Even in poverty, it’s easier being white: Study finds that the salary of poor whites is 46% higher than that of poor blacks

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Study finds that the salary of poor whites is 46% higher than that of poor blacks

According to research by the NGO Oxfam, socioeconomic inequalities during the crisis in Brazil increased; blacks, women and the poor earned less.

By Marque Travae

I first started checking out the racial situation in Brazil right around the time discussions of implementing affirmative action policies for non-whites were on the table. And as these policies were being slowly being established in universities across the country, the controversial system began to spark some of the most heated debates the nation had seen on the issue of race and the existence of racial discrimination in the country. Of course, studies of race and racism in Brazil had been explored by European, Brazilian and American scholars since at the least the 1940s, but that was in the academic world. The general population had long denied the existence of any racial inequalities in Brazil and as these studies tended to remain in the academic realm, this mythology continued to spread to all social strata of the country.

When the debate began to escalate over the issue of quotas based on race or color, one of the most common arguments that was used was the idea that there shouldn’t be race-based quotas in the universities because it wouldn’t be fair to poor whites. According to this logic, quotas should be based on social class rather than race because on the lowest rungs of society, the poor black and the poor white were on equal footing, and as such, they should have equal access to any type of affirmative action.

My position has always been that the purpose of affirmative action is to diversify every realm of society in which it is common to see exclusively or primarily persons with white skin and European features. And in Brazil, when one partakes in activities or outings that require a higher income of the participants, this association between skin color and social class become blatantly obvious. I’ve seen evidence of this is so many places: movie theaters, airports, recreational centers, private schools, ritzy restaurants, hotels and many other places.

And if this is the case, and the idea is to diversity and make such places more accessible for non-whites who aren’t to partake in such activities what sense would it make to based this on only social class? If the idea to see more non-whites in these areas, how will making quotas available to poor whites diversify an area racially when whites are already the vast majority frequenting such areas? After all, even if whites are poor, they are still white.

Simply put, believing in a ‘racial democracy’ simply doesn’t add up when one considers the facts. In her 2005 study, Fernanda Lopes revealed that:

“income disparities among blacks and white is present in all regions of the country, regardless of the level of development, the specific conditions of the labor market (even if the same educational profile and salary differentials are maintained and for each range of schooling observed is attributed to both groups).” (see note one)

But surely this doesn’t apply to the lower classes where poor whites and poor blacks live side by side in the poorer communities, right? Again, the studies say that even in the poorer communities, whites still have an advantage. And that advantage has been maintained up to today.

A recent report by the NGO Oxfam entitled “País Estagnado: um retrato das desigualdades brasileiras 2018”, “2017 was a year of bad news for the reduction of inequalities in the country, with the apparent consolidation of a historical retreat.” This in itself is not surprising as the crisis beginning in 2014 has been labeled the worst economic crisis in Brazil’s history by economic experts. The study also took into consideration the racial aspect of the crisis by comparing the salary differences between blacks and whites, one of the indicators that breaks down the level social inequality. This difference in average salary hasn’t improved in seven years and since 2011 the equalization of income of black Brazilians has actually stagnated.

According to information provided by the PNAD (Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra de Domicílio or National Survey by Domicile Sample), of the IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística or Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), in 2016, black Brazilians earned about 57% of what the average white Brazilian earned (R$1,458 for blacks, R$2,567 for whites). In 2017, this disparity fell to 53% with black Brazilians earning R$1,545 compared to R$2,924 for whites.

This same disparity can be noted among both the upper and lower classes. At the top of the income pyramid, the average white earned R$ 13.754 while the average black of the same social class earned R$ 6.186. In the lower classes where the assumption is that blacks and whites are equal, poor whites earned 46% more than poor blacks earning R$965 per month versus the R$658 earned by their black counterparts.

These numbers of course represent solid tangible facts, but doesn’t consider the intangibles that white skin presents as a source of capital. It doesn’t consider the benefits that white children have for not been stigmatized, ridiculed and humiliated because of they have dark skin, kinky/curly hair texture and other salient physical attributes that denote African ancestry (see note two). Poor white Brazilians can still subscribe to a feeling of superiority when they turn on the television, look at advertisements, the Senate and top 500 company CEOs who look like them. Poor whites will never experience rejection because of their race, as was the case of Lula Pereira and millions of other Brazilians whose physical attributes define them as black or brown.

Técnico Lula Pereira
Even with experience and success, Lula Pereira’s skin color still affects his ability to land coaching jobs for major teams

Lula Pereira played futebol for a number of teams in Brazil until being able to parlay his knowledge of the sport into a coaching opportunity. Pereira began coaching teams in 1988 and found success with a number of minor league teams as well as teams of major league top 20 status. Among his accomplishments with minor league teams were championships in Series B and Series A2 leagues. He even spent time in Europe as a coaching intern with teams such as Barcelona, Milan and Ajax. But even after stints with 17 teams, including one of Rio’s top teams, Flamengo, Pereira still experiences bouts of unemployment that aren’t related to his competence as a coach, but rather to skin color.

“I’ve already heard from managers: ‘The people of the team liked your profile, but, excuse me, você é preto (are you black)?’”, he remembered in a 2013 interview.

Pereira’s story is a common one in the ranks of Brazilian futebol (soccer) where black players are always among the country’s top players but always passed over for positions of leading teams from the sidelines. If a white Brazilian were of poor origin, but was able to climb the ranks as first a good player and then a coach, his race would never enter a conversation if he were to be considered for a top coaching position. This is just one of the many privileges that white skin brings. This status as white can often be the trump card that opens doors for whites but shuts the same door on blacks with a similar profile. As Lopes tells us:

“Although formal education catalyzes social mobility, the possibilities of white ascent, obtained by increasing the level of schooling, are strengthened with the help of his social network; for blacks, however, the range of opportunities is more restricted, since the new (generally more educated) generations have not yet established a social network that provides them with the necessary support for status change.” (see note one)

In other words, a black and a white may both grow up in a favela with the two being able to improve their lives through education. Along the way, the two will may make important (white) social contacts that may assist in their attaining certain jobs. For those ascending whites, contacts with influential whites may be the break that leads them from the favela to the middle class. On the other hand, as black professionals have only joined thee ranks of the middle classes in recent years, largely due to affirmative action, poor blacks don’t have access to the same social network that may assist white colleagues. And even in making such contacts with influential whites, when the decision comes down to who will get an important opportunity between a poor black and a poor white, the poor black most likely won’t get the call or, perhaps getting that call, is asked, “você é preto?”

Although Lopes wrote that in 2005, the same remains true in 2018. With this in mind, I must again ask, are we all equal?


  1. Lopes, Fernanda. “Para além da barreira dos números: desigualdades raciais e saúde”. Cadernos de Saúde Pública, Rio de Janeiro, 21(5): 1595-1601, Sept-Oct, 2005.
  2. I say salient here because many white Brazilians, even being accepted as white, still have noticeable characteristics that reveal that they are also not of pure European ancestry.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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