Revisiting the black Brazilian middle class of 1999

With recent reports about the surge of Brazil’s black middle class and its buying power in the past decade, we thought it would be interesting to rewind the clock and take a look at how Brazil’s black middle class was portrayed 13 years ago, in August of 1999. In this thirteen year period a few brow-raising stats popped out in comparison between the 1999 report and a recent report from this month. The most significant were the black representation of Brazil’s middle class (class C) jumping from about 33% in 1999 to 53% in 2012 and Afro-Brazilian buyer power jumping from R$50 billion reais (about US$26 billion in 1999) to about R$673 billion reais (about US$336 billion) in 2012, a nearly 13 fold jump! Incredible numbers! 

As experts who have been making comparisons between the positions of Afro-Brazilians and African-Americans in their respective societies for a number of years, the general consensus is that the black Brazilian population is about 30-40 years behind many of social and civil rights gains made by black Americans from the mid-60s to the early 80s. In a sense, black Brazilians seem to be currently experiencing their own “movin’ on up” phase as so fittingly portrayed by the theme song of the 1970/80s CBS sitcom “The Jeffersons”. 

Feel free to refer back to our recent articles on black Brazilian buying power and our recent piece on the emergence of the black Brazilian middle class in the past decade to give the 1999 article some perspective. With this in mind, let’s rewind the clock back to August of 1999. 

Afro Brazilians


Group of Afro-Brazilians of the Grupo Planus business consulting firm in Rio

Source: Época

A classe média negra
Daniela Pinheiro
Veja Magazine, August 18, 1999

Of every six blacks within the Brazilian social pyramid, five are improving their lives

The plastic surgeon from the state of Minas Gerais, Odo Adão, is 63 years old, successful (he charges R$6000-8000 dollars per operation) and black. When you compare the challenges that he faced to get where he is with what blacks of today, Adão identifies a breakthrough: “You can’t say that blacks are experiencing a spectacular moment today because prejudice exists and society will have to advance a lot to correct that. What I perceive, however, is that something new is happening. Doors are beginning to open with less resistance for those who are competent. And that’s a victory,” he said.

Director of the Hospital do Câncer of Uberaba and the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgery, a friend of world-renown plastic/reconstructive surgeon Ivo Pitanguy (1), Adão was the first black student in the history of the school from which he graduated, the Faculdade de Medicina do Triângulo Mineiro. He was also one of the first black Brazilians to do specialization in oncology abroad (Houston, Texas). The fact of being an exception at every stage of his life is a matter of personal pride. His father worked as a laborer in the construction of railroads across the countryside and his mother was a housewife. During his career, Adãohas faced all sorts of prejudice. On one occasion a Customs officer tried to stop him from traveling to Europe. “He kept asking me how I had managed to buy the airline ticket,” recalls Adão. “Today, I feel this has decreased significantly. Finally, with the increasing number of successful black professionals in various areas, the number of blacks who travel abroad also increased.”

Adão, the first black doctor to graduate at his university and Conceição: Beat out a white male competitor for her position

The perception of change that Dr. Adão has about the reality of blacks in the country is supported by significant data. A recent study released by the Institute of Applied Economic Research, IPEA, an agency of the Ministry of Planning, shows that the black middle class of Brazilian capital cities had a relative growth of 10% over the last seven years. Relative growth means that the black middle class has a 10% higher slice than it had in mid-1992. “It’s a significant contingent of people entering the labor and consumer market,” says economist Marcelo Neri, one of the authors of the study. It is estimated that the black middle class moves nearly 50 billion reais annually (worth about US$26 billion in 1999) , and is growing. The result is that it is becoming a frequent scene to find a black girl in the VIP room of the airport or a black man waiting at table in a five-star restaurant. Until very recently, this was a privilege reserved for black artists or athletes. According to a recent survey prepared by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, IBGE, of each group of ten blacks, four are stuck in the social ladder. Of the six that have social mobility, five are moving up.

Another indicator is that the advertising market has awaken to this new segment. Recently, Itaú, the second largest private bank in the country, has launched a campaign in which a black customer speaks of the benefits of opening an account at the institution. “Whoever closes his eyes to blacks will become a fossil. Today there is no room for jokes or racist attitudes. Blacks have money and pay for the products they want,” says the publicist Nizan Guanaes, who was responsible for the ad. Everywhere, one can see black models promoting products that only recently were consumed only by a select group with white skin: Dove soap, Nokia cell phones, Boticáriobeauty products and the Swiss ice cream Häagen-Dazs. Like everything in Brazil, there are few studies to measure the phenomenon accurately. The only research done to date on the consumer profile contains astonishing numbers: the black middle class totals 8 million people. Counted in these figures are those who have a family income above R$2,300 (2) per month. This makes them, in rough numbers, a third of the Brazilian middle class. At least 35% of them have a college degree in their hand.

