Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons

Brazil have a direct inheritance with slavery

Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons

Brazil have a direct inheritance with slavery
Brazil have a direct inheritance with slavery

Note from BW of Brazil: When we analyze the socioeconomic situation between blacks and whites in multi-racial societies we often times see the same trends, with the white portion of that particular country being in significantly better positions as a whole. In the United States, for example, a recent study showed that whites are ten times richer than blacks. In South Africa, we see that 10% of the people, mostly white, wons over 90% of the nartion’s wealth, while 80% of the population, overwhelmingly black, owns nothing

As two countries known for histories of legal segregation, they stand out as perfect examples of the connection between wealth, race and structural racism. In Brazil, we see similar vast inequalities in which the richest 10% of all Brazilians control more than half, 55%, of the nation’s wealth, with the top 1% owning 28%. In terms of the racial breakdown, brancos, meaning white people, make up 79% of the country’s richest 1%, while pretos e pardos, meaning blacks and browns make 17.4%. Mind you, these stats speak of monthly income and not wealth. It would be curious to know what how the nation’s national wealth is distributed by race.

When speaking of highest monthly income, the richest in Brazil, according to income, are considered those who earn more than BRL$11,600 per month. On the other side, 76% of Brazil’s poorest are preto or pardo while the white proportion of the poorest was 22.8%. These numbers are according to stats from 2014. Although Brazilians are quick to point out that the country never had any sort of legal system of segregation, after about 350 years of slavery and only 132 years of free labor, we see that enormous inequality in terms of income that segregates by race/color clearly continues to benefit the white population. 

But what explains these vast inequalities? Can it be simply explained by the country’s history of slavery? Not exactly. With debates over the question of reparations happening in the United States, as well as Brazil and other countries, what people should know is that inequality in terms of income and wealth along lines of race/color cannot be narrowed down to simply slavery, as so many people like to argue away as having happened so long ago. 

Today, in the United States, African-Americans make up about 13% of the population but own only about 3% of the nation’s wealth. Duke University professor Sandy Darity has argued that one of the primary reasons for this wealth inequality today is the fact that African-Americans were denied 400,000 acres of land after the Civil War. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided land to 1.6 million white families while only about 5,000 African-American families received the same benefit. Darity believes that had this land been distributed more fairly, today this wealth inequality gap between black and white Americans would be significantly smaller. 

It seems apparent that this lack of access to land was also a key factor in the situation of Afro-Brazilians, although this was not the only factor. The article below goes into further detail of why we see such huge inequalities along the color line in Brazil of 2020. 

Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons
Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons

Understand the historical reasons why blacks earn less than whites 

By Pedro Borges

The discrepancy between different racial groups in Brazil is remote and dates back to the period of slavery. Researchers on the labor market, however, differ on the explanations for the non-insertion of black people after the abolition of slavery, and for the continuity of racial inequalities in the country

On November 20, the date celebrated as the Day of Black Consciousness in Brazil, a moment to remember the death of the leader of Quilombo dos Palmares, Zumbi, the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies (DIEESE) presented a diagnosis about the insertion of Afro-Brazilians in the national labor market.

The figures show the discrepancy to which Afro-descendants are subjected in terms of unemployment, access to work, income, as well as the peculiarities of some of the country’s major metropolises.

The data show, for example, that pretos e pardos (blacks and browns), belonging to the black racial group according to the IBGE, have an income of 67.8% compared to other ethnicities. The average income of the employed black population was BRL $ 9.10 per hour, while for non-blacks it reaches BRL $ 13.41 per hour.

This difference, however, is not of today.

The construction of the labor market and racial inequalities between blacks and whites date back to the most distant periods in Brazilian history. The enslavement of African peoples, kidnapped to work first in agriculture and then in mining, is one of the marks still present in the country today.

Haydée Paixão, a lawyer graduated from PUC-SP and Adjunct Coordinator of the Brazilian Institute of Criminal Sciences (IBCCRIM), points out that slavery in Brazil was very violent, cruel, and still has repercussions in the national daily life.

“All structures and relations in Brazil have this direct inheritance with slavery. Patterns of authoritarian relationships, violent, exploitative, subordinate, subjugation of workers, especially if they are black men and black women, are some of the marks.”

Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons
Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons

According to sociologist Clóvis Moura, author of the book Dialética Radical do Brasil Negro, about 10 million people were forced from Africa to Brazil. The largest share of this contingent came between 1530 and 1850, which Moura describes as full slavery. During this period, the two main social classes in Brazil were slave master mill owners and slaves, and the rest functioned as their satellite.

From 1850 onwards, with the perception of the Brazilian elite that the end of the slave regime, already concluded in other nations, would also come to the country, the beginning of what Clóvis Moura calls “conservative modernization”. This phase is part of the period described as late slavery, which lasts until May 13, 1888.

The Lei de Terras (Land Law), which restricts access to rural property in Brazil by ex-slaves, and the Alves Branco Tariff, which will tax international transactions of agricultural products to Europe, made it possible at that time to exclude blacks from the country project and the arrival of European immigrants.

These are the two primary laws that allow, according to Clóvis Moura, the maintenance of black people at the base of the Brazilian social pyramid even after slavery. The black community is left without access to the means of production, such as land, and without the possibility of work, to the extent that it is passed over by white European immigrants.

The transition agreed and planned by the elites didn’t promote a break with the slave model, which generates a series of permanences of the slave tradition in Brazil, according to Haydée Paixão.

“This makes it a taboo still in the labor market, within the companies themselves, going to the private realm, and also in the civil service itself.”

It is in this period, also marked by the end of slavery on May 13, 1888, that Brazil started a process of industrialization disproportionately between the different regions of the country.

Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons
Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons

São Paulo, industrialization and the “blackout”

The doctoral research by Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa “The Formation of the Labor Market in Brazil: From Slavery to Wages” says that it was not yet possible, at the end of the 19th century, to talk about the existence of a labor market in the field work, because of the social relations developed, nor in other parts of the country, but that this fits in an appropriate way to the city of São Paulo.

The lesser dependence on foreign capital, the greater concentration of financial resources, the existence of a larger domestic consumption market, the connection with other regions by rail, as in the interior of the states of São Paulo and the south of Minas Gerais, the existence of a more diversified agriculture, among other factors, contributed to the industrial dynamism of São Paulo.

It is at this historic moment that the immigration policy begins and the Brazilian industrial project comes to the fore.

The official justification was that the country didn’t have enough manpower for the development planned by Brazilian elites, and that blacks would not be able to take on factory work, a position questioned by social scientist Lúcio Kowarick, who emphasizes the lack of professional qualification required in many industry sectors.

“The vast majority of industrial tasks didn’t require qualification, since the factories, since their beginnings, operated with machines that partialized the production processes, requiring in addition a small number of specialized technical functions, labor that doesn’t need any professional qualification.”

It’s worth mentioning that this policy, which is very present in the province of São Paulo, is not part of the national reality. In several regions of the country, the continuity of the national worker, composed mostly of blacks, was the rule.

Despite the local singularities, the national government financed immigration from 1851 until 1909, which contributed to the entry of about 2.2 million foreign workers to Brazil between 1889 and 1928.

European immigration occurred in several provinces, but none received as much subsidy from the regional government as in the state of São Paulo, responsible for sponsoring this movement from 1881 to 1927. The figures show that from 1924 to 1928, 30% of immigrants coming to São Paulo were subsidized.

In the 1870s, about 11,870 immigrants entered the province of São Paulo and in the following ten years that number reached 183,505, data that resulted in an increase in the inflow of foreigners on the order of 1,445%, well above the national average of 150%.

The historical reasons
Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons

In the 1890s, entry remained high, with an increase of 300%, against 171% of the national average, when 1,211,076 million European immigrants entered Brazil, and 734,985 thousand went to São Paulo, that is, half the total.

In 1893, five years after the abolition of slavery, on May 13, 1888, immigrants represented 68% of employed workers in the city of São Paulo. In 1920, that number was 49.5%.

The coming of the white European worker, mainly to São Paulo, took place with the objective of branquear (whitening) the Brazilian population and to the São Paulo capital in order to “improve the country racially” and reduce the black presence in the nation.

The immigrants’ arrival policy was aggressive to the point of rapidly whitening the population of the province of São Paulo, which had a white proportion of 88% in 1950. In 1872 this number corresponded to only 51.8% of the local inhabitants.

