Note from BW of Brazil: Anyone who has studied the social situation in Brazil from the perspective of race knows that wealth and power are highly concentrated in the hands of persons who are classified as white. And generally, there are plenty of poor whites, poverty affects more Afro-Brazilians and the stereotype embedded in the minds of millions of Brazilians as to who represents the poor is also black. Powerful media images have re-enforced this image for several decades. But what about that small percentile of black Brazilians who are not only well-off, but are a part of the upper tier of the nation’ economic elite that are in the top 1% income bracket? Of course this is a small group, but they DO exist.
So what are the experiences of these people? Is the Brazilian idea that once a black person achieves a certain level of education and success, they are immune to the effects of racism? Well, in fact, for a number of years, studies show that the higher the success, prestige ad income, these people are even more exposed to racial discrimination or prejudice as the society generally wonders, “what’s that black doing here?” when they DO climb to the upper ranks of success. Below we present an introduction piece that delves into the experiences of persons within this elite group.
How the black people who are part of Brazil’s richest 1% live
By Noemia Colonna
Mônica Valéria Gonçalves, 47, is a civil servant of a court in Brasília. She is married to a white judge. Júlio César Chagas Santos, 50, is of a recycling company in Rio de Janeiro. He faced poverty in childhood and conquered his space through hard work and a sense of opportunity. Sabrina Fidalgo, 36, is filmmaker and was born in a well-off family. In ballet, she was the only black girl in the class.
More than skin color, the three have social class in common: they are black Brazilians who are part of the richest 1% of the country. They attend parties, restaurants, hotels, courses, spaces in which they are the minority. Generally, the only ones: at the gym where he exercises in Lago Sul, in Brasília, Mônica says that there is no other black member, like her.
They are also exceptions in the statistics. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the richest 1% is made up of 79% brancos (whites) and 17.4% negros (classification used by the organization for those who declared themselves preto/black and pardo/brown. The remaining percentage refers to amarelos/Asians and indígenas/indigenous).
There are different methods to reach the top of the income pyramid. One of them considers the richest 1% of the Brazilian population are those who earn more than R$260,000 per year – the calculation is by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), based on data from the National Sample Survey of Households (PNAD) and the Receita Federal.
In this group, that according to projections from IBGE gathers 1.4 million adults, there are more and more blacks. In 10 years, their presence has increased from 12.5% in 2004 to 17.4% in 2014.
“But there are still few. The wealth in Brazil is mostly white,” says Marcelo Medeiros, economist and sociologist of IPEA and one of the country’s authorities on the subject of income and inequality, referring to the fact that these 17.4% are still very far from reflecting the 53.6% of the população brasileira negra (black Brazilian population), according to the last census.
Economic and social prejudice
Sociologist and professor at the University of Brasília (UnB), Emerson Rocha developed a study based on IBGE data about blacks in the world of the rich. What he found questions the thesis that prejudice in Brazil is more economic than racial.
According to Rocha, the perception of racism increases along income distribution. “The higher the social scale the black climb, the greater the weight of racism, contrary to the idea that, in Brazil, the black that becomes riches is socially accepted as ‘white’,” he affirms.
His explanation is that the black in subordinate positions tends to be confronted less often by racism due to the fact of being in what might be called his “natural position” – leaving this space, generates strangeness, surprise or rejection and he is more susceptible to manifestations of prejudice.
“What we observed is that, as the black ascends, new forms of discrimination gain space. Even with successful degrees and careers, more than ever, he will be a black. And for many, a strange body and out of place. The social structures are still not yet prepared for this,” says Rocha.
Education is seen as crucial in order to reduce the inequality in the share of the richest. “We need more blacks from joining the elite universities in courses such as medicine, engineering and law,” explains sociologist Tatiana Silva.
In a study of race and education conducted by the Ipea, the researcher shows that inequality in higher education remains very high, despite the advances made in recent decades. In 2001, 13.3% of white people and 3.5% of black people had 12 or more years of study. By 2012, the last study on the topic, the numbers rose to 22.2% and 9.5%, respectively.
“Even evolving, the data indicate that the disparity continues. With fewer blacks in universities, there are fewer of them in prestigious positions in the labor market and in society,” concludes the researcher.
However, the scholars estimate that, alone, education does not extend the presence of blacks among the richest – racism remains a strong deterrent.
“By being socially accepted as the norm in places of power, a white professional can ‘sell’ a title of doctor, lawyer or architect in the labor market at higher prices that his black colleague. And it’s generally there that we identify the racial discrimination and exclusion of blacks in the spheres of power,” says Rocha.
In other words, earning a medical degree, he/she will likely have fewer prospects in better-paid branches of the profession.
For Rocha, despite advances such as increased access to universities and in public service by affirmative action and quotas, we still need to deconstruct the view that the place of the black is in poverty.
‘When I enter the favela (slum) in a lab coat, I don’t prescribe only drugs, I prescribe dreams,” says a black medical student.