Businessman Reis is afraid of being kidnapped:

In the labor market, the performance of blacks has also outdone itself lately. Ten years ago, only 10% of them were employers. Today, that has doubled. Black employers represent 22% of the total. Rubens Araújo Reis, 35, of São Paulo, is one of them. A graduate in business administration with a post-graduate degree in advertising, he commands a staff of fifteen people in his real estate development company. He has two imported cars, a Korean Daewoo and an Italian Alfa Romeo, and lives in a three suite apartment of an upscale neighborhood of São Paulo. He recalls having suffered racial discrimination once when it was mistreated by an employee of a car dealership. He had no doubts: he filed a lawsuit. Rich, successful, Reis has concerns that he considers unimaginable to his parents’ generation. One of them is the fear of being kidnapped. “I try to lead a quiet life, without clubbing, to avoid problems. I’m a target for thugs like anybody else,” he says.


Even for those who have not met this high standard of living the reality is milder today. In the 70s, there was not a single black registered as a commercial pilot in the National Union of airmen. Today there are twenty. It’s a ridiculous number compared to the total number of commercial pilots in action (about 5,000), but it’s still a good indicator of social mobility. Detail: a course for obtaining pilot’s license can cost up to R$20,000 dollars. Traditionally, black families in Brazil typically earn far less than whites. Which means in order to spend the same amount they have to sweat much more. The captain Sérgio Pedro Marques, or Piatã, as he is known, is one of them. At 38, the owner of a wage of R$7,000 per month, is part of the team of TAM Airlines pilots that fly the Rio-São Paulo route. Piatãmaintains a home in an apartment in Rio and São Paulo, where he usually spends the week. On holidays, he heads with his family to their beach house. With a degree in Mathematics from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Piatãis so secure in his social standing that makes up jokes about his own skin color: “People say that they will fly with Neguinho (3), as they call me. Do you think I care? I think it’s affectionate”, he says.

Lawyer Vera Lucia of Brasília: invested in the construction of a beach house for her family. Marques of TAM Airlines: In the 1970s, there was only one black commercial pilot. Today, there are twenty.

The growth of the black middle class has led to a new segment in the market. Four years ago, the businesswoman Vilma Warner opened in the Biashara School of Languages in São Paulo, aimed at black students. “We accept white students, but 90% are black,” said Vilma. In addition to English, Spanish, French, Portuguese for foreigners, it offers courses in African languages ​​like Swahili and Yoruba.

Biashara School of Languages: black students and teachers

The marriage agency Twins Souls, also in São Paulo, is another that has a specialty. There are more than 350 people registered, the vast majority being black. “We serve a well-selected audience,” says the owner, Maria Regina Carvalho. To be registered the applicant has to pay R$750. In eight months, the agency has already hooked up 32 couples. In the registry, there are seventy white foreigners looking for black Brazilian women.

Singles hooked up by the Twin Souls marriage agency

Blacks earn half

Another innovation has come from the beauty industry. For years, dark-skinned women had to endure an unpleasant sight: using products and cosmetics made for women of Scandinavian complexion. For a while now, there’s been products of the so-called ethnic line (see below). This market continues to expand with tremendous potential. To cite two examples, research on supply of consumer items by race, 36% still complain about the lack of soaps and 16% complain of a lack of creams for the face and body.

The racial problem in Brazil is far from resolved. It is estimated that blacks occupy only 1% of strategic positions in the labor market, where they represent almost half the population. Another IPEA study shows that between two professionals equally prepared, whites have a 30% more chance of getting a job than blacks. There are two reasons for the percentage difference, the study found: Prejudice and family history. The white job candidate generally comes from a  socially stable family while the black candidate takes a huge leap. For those already in the market, the situation is no different. At the time of receiving a paycheck, blacks and whites are at odds. According to data from Seade Foundation of São Paulo, the average salary of a white person in the state capital is R$760. Doing the same function, a black earns less than half: about R$350. “The black has to be ten times better than white to have access to an education that will allow him to compete and surpass those who always were at an advantage,” says political scientist Sérgio Abranches.

