Laws to Produce Racial Segregation: Experiences of a black journalist
Note from BW of Brazil: I’ve said it for years. You don’t need laws that implement racial segregation to create completely different realities and experiences for people of different races. The idea that only societies in which racial separation was mandated by law are the examples of truly racist nations is one of the mythical pillars of which Brazil has promoted itself as a country of racial harmony, free of racial difference, for decades. But this concept completely falls apart when you take a look at the data.
Inside the numbers you will see enormous inequalities that separate white Brazilians from non-white Brazilians. These dramatic differences are exposed in whatever area you choose to look: education, salary, life expectancy, access to quality health care, the likelihood of dying from Coronavirus in 2020, or the chances of being killed by the police. I’ve already explored these ideas in numerous articles, if you’re not familiar, just click on the previous links.
One of the main holes in the idea that racial segregation can’t exist without laws mandating it can actually be found in the United States, the country most often cited as where real racism exists. While the southern states were infamous for Jim Crow legal separation of races, in northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit and numerous other cities, you could find a type of segregation that was nearly equal to that in the southern states and without such laws in place.
In fact, when you look into the history of Minneapolis, Minnesota, known for Purple People Eaters, Prince and Purple Rain and most recently the murder of George Floyd, you will discover that a blueprint for northern segregation without the necessity of laws was laid out in the early 1900s. My hometown of Detroit, Michigan, throughout my life there, was an excellent example of racial segregation. The area of northwest Detroit where I grew up was a white neighborhood in the 1940s and 50s, but by the time the 1980s rolled around, Detroit was on its way to becoming an 86% black city. Still today, in many American cities, people know where the “black part” of their city is located. This decades after the official end of Jim Crow.
In terms f Brazil, it may be true that it could never be as racially segregated as the United States, but on the other hand, one, it doesn’t have to be to keep its black population “its place” and, two, when you analyze the studies, you will find that numerous cities have quite an impressive display of segregation themselves. In fact, it’s not out of place to have a discussion about the concept of red-lining in Latin America’s largest country. Go to any major Brazilian city and you’ll note that the more upper crust or middle class a neighborhood is, the higher percentage of people with white skin and European features you will find. Coincidence? Hardly.
The city of Niterói, across the bridge from the capital of Rio de Janeiro, is known for having one of the highest Human Development Indexes in the entire country, but this high standard has sharp differences when you break it down according to race/skin color. These differences have a huge influence on how people experience the city. It’s not as simple as looking for signs of legal segregation, but rather understanding resources and who has access to what.
“A group more concentrated in peripheral neighborhoods will have less access to certain resources than people more concentrated in central neighborhoods. Such access differentials are important factors in the processes of reproduction of racial inequalities,” says sociologist Danilo França, citing the case of the state agents in the city of Rio de Janeiro restricting the access of young people from Rio’s favelas to the beaches of the city’s South Zone. Of course, it’s not legally mandated, but government enforcement agents are known to physically enforce the exclusion of the “undesirables” of the most famous and frequented beaches of Rio de Janeiro. França confirms this when he says, “This is a segregative policy since it aims to restrict the circulation of specific groups in certain spaces of the city.” And in Brazil, we know who those certain groups are.
Iris and Alessandro’s Niterói draws the map of Brazilian racial segregation
Blacks still don’t fully enjoy the quality of life indixes that make the city famous. Rates of being killed by police and life expectancy expose the gap between whites and blacks. (Laws to Produce Racial Segregation)
By Felipe Betim
Nutritionist Iris Motta, 46, and journalist Alessandro Conceição, 37, live in Niterói, a municipality 15 kilometers from the capital city of Rio de Janeiro that boasts some of the best social and economic indicators in all of Brazil. However, both live very different realities. It’s late afternoon and, like a few dozen people, Iris works out on the beach boardwalk of São Francisco, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the city. The streets are impeccably clean and a police car is on site to secure the area. “Living here is great, I feel very safe,” says Iris, who is white and lives in Canal, a middle-class neighborhood.
