Racism on Rio’s beaches: Residents don’t want poor blacks there “dirtying up the beaches”

Lineup of youth accused of an arrastão in Rio. Photo taken from Veja magazine, November 20, 1996
Lineup of youth accused of an arrastão in Rio. Photo taken from Veja magazine, November 20, 1996

Note from BW of Brazil: In the news lately have been reports of confusions on some of Rio de Janeiro’s world famous beaches. The controversy surrounds the confusion caused by the infamous “arrastão”, which has been translated has “dragnet”. This article will consistently use the term arrastão (plural arrastões). An arrastão can be described as a practice in which a gang of people on a beach suddenly begin to create confusion by grabbing personal items of strangers and quickly escaping from the area. This beach facet of beach life is not new and has been regularly featured or reported in the Brazilian media since at least 1992. Last week, the American but failed to touch upon a number of important elements in explaining the social implications that come along with the arrastão. This report features elements of a study by Livio Sansone and Carlos Nobre (2000).

“People think that blacks on the beach will do an arrastão. They call blacks from the subúrbio farofeiros (1) and thieves that are going to do arrastões, and what happens? This exchange of offenses begins to happen (…) how will the people from Zona Norte react? They say like this: the lady has to back off because the beach is for everybody (…) sometimes, when things take a particular shape, the two groups, Zona Norte and Zona Sul (North and South Zone), throw sand at each other.” (officer of the Batalhão de Policiamento Turístico, Bptur or Battalion of Tourist Policing)

Note from BW of Brazil: Life in Rio de Janeiro is strongly segregated along lines of class and race; not in the legal means such as that practiced in apartheid era South Africa or Jim Crow America, but socially enforced segregation with strong meanings associated to race and color. As has been covered in previous articles here dealing with class, one must first understand the term suburbio in the Brazilian context means “outskirts” of a city; the poorer areas of cities, the periferia (periphery) (including favelas or slums) where the city’s poorer residents live. There are strong, negative connotations and stereotypes associated with persons who live in the suburbio/periferia/favela.

When speaking geographically of Rio de Janeiro, people normally speak of zonas (zones) and different zones bring to mind different images of persons who live in these regions. Nieghborhoods such as Mangueira, Jacarezinho, Vaz Lobo, Sampaio, Costa Barros, Parada de Lucas and Vigário Geral, for example, are six of the ten poorest areas located in Zona Norte (North Zone). To have an idea of poverty levels, average monthly income in Manguiera is under R$500 (US$213). 63% of residents in these neighborboods define themselves as preto or pardo. On the other hand, Copacabana, Leblon, Ipanema, Lagoa, Botafogo and Flamengo are located in Zona Sul and these areas have the largest number of residents that earn R$16.350 (or US$6,960) per month. These areas are overwhelmingly white.

Persons of Brazil’s middle and upper classes associate favelados (slum dwellers) and persons from suburbio/periferia areas with crime, drug trafficking, low social morals, murder, lack of education and the musical style known as funk (2). It goes without saying that this image is mostly associated with persons of varying degrees of brown skin (pretos/blacks and pardos/browns, also known as negros or afrodescendentes). Being isolated from the prime areas of the city, residents from the suburbio are often harassed when they attempt to access the chic, modern areas of the middle classes, such as malls and beaches. As one could expect, while they are generally denied access to such areas, it doesn’t mean they completely accept this social exclusion. Speaking of young people from these areas, Sansone and Nobre report:

Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, November 2013.
Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, November 2013.

This young public – between 13 and 18 years of age – who took the scene of leisure on the beaches refused go without leisure options of the subúrbio, roasting in the summer in the streets, in the squares and tiny rooms their houses. They wanted to take advantage of the best in the public sector and have the same behavior of the identical public of their life and age, ie, they wanted to have the same behaviors of consumption and use of public spaces as the youth from Zona Sul. They were people who did not bring the sophisticated, educated and stylish profile in the strictest sense of these categories of social identity. They descend from the overcrowded bus terminals of Zona Sul, dressed in shorts/modest swimsuits, and arrived on the sand and in groups and in general eat soft drinks and hot dogs. These “new” beach-goers, are mostly negros (blacks) ou mestiços (pardos or mixed race).