The national census also changed with this influx of European immigrants. In 1872, whites corresponded to 38.1% of Brazilians, while pretos (blacks), pardos (browns) and indigenous people accounted for 61.9% of the national population. In 1890, whites made up 44% of the national population, and the other 56% were black and indigenous.

Alexandre also points out that there was a racial divide between workers occupying different positions and positions in the market, and a preference for white and young workers. Young people up to 20 years old represented 23.6% of employees in the city of São Paulo.

“On the one hand, immigrants of various origins, hired as colonists, and on the other, blacks, mulattos, caboclos (mestiços of indigenous/European mixture) and poor Brazilians from São Paulo and from outside the state of São Paulo. It was a segmentation, but not by specialization or shaped by capitalism and its technical division of labor. But by social and racial criteria defined by the dominant ideology.”

The ex-slaves, as Alexandre Barbosa points out, created their own occupations as a way of survival, such as becoming porters, yard cleaners, street carpenters, car washers, shoe shiners, domestic services, among others.

The objective of whitening the country is evident with the barriers placed on African and Asian immigrants in the Brazilian territory. The racial barrier existed to the point that the Brazilian government forbade the construction of an African American colony in the state of Mato Grosso in the 1920s (see note one).

Brazil also disrespected the Peace, Friendship, Trade and Navigation Treaty signed with the United States by preventing the entry of a few African Americans who wanted to work and live in the country.

Sales Augusto dos Santos then points out that it is not possible to believe in the pure and simple desire to bring new subjects into the labor market in Brazil, as black workers and people willing to invest in the country, both North Americans, were barred by the national government. (Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery)

All these factors fuel the position of Carlos Alfredo Hasenbalg, a researcher at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) responsible for studies on the development of blacks in the Brazilian labor market, that yes, there was a need for more labor in the province São Paulo, but that was not the only factor in question.

“That policy had strong racist nuances and that, in addition to the objective of resolving short-term labor shortages for agriculture, the European immigration adopted by the Brazilian government, and carried out to the letter by the State of São Paulo, also contained another objective, this in the long run, which was to whiten the national population.”

After 1930, with the 1929 crisis and the difficulties faced by the Brazilian State to finance the arrival of European workers, international immigration was stopped. It is from 1930, that internal migration is promoted, with northeasterners coming to São Paulo, and that the national worker, of black majority, is incorporated.

The Agricultural Congress and Joaquim Nabuco’s abolitionist policy

Rio de Janeiro hosted on July 8, 1878, with the participation and presidency of the then Minister of Agriculture, Trade and Public Works, João Vieira Lins Cansanção de Sinimbu, the Agricultural Congress.

The meeting brought together the agrarian elites of the Southeast of the nation and important politicians of the time such as Campos Salles, who would come to preside over the country from 1898 to 1902, and members of the Conservative, Liberal and Republican parties. The objective was to debate what the profile of the worker that the country should be, since at that time the end of slavery was certain.

Half of those present belonged to Rio de Janeiro, 25% to São Paulo, 17% to Minas Gerais, 1.5% to Espírito Santo, among other unidentified states. More than a thousand rural producers were involved in the production of the meeting, which aimed to discuss the format of the work to be adopted in Brazil and the racial profile of the post-slavery worker.

Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons
Campos Salles, President of the Republic (1898-1902), participated in the Agricultural Congress

In his opening speech, the then Minister of Agriculture suggested the importation of Asian workers for the transition from free labor, insofar as he considered the national worker, of black majority, as “an uncertain element”, and without the incentives that the proposed new civilization demanded.

The participants revolted because they wanted an exclusive import from the white European worker. The Minister then warned everyone that the intelligence and expertise of this worker were expensive, and that at the first opportunity, the white European worker would become an owner and wouldn’t maintain his status as a wage earner.

The reservations of João Vieira de Sinimbu were sufficient for the participants to approve the suggestion of importing Asian workers, as had been the first proposal of the Minister of Agriculture.

Even if the European was chosen in practice, it is evident during the Congress the non-recognition of the national worker, most of whom were black, and the glorification of the European as superior to any other group.

It is also noticed that, in addition to the desire to strengthen agriculture, the racial aspect was an important element in the development of the Congress and in the conception of those owners about what should be the direction of the nation, composed of a population that was not a black majority. For the participants, it was necessary to distance themselves from African “barbarism”.