Plastic surgeon Luiz Augusto Pereira: the majority of his more than 800 clients are white women like Vera Ramos

Statistics on social and economic space of blacks in Brazilian society should be viewed with caution. Most studies ignore the official skin color of citizens, which complicates the analysis. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics asks people to say, themselves, what is their skin tone. The responses are unbelievable. There was a spectrum of colors ranging from a vague “café-com-leite (coffee with milk)” incomprehensible to a “pardo bebê (baby brown).” In 1995, the Datafolha Institute asked a group of people what the color of their skin was. There were more than 100 different answers. There is a technical reason for the color not being defined by the researcher. As there is no biological and classifiable concept of race, the change in policy could be, and everything indicates that it would be, as subjective as the current system, even making room for the prejudice of the researcher. “But it’s necessary to do it, because often times it points to other features, such as education and income,” says demographer Simon Schwartzman, former president of IBGE.

The statistical deficiency of taking an accurate account of ethnicity hides the severity of prejudice. The Federal Council of Medicine, for example, prides itself in not knowing how many doctors are black. The Order of Lawyers of Brazil also has no idea of ​​the list of blacks in its staff. Neither the Teachers’ Union of São Paulo nor the Federal Council of Engineers has that information. The argument is that race does not matter in the performance of the profession. Thus far, perfect. But since no one knows exactly how many blacks (negros), browns (pardos),morenos, mulatos, and the like there are, nor where they are, neither can one know how they are faring in the job market. In the 1940s, the sociologist Oracy Nogueira deciphered the riddle: in Brazil, the bias is skin color, while for Americans it is the origin. So the guy who says that he is “café-com-leite(coffee with milk)” in Brazil can even be considered “almost white”. In the United States, he is black invariably because he has black ancestry.

This clear definition of race makes of the United States a mirror of socio-economic organization for black Brazilians. Undoubtedly, it is there that one finds the biggest segmented market for blacks on the planet. From clothing and cosmetics to TV channels, there is everything for the black public. A hard fought conquest that took years to establish itself. The so-called “affirmative policies”, the quota system in universities and public administration, made the black American middle class double over the past twenty years. However, the result was different than expected. The society was divided and racial disputes acquired some unprecedented aspects. Under the accusation of being paternalistic and unfair, arguments used by whites, quotas give cause to endless battles. A white man can always claim to have lost a good job not because the black man who filled the position was more qualified, but because the law favored him.

“Death to Princess Isabel”

Experts on the quota system are divided. There are staunch supporters, both in the US and in Brazil. Others see the adoption of the system with concern. American society is experiencing a climate of racial dispute in an environment where laws guarantee seats in proportion to the number of blacks in the total population: 12%. What if the model was imported into Brazil, where blacks and browns make up 45% of the population? According to Professor Anthony Marx, of Columbia University, who recently released a book on the topic, Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa and Brazil, still unpublished in Brazil, the system would not work. He claims that racial segregation in Brazil is not explicit simply because there is no way to identify races by physical appearance. There is no black black nor white white. For this reason, reserving quotas for a specific and defined race is almost a utopia. Even so, proposals for market quotas for blacks are mounting. A few weeks ago, the Court of São Paulo passed a measure requiring the participation of 25% of black actors and models in all official state government advertisements.

Until now, it has been comfortable for whites celebrate the success of blacks who are already stabilized in a profession. But one thing is applauding when the number of successful blacks is small. Another is to continue the applause at the moment that a significant contingent of well- prepared blacks start to take away high-wage jobs from the lighter-skinned parcel of the population. The financial manager of Mitsubishi, Conceição Vianna, 45, knows what this is. As soon as she graduated, she was competing for a job as an accountant with a colleague, a white male. She got the job, but she keeps in her memory a comment that she would have rathered to have forgotten. “When he heard the result, he turned to me and said that if he could, he would walk into a time machine and kill Princess Isabel,” remembers Conceição (Note: Princess Isabel signed the Lei de Ouro (Golden Law) in May 13, 1888, abolishing slavery in Brazil). This is where prejudice appears in its extreme measure. “Here it is said that those discriminated against are the poor. This is a lie. In little details, we see that those who are really discriminated against are blacks,” says Sueli Carneiro of the Geledés – Institute for Black Women in São Paulo.

Segmented market

For years, black women were forced to wear the makeup of those who had pure white skin. Pantyhose that matched skin tone only existed only in the white version. At most, beige. “The girls looked like Casper (the Ghost), so white they were in the face,” says the Nigerian Chibuzor Nwaike, importer of cosmetics called “afro-étnicos (African-ethnic)”. From then to now, appeared a line of stockings for skin colors that range from light to dark brown. The white inked tattoo also started to be widely divulged among blacks as an alternative to the henna tattoo.


Transparent panty hose for black skin was a disaster (left); today there are more adequate tones. The henna tatoo looks better on black skin if colored in white or gray.

