Note from BBT: It’s been about a week and a half since the murder of João Alberto Freitas, a 40-year old black man in a Carrefour supermarket garage in Porto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Freitas was murdered the day before the annual commemoration of the Day of Black Consciousness. Freitas being murdered the day before a national holiday that commemorates the historic struggle of Brazil’s black population isn’t the only irony of this situation.
As a colleague reminded me after the incident, Porto Alegre is a city where the idea of celebrating November 20th as an important date in the Afro-Brazilian struggle for equality took shape. In 1971, a group of 12 black Brazilians met at Clube Náutico Marcílio Dias (club) and began to discuss the idea of commemorating the date.
The club where they met had been founded in 1949 when other clubs throughout Porto Alegre didn’t accepted Afro-Brazilians. The idea emerged from discussion between four university students that created the Grupo Palmares (Palmares Group), a cultural association that promoted the study of Afro-Brazilian history.
During these discussions, the group questioned the legitimacy of celebrating May 13th as had been the custom in Brazil in recognition of the abolition of slavery that took place on that date in 1888. The group came up with the date of November 20 in memory of the assassination of Zumbi dos Palmares, the 17th century quilombo (maroon society) leader that led Afro-Brazilian resistance against oppression and slavery for 95 years in the state of Alagoas.
Porto Alegre, like many other Brazilian cities, had practiced an unwritten policy that discriminated against Afro-Brazilians barring blacks from participating in social clubs, and futebol (soccer) teams. Today, the population of Porto Alegre is about 80% white and 20% black/brown. Rio Grande do Sul state is part of a southern region of the country that includes the states of Santa Catarina and Paraná that is considered the most European region of the country not only due to its white majority but also its cultural history and invisibility of the black historical presence.
Visiting areas of Porto Alegre today, a sort of unofficial racial segregation it is clearly visible in that there are neighborhoods in which the white population ranges between 88% to 97% of the residents. In terms of the racial inequality according to the Human Development Index (HDI), Porto Alegre ranks number one among Brazilian capital cities. Some of the data supports this ranking. In Porto Alegre, blacks have lower life expectancy at birth, lower per capita income, higher rates of child mortality, higher rates of illiteracy and lower rates of schooling.
In the index of Brazil’s most racially segregated cities, Porto Alegre also comes in first place among Brazilian capital cities with a dissimilarity index of 38.9. In Porto Alegre, as in other Brazilian cities, you won’t find levels of racial segregation as in the US where cities such as Chicago and New York have dissimilarity index percentages in the low 80s.
But still it is intriguing that cities such as Nitéroi, Santos, Vitória and Porto Alegre have measureable levels of segregation without any of the Jim Crow laws that once existed in the US south. In fact, looking at the current situation in the US, of the 10 most racially segregated cities, seven are in the north, which debunks the idea that segregation laws are necessary to divide a city along lines of race.
In comparison, we have a state such as Minnesota in the north of United States that consistently ranks as one of the best states to live in the country but in which other reports show us that its Twin Cities of St.Paul-Minneapolis rank as the fourth worst metropolitan area for African-Americans to live in. Reports also show that Minnesota has some of the highest racial disparities in the US.
Interestingly, Minneapolis also has a history of redlining through the use of racial covenents in a manner that one documentary labeled as “Jim Crow North”. These covenants in which whites signed deals declaring they would not sell their properties to non-whites, specifically black families, effectively segregated African-Americans into certain regions of the city. Although these covenants were common in the first half of the 20th century, in 1953, the state of Minnesota prohibited such covenants. Today, the effects of such practices can still be seen in Minneapolis where the economic gap between black and white is higher than any other major city in America.