The landowners then opted for a better future with a “vigorous and winning race”, the European, instead of choosing the easiest profit, without the expense of investment, with the exploitation of national labor.

The debates in the Agricultural Congress continued and came to legislative power due to the figure of one who is placed as one of the representatives of the abolitionist movement, Joaquim Nabuco, a federal deputy for the province of Pernambuco.

In his speeches of 1879, his concern with the fact of Brazil remaining a country of a black majority is evident, insofar as it hierarchized the races that made up the world, being whites, superior, and yellow and black, inferior.

Nabuco was opposed to the arrival of Asian immigrants, evaluated as subservient, immoral, and mongos, characteristics that could influence the Brazilian subject, while on the other hand he exalted the European, representative of modernity and civilization.

The look at the history (Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery)

Silvia Hunold Lara, professor of History at Unicamp (University of Campinas), and author of the article “Escravidão, Cidadania e História do Trabalho no Brasil” (Slavery, Citizenship and History of Work in Brazil) says that part of the research done on the development of the labor market in the country started after May 13, 1888 and of erased the history of the black worker both during slavery and after that period.

“Thousands of workers who, for centuries, touched production and generated wealth in Brazil are hidden, disappeared in the blink of an eye.”

She says how the term “replacement” of slave labor by the free worker was almost the erasure of blacks from the historical construction of labor in the country.

According to the researcher, scholars have changed their positions and wagered on the finding that the black worker is a historical subject and an agent of social dynamics before, during and after abolition. Silvia Hunold says that this is increasingly the starting point and not the arrival point of the experts who look at the subject within academia.

It is also worth mentioning here the research by Sales Augusto dos Santos, on “The Formation of the Free Labor Market in São Paulo: Racial Tensions and Social Marginalization”. He says that the usual analysis on the development of the labor market in São Paulo tended to erase the existing differences of race, gender, and to place the exploitation of capital in an equivalent way to everyone.

“The analyzes of the scientists who dedicated themselves to the theme constructs an image of a Brazilian working class composed basically of European immigrants, mainly Italians. In this way, national workers, due to the supposed unimportance in the formation of this class, are passed over and the entire history of work and workers in Brazil comes to be understood from the mass immigration of Europeans.”

Researches point to the European white immigrant as the main actor of the transformations that took place in São Paulo, indirectly denying the participation of this national worker, a group composed of a black majority. In these analyzes, the European immigrant would carry the capitalist mentality, the desire for social ascension, and would therefore be the economic agent of that period.

Sales Augusto dos Santos presents that, by valuing only the European immigrant, an opposite representation of that which is the national worker, of black majority, was automatically constructed. The researcher points out that this subject is disqualified and places him as absent at an important moment in national history.

More than that, it enhances and preserves the racial differences that exist between the two, black and white.

“It reproduces appearances with the strength and prestige of the scientific rigor that is inherent to it and enhances the conservation of oppression, because, as it confirms the worldview of the leading elites on national workers, its explanation of the real generates competitive advantages for immigrants (whites) and material and symbolic losses for national workers (mostly blacks).”

Sales says that in Brazilian history two major aspects were constructed to explain the marginalization of blacks in São Paulo, one that exalts their incapacity for free work, and another that highlights racism as a mechanism for the exclusion of this subject in the post-abolition of slavery.

The first tendency is hegemonic, and it can be divided into two perspectives, one that sees blacks without mental capacity for the development of free work, and another that emphasizes their slavery heritage.

Florestan Fernandes was one of the leading intellectuals in Brazil in the 20th century (Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons)

The main representative of the second order is the sociologist Florestan Fernandes, author of the works Race Relations between Blacks and Whites in São Paulo (1955), and The Integration of the Negro in the Class Society (1964). The researcher dedicated himself to answering why blacks were not absorbed into the job market in the city of São Paulo.

In his first work, written with Roger Bastide, Fernandes points out that slavery left black people at a disadvantage in the face of the technical superiority of European immigrants. As he had been deformed by slavery, the black would not be able to compete with the European white immigrant even in the fields, where the black was enslaved for hundreds of years, much less in industry.

