Note from BW of Brazil: I was first exposed to the history of eugenics in Brazil by way of the book Diploma of Whiteness: Race and Social Policy in Brazil, 1917-1945 by Jerry Dávila. If you read this book and discover the racist thought that went into the development of the Brazilian educational system and the nation’s own contribution to the eugenics movement, you will once again ask yourself how it is that Brazil managed to skate relatively undetected in terms of countries that are considered racist. While history has long focused on countries such as the United States, South Africa and WWII era Germany, no one would have thought of adding Brazil to that list. After all, Brazil is the land of the ‘racial democracy’ where the vast majority of the population is mixed and proud of it, right? Well, needless to say, there’s a lot more to it.
When I first started learning about Brazil’s history, it was quite easy to debunk the idea that the country was ever a racial democracy, but somewhere along the way, I also discovered that there’s much more to the reasons for such widespread racial amalgamation than simply love and even the idea that simply because there are many interracial couples this automatically means there is a lack of racism. Racism in America’s medical system has been a topic of discussion for a number of years now, and now I’m beginning to see more academics put Brazil’s medical system under the magnifying glass. Whether we’re talking about Brazilian style eugenics, the treatment of pregnant black Brazilian women or the under-representation of Afro-Brazilians having access to medical careers, this area is ripe for deeper study as scholars have really only scratched the surface of the topic. For now, check out a few of links on this blog and stayed tuned in the future because there’s sure to be much more exposed.
The racism in medicine in Brazil
Courtesy of Carta Capital
Brazilian medicine has a racist past; eradicating it is still a huge challenge.
Eugenics was a very fashionable theory at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, which advocated non miscegenation of races as a solution to strengthening them. Its popularity continued strong until the middle of the last century, when the horrors practiced by Nazism and the discovery of DNA – showing that the genetic code of individuals is not determined by the color of the skin – led to ostracism.
Before that, however, it was so respected that it helped shape the way Brazilian medicine was structured. Worse: many of its racist mannerisms endure to this day. Complaints of racial prejudice involving physicians are common. And these ideas, regrettably, tend to welcome prospective physicians as soon as they enter the colleges: episodes of racist pranks in newly enrolled students in institutions are frequent.
“Health was the gateway to eugenics theories in Brazil and if Brazilian racism has a certain shape, who gave this configuration was the field of health,” says researcher Mônica Gonçalves, author of the master thesis “Raça e saúde: concepções, antíteses e antinomia na atenção básica” (Race and health: conceptions, antitheses and antinomy in basic care) about the impact of prejudice in medical care.
Such theories arrived in Brazil in 1914, according to the historian Lilia Schwarcz, and were studied and improved in the Faculty of Medicine of Rio de Janeiro. Renato Kehl – later named the father of eugenics in Brazil – and the famous Doctor Arnaldo (who became the name of an important avenue in São Paulo), founder of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of São Paulo and a member of the eugenics society of the state.
The support given by Doctor Arnaldo’s theory is symbolic and illustrates the roots of the country’s medical science. Mônica Gonçalves, a master in psychology, spoke with CartaCapital about the impacts that racism and social inequality have on medicine in Brazil until today and affirms that it’s not possible to “disconnect medicine from the historical place it occupies”
CartaCapital: What struck you most in the search results?
Mônica Gonçalves: That people still understand race as a biological thing. Everyone believes that. People also believe that race influences insofar as black and white people living in different social conditions. At the same time they don’t fail to believe that race is something inherent and I, being black, have an artery different from whites. And another thing that draws attention is that there is, in (medical) training, something that allows them to think about race, although this has an impact on the practice. And since there’s no way to escape the race, they use common sense.
CC: And why do you think racism persists?
MG: Our society is structured by racism. The health professional is only one in this chain. It can operate by chain or not, and in general they operate. Plus there’s a a certain lack of knowledge as well. And there are people who are racist period.
CC: And how do you see racism in health?
MG: It’s a very antithetical position. Racism is not about evil, about being good or bad. There are people who are good and at the same time operate a machine that discriminates.
CC: What do you think will happen with health in the (President elect Jair) Bolsonaro government?
MG: I don’t even have words. It’s an announced tragedy. The distance between the black population and the white population will increase even more and we’ll go back to dying from things that we didn’t die from any more.
CC: But do you think the Basic Health System was advancing in recent years?
MG: No. The great advance of SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde or Unified Health System) was having been created. We have to defend SUS, but it can not be uncritical. We have made advances, such as mental health policy, treatment of HIV, AIDS and hepatitis, for example. But they are policies that don’t work without investment and SUS funding has not increased. The focus is on hospital care, which is very lucrative because it has a lot of equipment. In basic attention you need people, knowledge and social transformation.
CC: And do you think that Brazilian professionals are prepared to practice medicine that needs more people than equipment?
MG: Brazilian doctors are definitely not ready. And the Mais Médicos (More Doctors program) was only thought of because of this. And they are not only not prepared from the point of view of academic formation, but also of symbolic formation. Medicine is still an elite profession and these people have a life project, they don’t do medicine as a state project. They do it because they want to earn money, status, or want to belong to a group. Not that they don’t want to help people, but not without giving up this precedent.
CC: And what is the role of quotas in changing the profile of the Brazilian doctor?
MG: It’s very important. I really believe in quotas. There are those who criticize it saying that people are only thrown in there. That’s it. You throw people there. Were we not thrown on the navio negreiro (slave ship)? That’s it. Now we’re here and we were thrown in the university. Much better, understand?
Source: Carta Capital