This public has become adept at a kind of entertainment called “baile funk” that, on the weekends, brings together in the metropolitan region of Rio, thousands of young people who will dance to the sound of a strong and very rhythmic musical style. They’re called “funkeiros” or “funk groups” by the population. Bold in their actions, in particular their objectives, deprived in relation to public spaces, and they, at times, are engaged regularly in violence as provokers or as victims. In 1992, they definitely gained a reputation that persecutes them even today – practicing the “arrastão” (dragnet) on the beaches – a model of widespread theft against sunbathers on the sand – when they were filmed by television running in the middle of bathers practicing robberies in groups of 20-30 people.

Municipal guard arrest a man alleged to have participated in an "arrastão". Rio de Janeiro, December 2012
Municipal guard arrest a man alleged to have participated in an “arrastão”. Rio de Janeiro, December 2012

Note from BW of Brazil: Matters of class and race are often intertwined in studies of a socioeconomic nature but those who continuously argue against the existence of racial associations with issues of class often simply ignore the belief systems that clearly connect physical appearance with class membership. In this next section, the authors provide evidence contrary to the widely disseminated idea that only social class matters in Brazil.

According to the praças (officers or sargeants) of the two units (of Copacabana beach), “the people of Zona Sul don’t like to mingle with people from the Zona Norte.” IE, the rich, the successful, in view of the praças, don’t want to share a much revered public space (the beach) with members of other worlds of the city. In this sense, it is possible to perceive in the discourse of Zona Sul – in a translation by a black police officer – racial and geographic bias that are becoming clearer every summer when the flow of subúrbio residents increases to the beaches. Praças and officers end up being complaint counters of beach residents against the subúrbio presence. These (from the suburbia), according to police who work on the waterfront, are mostly blacks and mestiços. And the complaints end up coming out openly in several manners. One is clearly visible in the evaluation of the police: the resident does not want the presence of the black suburbanites and accepts the white suburbanites as summarized here by one of our interviewees:

“What are they doing here? Why not build a pool in the neighborhood where they live? These people can not come here dirtying up our beaches, our environment, our peace. This is told to us with clarity and much intensity. I’ve already heard this several times and there is a very important racial data given because suburbanites are visibly black people (…) because the locals aren’t bothered with the presence of white suburbanites ( … ).”

Note from BW of Brazil: This point is of great importance. Here, according to police registering complaints from residents, inhabitants of Zona Sul have no problem with lower class persons who look white. It is the group of lower class blacks that attracts their hostility. In the opinion of another officer:

“The police know that if white people come to the beach – with the European standard of beauty – these people do not suffer any harassment by the residents of the Zona Sul.” (Bptur officer)

An officer who participated in the discussions on a proposal (to create barriers to impede suburbanite access to the beach), explains:

“They (the residents of Copacabana) incisively want barriers to be created so that these subúrbio people don’t come there (…) there hovers a desire of this white population of Zona Sul, a clear desire of suburbanites not to come to the beach (…) this culture of veiled racism does not allow them to clearly say: we do not want blacks here. Nobody says that. They say they do not want troublemakers, farofeiros.”

Civil police operation put minors accused of an "arrastão" into a police truck. Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, January 2010
Civil police operation put minors accused of an “arrastão” into a police truck. Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, January 2010

Note from BW of Brazil: In the comments below, another interesting aspect of race relations in elite areas comes to the fore: discrimination by black residents against blacks who come to the beach from Zona Norte.

One of the officers – a Major with a Masters in Criminal Justice observed that most observed the strained race relations at the beach reported with no doubts that blacks from Copacabana also want black suburbanites to be excluded from the sands. With this behavior, the black Copacabana resident joins local groups because he is not discriminated against like the suburbanites and is even included in the white world of his neighborhood. In the testimonial of our informant:

“( … ) The black local, even living in a favela, is in Zona Sul. It’s another geographical, social situation. So, because of living in the south zone, he incorporates the vision of the whites…he with others starts harassing suburbanites. “Blacks who live in the south support the segregationist attitudes of whites because they want to be included in that group. Because they demonstrate in a a clear way, that they want to participate, they want to be included in the mundo dos brancos (white world), not of the rich whites, but the whites of Zona Sul ( … ) this gives a him certain status, he feels included, (that) he is not left out.”

