Following the abolition of slavery in 1888, Brazilian authorities refused to implement any kind of public policy to integrate Black people into society. Instead, over the course of the 20th century, they carefully constructed a narrative in which Brazil is cast as a rare haven where people of all races are able to live in harmony.
As a result, despite Black and mixed-race Brazilians suffering the worst of police violence, having limited access to education, making up some 64 percent of the unemployed, having limited representation in prominent decision-making bodies, and being almost three times as likely to be victims of homicide, most of the Brazilian population remained convinced there is effectively no racism in their country.
That there is now a higher number of Black candidates contesting the elections and that the political parties are obligated to spend some money on their campaigns does not necessarily mean the upcoming municipal elections are going to lead to more diversity, let alone racial justice.
While the total number of Black and mixed-race candidates is now higher than the total number of white candidates when it comes to mayoral elections – the position that holds the most power – white people still dominate the lists. Indeed, of the 19,100 people who registered to run for mayor in the upcoming election, only 35 percent are Black – this in a country where 56.2 percent of the general population identify as Black.
The high number of Black city council candidates do not guarantee more racially diverse city councils either. In the Brazilian electoral system, not only the votes received by an individual candidate but also the total number of votes received by all of a political party’s registered candidates influence the outcome of an election. So it is possible for a popular candidate to fail to be elected solely due to the overall poor performance of his or her party. Knowing this, Brazilian parties often register a high number of candidates for each contested seat, just to gain a few more votes that can prove decisive in a tight election. Because of this, many fear that Black candidates running for a position in the municipal elections will only help their party’s strongest candidates (many of whom are white) to get elected, but fail to gain a seat themselves.
A Supreme Court’s decision in August obliges political parties to spend a proportional percentage of the public money they receive on the campaigns of their Black candidates, it does not instruct them to divide that money equally between these candidates. This means a party with 30 percent Black candidates can lawfully spend 30 percent of the public funds it receives on a single Black candidate’s campaign, and completely ignore the rest. This would result in a few strong Black candidates gaining office, with the overall racial makeup of councils across the country not changing significantly.
There is one issue that categorically demonstrates that racial justice is not yet within the grasp of Brazilians. A significant percentage of the “Black” candidates running for a seat in the municipal elections, many of whom are already holding office or well-known public figures, only publicly acknowledged their Blackness in the run-up to this election. According to a survey of the 107 “Black” candidates running for the mayorship of a Brazilian state capital in the 2020 elections, 23 had claimed to be white in a previous election. If the candidates who changed their race in the run-up to the election were to be counted as white, the percentage of Black Brazilians running for a mayorship this year would decline to 26.4 percent. The percentage of white mayoral candidates, meanwhile, would jump to 73 percent.
The introduction of women’s quotas failed to significantly increase the number of women in elected office in Brazil. There is little reason to believe the cosmetic increase in the number of Black candidates in this year’s municipal election or the Supreme Court’s recent decision to force political parties to give some Black candidates more public funds would yield more successful results.
There is no guarantee candidates who declared themselves to be Black in the run-up to the election would be willing to contribute to the fight against racism, sexism and other injustices once they are in office. In the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro, for example, the Minister of Human Rights, Damares Alves, is a woman, but she does not consider herself a feminist and opposes women’s right to abortion. Sergio Camargo, the Black president of the Palmares Foundation, a government-funded institute tasked with promoting and protecting Afro-Brazilian culture, meanwhile, denies the existence of racism in Brazil and has described Black rights activists as “damned scum”.
The Brazilian far right has learned how to use the diversity discourse of the left to its electoral advantage. Being forced to acknowledge the issue of race that it for decades chose to completely ignore, it is now finding ways to manipulate the public thirst for racial justice to further its own conservative and destructive agendas.