Brazil’s colour bind

Brazil is combating many kinds of inequality. But one of the world’s most diverse nations is still just beginning to talk about race

Play video

Para ler esta reportagem em português, clique aqui

When Daniele de Araújo found out six years ago that she was pregnant, she set out from her small house on a dirt lane in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro and climbed a mountain. It is not a big mountain, the green slope that rises near her home, but the area is controlled by drug dealers, so she was anxious, hiking up. But she had something really important to ask of God, and she wanted to be somewhere she felt that the magnitude of her request would be clear.

More on race in Brazil »

See more from Stephanie Nolen on how race and racism are discussed, addressed and lived in one of the world's most diverse countries

She told God she wanted a girl, and she wanted her to be healthy, but one thing mattered above all: “The baby has to be white.”

Ms. de Araújo knows about the quixotic outcomes of genetics: She has a white mother and a black father, sisters who can pass for white, and a brother nearly as dark-skinned as she is – “I’m really black,” she says. Her husband, Jonatas dos Praseres, also has one black and one white parent, but he is light-skinned – when he reported for his compulsory military service, an officer wrote “white” as his race on the forms.

And so, when their baby arrived, the sight of her filled Ms. de Araújo with relief: Tiny Sarah Ashley was as pink as the sheets she was wrapped in. Best of all, as she grew, it became clear that she had straight hair, not cabelo ruim – “bad hair” – as tightly curled black hair is universally known in Brazil. These days, Sarah Ashley has tawny curls that tumble to the small of her back; they are her mother’s great joy in life. The little girl’s skin tone falls somewhere between those of her parents – but she was light enough for them to register her as “white,” just as they had hoped. (Many official documents in Brazil ask for “race and/or colour” alongside other basic identifying information.)

Daniele de Araújo with Jonatas dos Praseres and their daughter, Sarah Ashley: Her family ‘congratulated me,’ she says, when they first met her future husband, ‘because I was lightening the family, right? It felt like I was doing some great thing.’ Still, she prayed that Sarah Ashley be born light-skinned. (Mario Tama/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)

Ms. de Araújo and Mr. dos Praseres keep the photos from their 2005 wedding in a red velvet album on the lone shelf in their living room. The glossy pictures show family members of a dozen different skin colours, arm in arm, faces crinkled in stiff grins for the posed portraits. There are albums with similar pictures in living rooms all over this country: A full one-third of marriages in Brazil are interracial, said to be the highest rate in the world. (In Canada, despite hugely diverse cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, the rate is under five per cent.) That statistic is the most obvious evidence of how race and colour in Brazil are lived differently than they are in other parts of the world.

But a range of colours cannot disguise a fundamental truth, says Ms. de Araújo: There is a hierarchy, and white is at the top.

Many things are changing in this country. Ms. de Araújo left school as a teenager to work as a maid – about the only option open to a woman with skin as dark as hers – but now she has a professional job in health care and a house of her own, things she could not have imagined 15 years ago. Still, she says, “This is Brazil.” And there is no point being precious about it. Black is beautiful, but white – white is just easier. Even middle-class life can still be a struggle here. And Sarah Ashley’s parents want her life to be easy.

Brazil’s history of colonialism, slavery and dictatorship, followed by tumultuous social change, has produced a country that is at once culturally homogenous and chromatically wildly diverse. It is a cornerstone of national identity that Brazil is racially mixed – more than any country on Earth, Brazilians say. Much less discussed, but equally visible – in every restaurant full of white patrons and black waiters, in every high rise where the black doorman points a black visitor toward the service elevator – is the pervasive racial inequality.

Brazil’s experience stands in marked contrast with the way those issues are playing out in the United States. A mass shooting like that in Charleston, S.C., allegedly carried out by a white supremacist, would be unimaginable here. So would a speech by the president calling on the country to confront its racial inequality. What happened to Rachel Dolezal – a blue-eyed white woman who chose to pass as black, and was pilloried – is equally alien to Brazil, where racial identity is always fluid, and has been wilfully subsumed into questions of colour. Many Brazilians, of all races, contrast their own country favourably with the U.S., where the discussion of racism is overt and often angry.

Yet discrimination is every bit as powerful a force in Brazil, and it exacts a high price here, too. This cost takes obvious forms (for example, the disproportionately huge number of young black men in prison) and more subtle ones, such as the conversations that Ms. de Araújo and Mr. dos Praseres have about their daughter, and whether she is white “enough.”

But there is change afoot here, as well: It is sluggish, may prove to be transient, and is certainly fragile. But for all that, it is happening, through both institutional reforms and personal choices. In the process, it is calling into question centuries-old constructions of identity, and offering people such as Ms. de Araújo whole new ways of imagining their lives.

