Livio Sansone: ‘There’s no brasilidade without blacks’

“Being against the blacks in Brazil is being against Brazil,” says Livio Sansone, a specialist in racial relations and black culture who presented a paper at Lorenzo Dow Turner Symposium held at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. (Courtesy of Susana Raab/Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum)

“Being against the blacks in Brazil is being against Brazil,” says Livio Sansone, a specialist in racial relations and black culture who presented a paper at Lorenzo Dow Turner Symposium held at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. (Courtesy of Susana Raab/Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum)

By Ligia Hougland for Infosurhoy.com—15/11/2010

WASHINGTON D.C., U.S.A. – Anthropologist Livio Sansone, a renowned analyst in racial relations and black culture, recently discussed the latest accomplishments regarding racial equality in Brazil, where blacks comprise almost half of the 184.4 million population.

Sansone spoke about affirmative action and racial inequalities in Brazil during President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration at the University of Maryland’s Latin American Studies Center on Nov.9.

On Nov. 12, Sansone was among scholars presenting their views on the African diaspora and the legacy of African American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner in the symposium Connecting the Worlds of the African Diaspora: The Living Legacy of Lorenzo Dow Turner, held at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C.

A groundbreaking exhibition on Turner’s work, which includes his research in the northern Brazilian state of Bahia, is on display through March 27, 2011.

Sansone, who was born in Palermo, Italy, has a Ph.D. in anthropology from by the University of Amsterdam and has taught ethnic studies, globalization and urban anthropology in Brazil since the 1990s.

He is the author of the book Blackness Without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil and has published numerous papers in England, the Netherlands and Brazil. Since 2003, he has taught at the Federal University of Bahia, where he is the head of the Office for International Relations.

Sansone, in an interview with Infosurhoy.com, discusses the Statute of Racial Equality, which came into effect this past October after more than 20 years of negotiations, and racism in Brazil.

Infosurhoy.com: Will the Statute of Racial Equality make a difference regarding racism in Brazil?

Sansone: The difference will be more symbolic than practical because it doesn’t include some of the most practical measures, like those related to quotas, for instance. But the fact that the government recognized racial inequality as a problem that justifies a statute, as well as the condition of the youth and elderly, is an important change of position.

Infosurhoy.com: What does this law mean in terms of innovation?

Sansone: It puts the fight against racism within the state’s structure. That’s interesting because Brazil was usually seen as a country that didn’t fight against racism.

Infosurhoy.com: How are Brazilians receiving the statute?

Sansone: No one knows yet because it’s still too early. It takes some time for civil society to understand changes in political society. Black advocacy groups are happy, but it’s still too early to estimate the changes.

Infosurhoy.com: What has Lula done to ensure rights for blacks?

Sansone: First of all, the income redistribution policies of Lula’s administration have favored people from lower classes, and the black population has benefited from universal policies. There is a gradual change in the state’s discourse regarding groups that are racially discriminated against. In the advertising campaigns of state-owned or mixed-capital companies, like Banco do Brasil and Petrobras, we have seen more and more people of color being represented. And there also is the policy of promoting popular culture.

Brazilian culture has everything to do with African origins. No doubt this has caused cultural phenomena such as the capoeira [an Afro-Brazilian dance that incorporates martial arts movements] and samba de roda [another traditional Afro-Brazilian cultural manifestation] to be more and more respected. It’s a new debate over Brazil’s cultural roots and the fact that they deserve to be preserved. As a result of Law No. 10.639, teaching African cultural history, Afro-Brazilian culture and, more recently, indigenous culture have became mandatory [in the country]. I think it’s interesting that, in Brazil, being black or being a native Brazilian was an onus, but now, little by little, it’s becoming a bonus. Another significant change, besides the quota system and the state’s discourse, is the recognition of [black people’s] collective rights to own land.

Infosurhoy.com: How do you explain the occurrence of racism in Brazil, which has a highly diverse population?

Sansone: It doesn’t take whites for racism to occur. There are some regions in Africa where fairer-skinned people are racist against the darker-skinned population. In many Brazilian families, people who had fairer skin were favored over the darker ones when it came to deciding who would be sent to school. And those were families in which all members had afro curly hair. That has to do with the power of racist rhetoric. But being against the blacks in Brazil is being against Brazil. Brazil can’t permit itself to let a great part of the black population out of the market when, in fact, most of the Brazilians are black or brown-skinned. There’s no social rising and progress in Brazil without incorporating black people. It’s not possible to envision brasilidade [essential nature or character of a Brazilian or of Brazil] without the blacks.

Infosurhoy.com: And what about education? How many of Brazil’s blacks attend college?

Sansone: Not many. The Brazilian university system strongly is based on the social pyramid scheme. But it has improved, especially because private universities have been increasing the number of vacancies through the system of scholarships for black and poor students. So far, the Brazilian school system, which is now beginning to change, has the poor going to public schools and then paying for their higher education, whereas the upper-middle class attend private schools, but then attend universities for free. That situation is changing little by little with the system of scholarships in private universities, the ProUni [University for All Program], and the increase of vacancies in public universities. It would be bad if the quotas were implemented in a context of reduction of vacancies, but they were implemented in a context of increase of vacancies.

Infosurhoy.com: Are you in favor of the quotas for minorities in Brazilian universities?

Sansone: Sure, I’m all in favor of quotas. I work at a university that adopts the quotas and I can only see improvements. Given [that] access to university is strongly based on the social pyramid and hard to get, people who enter [university] through quotas are people who didn’t get there [just because they barely missed getting passing test scores], but they’re not unqualified people.

Infosurhoy.com: What improvements do you see as a result of the quota system?

Sansone: The simple fact that some professional groups, like doctors and lawyers, finally have a significant number of black people in their classrooms. It means the Brazil of the future will have doctors and lawyers closer to the population’s reality.

Infosurhoy.com: How do you see the situation of blacks in Brazil in the medium and long term?

Sansone: It’s better than it was before. The inequality was so severe that any advancement is positive.

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  • Marco Borg | 2011-11-19

    A very interesting article. It coincides with the views of my 19 year-old niece who \"did\" the world in 80 days and whose concept of Brazilian culture is exactly like that of the professor, derived from staying 2 days in the centre of Bahia and watching capoeira, the Carnival etc. His preference for a quota system illustrates why the US will trounce countries like China. China, not having Africans to justify instituting quotas and affirmative actions, sticking to the old-fashioned rules of admission by merit, can only count on an average of 12% annual increase in GDP, whilst the US infused not only with quotas but the replacement of folksy disciplines like mathematics and engineering with up-to-the-minute fashions like hip-hop and black studies reaps the current and future harvest

  • M Stewart | 2010-11-16

    Very interesting article. I had no idea there was such inequality based on race in Brasil.

  • NAYA | 2010-11-16

    Very important and actual.

  • Edna | 2010-11-16

    I was not aware of the severity in Brazil regarding racial prejudice. Higher education will hopefully lessen prejudice by creating professionals among minorities. The interview covered many issues regarding Brazil\'s racial inequities and the country\'s attempt to highlight education as a means of combating discrimination