In truth, blacks in Zona Sul do not want to maintain the traditional profile of the black Brazilian: poor, from the favela, humiliated and without important padrinhos (godfathers or sponsors, usually white) (3) to open their paths to well-being. What would happen in case they stood against the segregationist measures and opted for a democratic discourse of enjoyment of the beach by all social classes? In our view, he, the black Zona Sul resident, would suffer a process of divestment of the close relations that he maintains in the neighborhood, as it is he was already was against the very community to which he belongs and placing priority on the racial identity of his worldview. He substantiates an “alliance” in the neighborhood, which, in a sense, already allows him to exert some positive aspects of citizenship as being on the beach and not be repressed as a “stranger” in the Zona Sul group. In this sense, in group and region conflict, the defense of a racial identity on the part of the black Zona Sul resident tends to become ideological weapons against themselves, as this is an essentially politicized racial identity. That is, under these conditions, in this climate and environment of this mutual distrust and rejection, assuming one’s blackness increases conditions of conflict between the various groups that are vying for territory leisure. Whoever ends up also being in a difficult situation is the black cop of ostensible beach service when bathers require him to remove the suburbanites from the beach on the grounds that they, the outsiders, are participating in vandalism and hooliganism on the sand.

Note from BW of Brazil: As we can see here, there is a strong current of black Brazilians who align themselves with white ideologies even not being white or rich. This substantiates the view of many Afro-Brazilian militants who believe that black Brazilians (because of racial denial and the interiorizing of white supremacy) are often their own worst enemies. This question of allegiance is not only an issue of those blacks who frequent the beach in hours of leisure but  presents black policemen with a challenging dilemma as well.

As one officer said, the police realize that the occurrence is not criminal but racial.

“And the black cop, in such a situation, is extremely vulnerable because if he abides by the law, he is not doing anything against people who use their constitutional right to go to the beach, it is because he is black and blacks don’t combat blacks. Then there are situations where people say this: we’ll call the white officers to see if he resolves this (…) the black cop wants to fulfill the law, but the problem is he also identifies himself as part of the black racial group.”

“One thing I can figure – and for the fact of my being black and sometimes having gone there to help in these conflicts – that white population says: Hey, if these guys are not from here, why don’t you boot them out? And when they ask why I did not put the blacks from Zona Norte out, they want to say this: you didn’t boot them out because you are black and blacks don’t put blacks out. I say: I don’t put them out because they are people who enjoy a constitutional right to be on this beach that is quite public for common use. Now, whether from Zona Norte or Zona Sul, they could do things wrong, and be arrested if they commit crimes. They will never be arrested for not committing crimes and never will have their freedoms curtailed if not for reason of strict legality” (Bptur officer)

Source: Ad Vivo, Sansone, Livio and Carlos Nobre. “O Negro na Polícia Militar fluminense: ascensão social e relações raciais dentro de uma das principais empregadoras do estado do Rio de Janeiro.” ANPOCS, 2000.


1. Groups of people that arrive on the beach generally in buses or vans.

2. A number of articles on this blog touch on “funk carioca“, and the image of favelas, periferias and the suburbio. These concepts are discussed in greater detail in a review of the 2012 television series Suburbia.

3. A reflection of a long standard of racial relations in Brazilian society. Back in 1955, writing about relations between blacks and whites in São Paulo, sociologist Roger Bastide wrote that “there was the necessity of the interference and protection of an influential, white godfather/mentor for the negro to obtain a good job” and to overcome society’s barriers.

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


  1. This is the type of nonsense I plan to help stamp out. Here’s the deal, in America no African-Americans live near beaches that are close to low income areas. The one exception might be some of the beaches of the eastern seaboard say New Jersey.

    Whites are often very upfront about not having people of color in their areas, in no so many words to not sound bigoted.

    Much of the same language, they are crime-ridden and troublemakers.

    This is something that needs to be stopped and White Brazilians need to be clued in that they are just as bad if not in some cases worse than racist morons that occupy the Southeastern US and hang out on forums like Stormfront.

  2. Anthony,

    While I will agree with you about your most post, to say that racism exists only in the South isn’t true. Being from there, the racism isn’t any more prevalent there than it is in other regions of the U.S. the only difference is that Southern bigots are more vocal with theirs, while non-Southerners are more tricky . Even as a Southerner ,the bigotry in South is nothing compared to what I’m hearing about in Brazil. As a Southern Black person, I promise you it isn’t that bad.

    I’m from Georgia. I’m familiar with the beaches from my state (Tybee Island, St. Simons Island)to Virginia and I know for a fact that Black people get on the same beaches with Whites and all just remain there until they are tired of being on it. I’ve never seen anybody ban Blacks because of who they are on Southern beaches. Maybe in the Jim Crow,but not now. This is not to say that racism don’t exists in the South..of course it does,but I’m equally as weary of racism elsewhere away from the there because nobody stereotypes them as being racist.

    • What we Latin Americans see as crime control. you Americans see as “racism”. That’s why America is waaaay more fucked up racially than Latin America ever will be….You crackers take the cake when it comes to institutionalized racism.