Some of these quality services even make it to to the Viradouro slum complex. But the daily life of Alessandro, who is black, is full of pitfalls. “Throughout my existence, occupying certain places always means generating a lot of suspicion. I know that the watchful eyes of the police saw me,” he says. The boy has been living since August 19 with a new occupation by the Military Police in his neighborhood, despite the fact that the Supreme Federal Court banned police operations in Rio’s favelas during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rio de Janeiro’s wealthy neighbor is proud to have the seventh highest Human Development Index (HDI) in the entire country. According to the IBGE, GDP per capita in 2017 was 55,000 reais in the municipality, while the entire country registered just over 31,000 reais in that same year. But the “smiling city”, as it became known because of its quality of life, also portrays a Brazil that is deeply racist. This is the conclusion that emerges from the Map of Inequality of the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro released this month by the NGO Casa Fluminense. In a previous analysis made by the journal Nexo based on data from IBGE and Brown University, Niterói appears as the city that segregates the most by the color of the skin of Brazil.
Police violence against blacks
The indices that best illustrate this reality are those of urban and police violence. In Niterói, 60% of all violent deaths in 2019 were committed by police officers from the State of Rio. Of all police victims, 88% were black, according to data from the Public Security Institute analyzed by Casa Fluminense. The percentage is even higher than in the whole of Brazil (75.4%), in the metropolitan region of Rio (79%) and in the capital of Rio de Janeiro (81%). In absolute numbers: the police killed 125 people last year in Niterói; 110 were black.
These rates are even more alarming in view of the fact that in the city blacks are a minority: they represent 35.77% of the entire population, the smallest proportion of the metropolitan region, according to the 2010 IBGE census. That year, the average percentage in the region was 52.78%. “I still live on the hill and live with murders of neighbors, acquaintances and even family members,” says Alessandro. In 2007, his brother was murdered by state agents in Campo Grande, a neighborhood in neighboring Rio de Janeiro. “I myself woke up with the police inside my house with the gun to my head. This was recurring,” he says.
The Military Police Special Operations Command has been carrying out an operation in the favelas of Viradouro, Igrejinha and Grota since August 19. According to the local press, leaders of the local drug trade wanted to impose a fee of 20,000 reais for the city to carry out infrastructure works. Alessandro explains that the improvements “are very interesting, but there is a lack of dialogue with the community”. The operation would have started at the request of Mayor Rodrigo Neves (PDT), who met with Governor Wilson Witzel. “There have already been some deaths. They are also invading the homes of residents, one of them of a girl who works at the health center. They broke everything,” the man reports. (Laws to Produce Racial Segregation)
The El País website questioned the Military Police (MP) about these accusations, in addition to the legality of the operation after the Supreme Court’s decision. The corporation limited itself to saying to list the seizure of arms “in addition to two arrests and four individuals injured in clashes rescued by health facilities”. When the operation began, Colonel Sylvio Guerra, commander of the 12th BPM, stated that the occupation of the area had been planned for a month and will have three phases, the last of which will include the installation of armored cabins at strategic points.
The Neves management explains that the operation “is part of the strategy provided for in the Niterói Pact Against Violence”, which “completed two years this month, when crime rates in the city are at the lowest rates of the last 20 years”. The city also points out that the Rio de Janeiro Public Security Institute (ISP) data point to a 90.63% drop in the violent lethality indicator in June of this year, compared to the same period in 2019. Also according to the local administration, the infrastructure works will cost 40 million reais and should start in August. They will include eight hillside containment points, “in addition to reforestation, sanitation, drainage, access requalification, cultural equipment, a social and sports inclusion park and a Digital Platform.”
In addition to police operations on the outskirts of the city, Alessandro says that he and his neighbors live under constant surveillance. “There is this thing that you must stay in your place. Going downtown means that you will be persecutes because you have a black body,” he argues, about the dynamics of the city. He also says that many end up avoiding moving through the city’s downtown or through luxurious neighborhoods like Icaraí, which has the best HDI in the entire state.
“If you didn’t come to work, then, please don’t come here.” In recent days, the arrest, in Niteró’s downtown, of the young black man Danillo Félix Vicente de Oliveira, 24, has been highlighted in the news, on charges of armed robbery. On a second visit to the police station, the victim ended up recognizing Danilo in a photograph presented to her. The family and the defense protest: they say that the photo displayed was old, from 2017, when he didn’t even have the dreadlocks in his hair that he now displays, and that they didn’t even look for cameras at the theft site. “They arrested him only with the victim’s word. It’s a case of racism,” protests his wife, Ana Beatriz Sobral, speaking to the UOL website. Ana Beatriz started a petition on the Internet to free him from jail.