Model made up with white skin products (left) and with a special line for black women. No more ghost faces
Model made up with white skin products (left) and with a special line for black women.
No more ghost faces

Bias in the classroom                        

For eight months, professor Eliane Cavalleiro investigated racial prejudice in public schools. She spent her mornings at a local preschool, a middle-class neighborhood of São Paulo, observing the relationship of teachers and white children with black students. Eliane wrote down phrases, witnessed dialogues and interviewed families. The conclusions of this work are part of her master’s thesis Do silêncio do lar ao silêncio escolar: racismo, preconceito e discriminação na educação infantil (From the silence of the home to school silence: racism, prejudice and discrimination in early childhood education)” and are a punch in the stomach. Approved by the Board of faculty at the School of Education at the University of São Paulo, the study reveals that teachers treat black students with huge differences. According to the text, they are more impatient with them, less affectionate and, in extreme cases witnessed by the researcher, even humiliate black children with unthinkable expressions, even worse because it is they who are responsible for educating. “Filhotes de São Benedito (Puppies of St. Benedict)”, “negrinho safado (shameless little negro)”, “cão em forma de gente (dog-shaped people)” were some of the expressions used by the teachers of the school in her presence.

Eliane Cavalleiro conducted research and witnessed many instances of racism in schools
Eliane Cavalleiro conducted research and witnessed many instances of racism in school

According to Eliane’s observations, the posture adopted by the educators also nullifies any demonstrations of affection toward the black students. She noted that often the teachers themselves broke into mockery and derision about the skin color of students. One example is unbelievable. During art class, a 7-year old black girl said he would like to resemble the (blond) TV host Angélica Ksyvickis Huck. “Since that day, when she wanted to talk to the girl, the teacher said, ‘Hey Angélica (4), look over here,’ and she saw the girl answer the call, she fell out laughing,” says Eliane. “The teacher was not ashamed of herself in my presence, even knowing the content of the research,” she says.

Racism in the classroom
Racism in the classroom

In a detailed observation, the researcher accounted for the exchange of caresses between teachers and students: on a normal day, the teachers kissed white children three times more than black children. The most curious thing is that the Eliane herself was discriminated against as she gathered data for her thesis. When she came to school, she made clear her intention not to participate in any activity. She would just observe what was happening in the classroom. However, most of the teachers ordered Eliane, a black woman, to serve snacks, make posters and even clean the floor after a student had made a mess. “The situation is frightening. Not even I imagined how unprepared the teachers still are in dealing with the ethnic diversity in the classroom and in society,” says the researcher.

Source: Veja


1. A worldwide reference in reconstructive and plastic surgery, the Ivo Pitanguy Clinic has become an icon synonymous for beauty, health and well-being. Since 1963, Professor Ivo Pitanguy has headed highly qualified plastic surgeons that work under the guidance of the philosophy and techniques developed by this world renowned specialist. Taken from the Pitanguy website

2. This figure is in Brazil’s currency, the Real (Reais in the plural). The value of the Real fluctuates against the value of the Dollar. At the time of this article, August of 1999, the value of the American Dollar in Brazil fluctuated between about R$1.86 and about R$1.93. In other words, in August of 1999, one American Dollar could be exchanged for between one Real and eighty-six centavos and one Real and ninety-three centavos depending on when in the month the exchange was made. Right now, September 2012, the American Dollar is valued at slightly more than two Brazilian Reais.

3. Brazilian Portuguese frequently adds suffixes to root words that give the word a diminutive or augmentative meaning. For example, the word caixa, meaning “box”, could become a “big box” by add the suffix -ão at the end of the word thus making it caixão. To make the same word signify a “small box”, the diminutive suffix can be added thus making it a caixinha. Diminutive or augmentative suffixes are often applied to names as well. In the example used by flight captain Piatã, he is considered a black man. In Portuguese, black man is translated as negro or more specifically, homen negro. In this case, Piatã is called ‘neguinho’ which would mean ‘little black man’. While Piatã and some black Brazilians accept terms such as ‘neguinho’ (masculine) or ‘neguinha’ (feminine) as affectionate terms, others see the terms as racist and reject its usage. Neguinho is also the nickname of the famous Samba School singer Neguinho da Beija Flor.
4. Angélica Ksyvickis is a popular blond personality who has hosted a number of programs on Brazil’s television networks including the Globo television network over the past few decades. Angélica is adored by many Brazilian children and is another example of the Brazilian media’s obsession with blond women. This constant promotion of a beauty standard that the majority of Brazil’s population cannot measure up has been reported to have gravely negative effects on the self-esteem of Afro-Brazilian children. For more on whiteness and exclusion, see our article on the short film Cores e Botas  and other articles.

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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