  3. i didn’t know that poor blacks don’t live near US beaches….maybe that is because I live in Jersey so i def see how some of the beaches down here are like Asbury Park. But I’m gonna research that such an interesting post

    • I heard that there are Blacks living in Compton who have never been to the beach…smh…I come from the Caribbean (Barbados to be exact) and those beaches have been the subject of discussion as resort after resort tries to make it as private as possible…Barbados has so far resisted privatized beaches and I hope that they continues to implement this.

    • Poor Persons in general can’t afford private beachfront property, but poor Blacks and Hispanics do live near beaches,IE: Far Rockaway in NY. there are Housing Projects right near the beach and Boardwalk, the irony there is that a lot do not like to frequent the beach or swim there.

    • You guys go at night and we go by day. How’s that ? And y’all piss and shit in the water, steal and cause trouble. I’m not racist, I just tell it like it is.

  4. Thanks for posting this article BWB. A long time ago, I had this fantasy that Brazil was the racism-less nation. I had not been there yet, but I, young, thought “Oh, the culture there is so mixed, everyone is accepting of the other. Of course I didn’t stop to think that my own country of the United States is multiethnic yet racism exist. I’ve been to Brazil three times in the past ten years, This first time was a two-week vacation in Floripa, SC. I was with a friend. I was sheltered. The second and third time I was in Bahia. It was the second time where I was pretty much on my own, unsheltered and free to observe things for myself that I knew that Brazil was no better than the United States when it came to issues of race and economic inequalities. Is this site created by an organization or group. How can I learn more about BWB and its purpose?

  5. What a load of crap this post is. There’re tons of black or at least partially black people in zona sul in Rio and they aren’t seen as different by any means, what people over there are tired of and can’t tolerate are criminals, no matter what race, you are trying to compare Brazil to what you are used to see in the usa. The divide in Brazil is a lot more social economic than racial, if it was in the us, they would of build a freeway parallel to the beach so no poor people, read black, could cross it. People in brazil dont stereotype races nearly as much, not that racism isn’t there, but when racism occurs its a lot more linked to your social status. Brazilians don’t see themselves in a divided country like the states, “white America”, “African American” brazilians have one culture, we don’t have a BET channel for instance, even why because with so much mixing(not only black and white) it would be hard to draw a line.

    • Thank you very much! I will add you to the list of those either “in denial” or who prefer to point the finger at the US while ignoring the facts out of Brazil. The two articles about the beach use citations from scholars who have studied the situation and the analysis have NOTHING to do with the US. I suppose you also want to ignore a recent study showing that police in Sao Paulo kill three more blacks in whites, right? There’s no BET in Brazil, so I suppose that’s a good thing too, right? Hardly any black people on Brazilian TV and that’s OK with you, after all, having a channel for blacks is racist while seeing only whites on TV is acceptable…Thanks for your comment! It’s actually because of folks like you that this information is necessary!

      • Face it wherever blacks are on the planet non blacks don’t want to be around them. They just don’t and with good reason. I could list the reasons but we all know what they are. Suffice to say that wherever blacks are they’re problematic in numerous ways. If that makes the rest of us racist then so be it. We should be able to live among people we want to be with and shouldn’t have to have people we don’t want to be around forced on us. I don’t think being “racist” is necessarily a bad thing.

  6. Firstly, black people do live near beaches in American and I’m one of them, and I’m not talking about million dollar homes either. Here in south Florida, you can get a condo literally within walking distance of the beach, right across the bridge, for under 150K. Also, just 3-4 miles from there are many low income black neighborhoods. Now there are multi-million dollar homes and condo as well. And for the Brazilian comments, what you call crime control is in fact and institutionalize phrase for black crowd control. Brazil’s racism in fact is even more institutionalized which is why black Brazilians have far far far less upward mobility and opportunities that black Americans, especially where higher education is concerned.

  7. This text is very biased. It is a text that does not tell the truth. Young people from Rio de Janeiro ‘s favelas are not prohibited from attending the beaches . Just visit the RJ to check that I’m telling the truth. Prohibited black youths down the hill are those who are carrying illicit drugs, weapons like knives , pocket knives , and whose purpose is to commit crimes. City dwellers are tired of so much violence . These young black men do not accept the state’s opportunities , they do not want to study , work and inspire us dealers as role models . The problem in Brazil goes far beyond the simplistic text conlusão . Social inequality stems from the intense immigration, corruption and various other factors that are unrelated to racism.

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