Investments in culture and sanitation
Iris, however, doesn’t know what it’s like to be approached by the police. “No, nothing, nothing, nothing,” she replies, when asked about the topic. “I feel really safe. With this security program in place, it got even better.” For her, living in Niterói is synonymous with having many options for services around her and especially quality of life. The study by Casa Fluminense corroborates this perception and shows some indexes of which the Niteroians are most proud: it is the only municipality in which 100% of its 500,000 inhabitants have water supply and 97.7% have sewage collected and treated, according to data from 2018 of the State Environmental Institute (INEA) used by the study – nine municipalities in the metropolitan region, such as Japeri, have 0% of sewage collected and treated by sanitation companies.
In addition, the Neves management is the one that most invests in culture in the region: in 2018, it allocated 1.55% of its budget to the sector. “We have the Museum of Modern Art, the Teatro Popular (Popular Theater) … Here we see that things are in place. Urban cleaning, lighting, everything,” says Iris. People live on average until 70 years of age, which also makes it a city with the highest longevity index in the metropolitan region, whose average is 66 years old – Brazil’s is 65.
In the same city, however, the difference in average age at death between whites and blacks is 13 years, the biggest discrepancy in the metropolitan region verified by the study of Casa Fluminense. This means that the black population lives, on average, 57 years. “My grandmother died at the age of 72, which is a lot. But she was a domestic worker and her entire life was dedicated to taking care of white people,”says Alessandro. “She took care of a white person who died at the age of 99. Perhaps my grandmother could have lived much longer if she didn’t have to take care of someone who died at 99.”
Vitor Mihessen, one of the study’s coordinators, argues that, although Niterói presents good results, “when we racialize the data we see that this quality of life does not include the population as a whole”. In Brazil, this difference in average age at death between whites and blacks is eight years; in the metropolitan region of Rio it’s ten years. “The social structures determined for this population define who lives and who dies the most. It’s the consequence of this broad scenario of the lack of access to health, assistance, education … All of this is accumulated in middle age when dying,” adds the coordinator.
Despite its highly praised urban infrastructure, Niterói also appears as the champion of environmental tragedies in the metropolitan region of Rio. The city registered 188 deaths between 2010 and 2019 due to landslides, storms and floods, Petropolis (108) and the capital (69) leading the way. Alessandro and his family were one of the victims of the city’s most well-known landslides, which occurred in 2010 in Morro do Bumba and in other favelas in the city after a severe storm.
“Our house in Complexo do Viradouro fell and we had to live with family members. I went to live with my grandmother and my mother went to live with her sister. So our family nucleus separated as of 2010,” says Alessandro, for whom the tragedy is not just the result of an environmental catastrophe. He speaks of “environmental racism”, since these slum territories are inhabited mainly by the black population that has historically been spatially segregated from urban space.
“The memories are of desolation, of being shattered, homeless and lost. They are memories of material goods going downhill. And we also don’t have that family nucleus,”explains Alessandro. “We always need to be rebuilding life, always starting from scratch. It wears you out, makes you tense, you can never rest.”
Despite everything, Alessandro recognizes that some public services are well structured even for the black population that lives in the slums. “Some receive more investment than others, but I see education as quite universal. In the area of health, any community has family doctors and works very well.” He also recognizes the city’s work in the cultural sector, as well as the effort to prevent coronavirus in the peripheries. “Nobody here is saying that there are no wonderful rates in terms of sewage or quality of life, but we still see that the black population is dying more. Whether by Covid-19 or in police operations. And these deaths follow the same logic of extermination of the population ”. (Laws to Produce Racial Segregation)
Questioned by the El País website on the subject, the city of Niterói points out that it created the Special Coordination of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality (Ceppir). “The municipal body has a service to assist people who are victims of racism and racial injury, with legal guidance for referral to the competent bodies for investigation, in addition to carrying out campaigns to raise awareness of rights,” explains the Neves management. The city’s first Municipal Council for Racial Equality was also created, with representatives of the Government and civil society to promote and control the implementation of municipal public policies in the area of Racial Equality. The city highlights the sanction on July 30th of the law that regulates quotas for preto (black) and pardo (brown) candidates in civil service exams in the municipality, with a reserve of vacancies of 20%.