The lack of a capitalist mentality, already present in the immigrants who lived in European countries, was another justification given by Florestan Fernandes for the non-insertion of black people, accustomed to the social relations of slavery.

He stressed that racism was above all discrimination based on the social and economic class of the black subject, and prejudice would tend to lose its meaning as the new social stratification would become class, and not race.

For this reason, Fernandes and Bastide conclude that there was no white supremacy policy, but a vestige of slavery, responsible for making it impossible for the negro to be incorporated. This inheritance would be dissolved with the development of society, after all the color and racial traits would lose meaning, as the search for profit would not be guided by racism.

To overcome the condition of subordination, it was up to the black to abandon the cultural traits that he carried throughout the slavery in order to adapt to the new proposal of society and compete with the white subject.

When making this definition, Sales Augusto do Santos says that Florestan Fernandes and Roger Bastide disregard the racial factor in the non-incorporation of blacks and feed the idea that selection within the labor market is based on merit.

“It is also possible to perceive in this interpretation of Fernandes, even if embryonic, the idea of a competitive, open and democratic society; idea that only becomes clear in The Integration of the Negro in the Society of Classes, because the motor of the social ascension of the individuals is the competence of each one and not the attributes such as race/color and gender/sex, for example.”

Sales Augusto says that, as much as it confirms the existence of racism in São Paulo society at the time, Florestan Fernandes and Roger Bastide denied the functioning of racism as a determining factor in the incorporation of subjects in the labor market.

Despite the problems, Florestan Fernandes marked a new stage in Brazilian social thought by breaking, partially, with the myth of racial democracy, en shrined by Gilberto Freyre in the book Casa Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), that is, with the idea that there is no racism in the country.

Freyre Casa Grande
Gilberto Freyre is the author of the work ‘Casa Grande e Senzala’, one of the titles that strengthens the myth of racial democracy in the country (Brazil Have a Direct Inheritance with Slavery”: The historical reasons)

Sales Augusto points out that the contradictions in Florestan Fernandes’ theory began to be questioned more forcefully in the university from the 1970s. For this reflection, Sales Augusto recalls the researcher Carlos Alfredo Hasenbalg, author, in 1979, of a thesis that questions the position of blacks at that time, 90 years after the abolition of slavery.

The inequality between the descendants of slaves and those of immigrants should have another explanation than that of the change of habit of the black subject, already adapted at that time to the capitalist regime, 90 years after the abolition. Hasenbalg uses this statement to question racism as a determining element in the composition of the labor market.

The researcher claims that the legacy of slavery cannot explain the entire situation of the black, as stated by Florestan Fernandes and his disciples at the Escola Paulista de Sociologia (São Paulo School of Sociology). Race would be a determining factor for understanding social inequalities in the country, which differs from the position that, over time, the racial factor would lose importance.

“A central point of the analysis is to de-emphasize the legacy of slavery as an explanation of contemporary race relations and, instead, to accentuate racism and discrimination after abolition as the main causes of social subordination of non-whites and their recruitment to inferior social positions.”

This is the vision shared by the president of the Instituto Luiz Gama and professor at Mackenzie, Silvio Almeida. He believes in the existence of relations between Brazilian racism and slavery, and its influence in the daily lives of blacks and whites, but he states that racism cannot be understood only as a residue of slavery.

“In order for contemporary racism to establish itself, it was essential that after slavery a new institutional-political apparatus be constituted that could, in the face of the new social, economic, national and international conjuncture, support social hierarchies and also make it possible, to legitimize them at the same time.”

Silvio Almeida presents the importance of the new configuration of racism, after slavery, to normalize the racial inequalities that exist in Brazil until today.

“Racism is very important for the composition of inequalities, because once you have a society in which social hierarchies have become natural as a result of racial belonging, the payment of low wages and the overexploitation of women are much more legitimate, because of this”.

Source: Alma Preta


  1. In the 1920s, Robert Abbott, editor of the black newspaper Chicago Defender, sought to lead groups of black Americans to Brazil to settle and cultivate lands in the state of Mato Grosso. Impressed with what he saw during a visit, he enticed other black Americans to relocate. But it was not to be. After learning that the prospective immigrants to the country were black, the government of Mato Grosso immediately rejected visa requests.
About Marques Travae 3552 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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