Research indicates that this view affects society as a whole. On the one hand it generates discrimination and, on the other, it creates the phenomenon of self-segregation.
A 2006 study by economist and demographer Eduardo Rios Neto, from the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Federal University of Minas Gerais or UFMG) shows how, despite the economic rise, many blacks, unlike whites, end up restricting themselves to their original places of residence.
The study reveals, through maps of seven major Brazilian cities, that, despite conditions of living in a middle-class district, blacks tend to choose to live in areas where the standard of income is lower – if a white gets rich, he/she tends to move to a higher status area.
This separation is higher in higher income classes. “It can be inferred that racial segregation between whites, blacks and browns cannot be attributed only to the socio-economic status. Factors such as self-segregation and racism must also be taken into consideration,” concludes the study, quoted by the UN Human Development Program.
Policies such as quotas in universities are the subject of much debate in Brazil
Mônica, Júlio and Sabrina are exceptions here too. They live in prime areas of their cities, frequenting spaces considered elite and will tell BBC Brasil, in this series of reports, how they deal with the exceptional situation in which they live.
The three describe episodes of racism they have faced throughout life, but also their solutions to dealing with the problem.
In the case of Sabrina, who was born in a high-income family, the education he received from her parents was fundamental.
“My parents told me: you are beautiful, your hair, your color, our history. Never be ashamed of your race and don’t even lower your head for anything. If you want to be a doctor, you will be. If you want to be an actress, you can also be. Ballerina, Miss (of a beauty contest), whatever you want. They said that I was intelligent enough for that,” she recalls.
For her, this advice gave her the certainty that the difficulties faced by blacks in society must indeed be duly chronicled, but also the many positive stories out there.
“It bothers a lot much these discourses that only oppressive experiences are legitimate. They sound almost like a reaffirmation of racism that, we blacks, we can only earn something through the imposition of an experience of pain, humiliation, provocations and oppressions.”
Rocha, from UnB, adds the necessity for a reflection on the meaning of individual stories of overcoming of the barriers imposed by discrimination. He explains that often these positive stories are used to deny the existence of obstacles caused, among other things, by prejudice. “Something like, if she could do it, everyone can do it, so don’t complain,” he says.
“But there is another view to be released on these stories. A more generous and necessary view; the view of inspiration and learning. These stories show everyone that black men and women have full capacity to fill the most diverse spaces in society and therefore, prejudice has no place,” he analyzes.
“This is the meaning behind the intention of having more and more black people in prominent positions: constructing a country where living examples are common to counter prejudice. Visualizing these stories is very important to show the possibility of overcoming, as much from the individual as from the collective point of view.”
This is a very interesting topic indeed. In my experience in Brazil, the issue of class is LOADED AS HELL! As a very afrocentric Black woman living in a “rich” (by Brazilian standards / average by American standards) neighborhood, I have found that finding ways to display one’s status is extremely important to one’s treatment here.
I do have to acknowledge the fact that I do have “American privilege” in my Blackness here. However, Brazilian society is extremely sensitive, emotional, and non-confrontational, when compared to American society.It allows for greater pushback in the moment that any shenanigans occur (as it seems pretty easy to publically embarrass “rich” Brazilians). Also, there are certain behaviors that are associated with “richness” here that I have consciously come to display as a means of avoiding too much overtly racist behavior. You do not necessarily need to be wearing nice things, but there is a certain attitude one must have here when walking into white spaces. For example, I have found that white folks here do not ask for things – they order that they be done. I have also noticed that, among poorer people working for folks with money, to be too “nice” is to be mistaken for “weak”, and they will DEFINITELY be taken advantage of.
Interestingly enough as well, there is a HUGE difference in the behavior of those with “old money” (wealth that goes back at least 2 generations) vs “new money” (wealth that started with one’s own parents or the current generation). The old money society in this area is like a mythical creature whose name you see everywhere, but whose face you rarely see. They are a secret society unto themselves and they hide in plane site by making it a point NOT to appear too wealthy (lest they be kidnapped for ransom) outside of their own social class. The flashy people are the “new money” or “married into money” and they are the ones who have the greatest insecure need to “be” somebody in the eyes of a very classist society. They are the petty tyrants that one must always look out for, who would rather die or see a poor robber shot to death, than have their precious iPhone stolen in the streets!
I have also observed that the segregation in the city is so rampant, that friends who are not from this area are actively uncomfortable sitting in a nice restaurant or coffee house. They feel that people are staring at them and that they should not be there. I hope that more Black Brazilians will learn how to OWN whatever space they are in, as they move up the social ladder. I hope that more will KNOW that they have the absolute right to be wherever they are, and to quickly move past any racist attempt to keep them from moving forward in any aspect of life. In reality, this isn’t really enough space to go as deeply into this issue as one could go, but these are just some highlights about what I have observed from living in the Northeast for 8 years.
more than a mouthful 🙂
brasil is a challenging place being black from elsewhere