more than their black counterparts”:
In Salvador, a former slave port with one of Brazil’s largest black populations, the findings were even worse: whites earned 3.2 times more than blacks.
“It is a vicious circle,” Marcelo Paixão, an economist from Rio’s UFRJ University told O Globo. “Poor salaries lead to worse education, which is a barrier to getting a good job. We need more public policies.”
A parallel study, released this week by the Data Popular Institute, provided further evidence of the racial divide that continues to blight Brazilian society. The wealthiest group of Brazilians – known as “Class A” – was made up of 82.3% white people and just 17.7% African-Brazilians.
In contrast “Class E” – the poorest section of society – was 76.3% African-Brazilian and 23.7% white.
The same study found that 31.3% of Brazil’s white population had private health plans, compared with just 15.2% of the black population.
In an interview this week Ivone Caetano, a prominent African-Brazilian judge in Rio de Janeiro, painted a bleak picture of life in the place some call South America’s “rainbow nation”.
“In Brazil every black person is going to be a victim of racism, prejudice [and] discrimination, whatever your position,” she said. “Our prejudice is disguised and hypocritical.”
In other words, the “racial democracy” still has a long distance to go. On the other hand, it’s a moment that inspires a certain awe. The African diaspora, who built most of the two American continents when enslaved, now commands a majority in the hemisphere’s emerging superpower. As the world realigns itself and the United States and Europe decline, I find myself much more interested these days in Brazil than in, say, China. For better or for worse, in hope and in despair, it seems to me that much of our global future is being test-driven there.