I present these facts as an intro to the backgrounds of two cities in the United States and Brazil in which black men (George Floyd and João Alberto Freitas) were violently murder after having a white security agent kneel on them for several minutes as they gasped to breathe. The history and racial inequality in Minneapolis was constructed upon the privilege and defense of whiteness. Porto Alegre, as one writer tells us, is the capital of a state in which many residents don’t even consider themselves Brazilians, but rather Europeans. A concept that one would think couldn’t exist in a country like Brazil where we are constantly told “race doesn’t matter”, citizens are “not black or white, but just Brazilians” and where everyone believes “we are all equal”.
European pride explains open racism in Rio Grande do Sul, says writer
By Diogo Schelp
For the first time in the 66 years of the history of the greatest literary event in Rio Grande do Sul, a black writer, Jeferson Tenório, was honored. In an interview, Tenório said that the death of a black man, João Alberto Freitas, 40, in a unit of the Carrefour supermarket in the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, on Thursday (19), is the consequence of an environment in which there is a predominance of a very straightforward and wide-open racist speech.
Tenório was born in Rio de Janeiro and moved to Rio Grande do Sul at the age of 14. “In Rio de Janeiro, I had never been approached by the police. When I arrived here, already in the following month I suffered a violent approach, together with friends, on a soccer field. Since then, there have been twelve more police approaches,”says Tenório.
“From my perception, the root of racism in the state lies in the pride that one has in European origin. Especially in the interior, where many don’t even consider themselves Brazilian, they consider themselves European. It is a culture of reinforcing stereotypes,” says Tenório.
Stereotypes, by the way, that are “exported” and absorbed as real by the other regions of Brazil. “Few people know, but about 40% of the population of Porto Alegre is black and here is the second place with most umbanda houses in the country, behind Bahia,” says the writer.
“This feeling of pride of European origin ends up being reflected in Porto Alegre and creates an environment of invisibility for the black population,” says Tenório. “There are prestigious spaces, places or elite neighborhoods that blacks don’t have access to here.” According to a study by Ipea (Institute of Applied Economic Research) released in 2017, Porto Alegre is the Brazilian capital with the greatest inequality between whites and blacks, according to the criteria of the MHDI (Municipal Human Development Index).
Tenório says, for example, that he avoids going to Moinhos Shopping, located in Moinhos de Vento, an upscale neighborhood in the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, so as not to be uncomfortable with the security guards at the establishment.
Jeferson Tenório says that many people from Porto Alegre are not even ashamed of being racist. “In a job interview, when I was young, the interviewer told me without embarrassment that he didn’t like black people,” he recalls.
“This very direct speech is transforming the environment and reaches the point where a black man is killed in a supermarket in those conditions,” says Tenório.
There are hopes, however. This year, five blacks (four women and one man) were elected to the Porto Alegre City Council. In 2016, only one black councilor had been elected. “It’s still little, but it’s already a step forward in the anti-racist discussion. It’s the result of a unity of black and white people who are concerned with the anti-racist agenda,”says Tenório.
This advance doesn’t occur without resistance. After Sunday’s election, an audio circulated in WhatsApp groups in which Valter Nagelstein (PSD – Social Democratic Party)), defeated the candidate for the Porto Alegre city hall, criticized the profile of the elected councilors in the following terms: “We just need to see the composition of the Chamber, five councilors of the PSOL. Many of them young, blacks. I mean, the echo of that speech that PSOL keeps instilling in people’s heads. People, councilors without any political tradition, without any experience, without any work and with very little formal qualification.”
The five black councilors elected in Porto Alegre are from left-wing parties, but not all from Psol, as stated by Nagelstein, who in the campaign sought the Bolsonaro vote. Two are from PSOL (Socialism and Freedom Party), two from PCdoB (Communist Party of Brazil) and one from PT (Workers Party). Later, in an interview with the G1 website, Nagelstein said that there was no prejudice in his speech, only the finding of “a fact”.
As Jeferson Tenório says – who besides being a writer is a professor of language and literature in the public network in Porto Alegre – the fight against racism still has a long way to go in Rio Grande do Sul.