The road to pigmentocracy
Part 2

The road to pigmentocracy

Ana Maria de la Merced Guimarães knew, of course she knew, that Brazil once had slavery. They did not teach much about it when she was in school 40 years ago, but the black faces of some of her neighbours were evidence that many Brazilians have roots in Africa. Still, it was not something people ever talked about.

Ms. Guimarães, who is white, certainly wasn’t thinking about it back in 1996, when she decided to renovate her home. It’s a row house with a tiled roof, about 150 years old, on a Rio street soaked in history: Samba was invented in this neighbourhood, and the city’s first Carnaval celebrations were held nearby. Ms. Guimarães, who ran a small pest-control business, wanted to add a second floor to make space for her growing family.

Workers began to excavate the foundation, planning to reinforce it. After a day of digging, they found bones that appeared to be human. “At first, I thought it was a murder victim,” says Ms. Guimarães, now 58, in the cool interior of the house. She lowers her voice as she recalls her unease. “And then they found more bones. I thought, ‘It was a serial killer.’ But then there were more bones and more bones, and I thought, ‘No, there is no such perfect crime that someone could have killed all these people and it wasn’t discovered.’ ”

So she called city hall, and a few days later an expert arrived to investigate. Ms. Guimarães was informed that her house stood atop what was once called the Cemitério dos Pretos Novos – the Cemetery of the New Blacks. Right here, she learned, was where the city once dumped the bodies of Africans who had survived the brutal journey across the Atlantic but died before they could be sold in the slave market that stood at the end of the road.

“We call it a cemetery, but it’s not: It’s a grave where they were dumped and they rotted there and then they burned them and ground them up and pushed them out of the way to put new people in,” she says. “No one was buried intact. The more I learned about the history, the more upset I got – many are children, there are babies, and there are so many, more than 50,000, I think.”

Eventually Ms. Guimarães learned that the cemetery had been used to bury about 2,000 people each year from the 1760s until about 1830, when the British abolitionist movement began to slow the arrival of slave ships in Rio’s harbour. A generation later, the mass grave was cobbled over, and the first row of houses, including hers, was built on the site in about 1876. “They were trying to erase the memory,” she says.

And they did a fine job.

There is a $4-billion (U.S.) project under way today to rehabilitate Ms. Guimarães’s neighbourhood. It features commercial real estate and condominium towers and a giant Museum of Tomorrow. There is not, however, a museum of the past – nothing to commemorate that this port was once the global capital for the trade in humans.

The Dinner, an 1839 lithograph that drives home the great divide between master and servant, is the work of French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848) who spent 15 years in Brazil capturing the daily life of a society built on slavery. (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Images)

Brazil imported more slaves than any other country. Fully 20 per cent of all the people abducted from Africa to be sold were brought here – an estimated five million people; 400,000 went to the U.S. and Canada.

The journey to Brazil was cheaper than the one to North America because of both proximity and wind patterns, which meant that the slaves were cheaper, too. Slave owners saw no point in spending money to feed their slaves well or care for them; it made more sense to work them to death and replace them. As a result, slaves in Brazil had dramatically shorter life spans than those who went to the United States. But they were essential for the development of the economy – the sugar plantations, the coffee farms, the gold mines. More than two million slaves came through Rio alone, fed in the casas de engorda (“fattening houses”) near Ms. Guimarães’s street before they were paraded naked, inspected and sold in the squares. Brazil was the last country in the world officially to end slavery.

By 1888, when abolition finally came, there were more black than white people in Brazil, and also a large population that could be described as “mixed race” – the product of a settlement history that saw Portugal export mostly male settlers here for 300 years. At first, those men had sexual relationships, both consensual and forced, with indigenous women. When the indigenous population failed to provide the captive labour force the Portuguese wanted – fleeing into the interior rather than working on the new plantations, or dying of infectious diseases –the colonizers turned to the import of African slaves, who were routinely raped by their owners.

When slavery was ended, members of the white elite were left feeling anxious and outnumbered. They were also vexed, explains Ivanir dos Santos, a black activist and educator in Rio: How, they wondered, could they build a productive and prosperous nation if the predominant stock of the citizenry was the offspring of African savages? The obvious solution, they concluded, was to import better genes.

The government actively discouraged their former owners from giving the slaves paid work, and launched an effort to woo poor white Europeans to the country as a new labour force – with the overt intention to “embranquecer,” to whiten, the population.

“The founding principle of the first republic was eugenics,” is Mr. dos Santos’s sardonic assessment. This was eventually enshrined in an immigration law that stated, “The admission of immigrants will comply with the necessity of preserving and developing, in the ethnic composition of the population, the characteristics that are more convenient to its European ascendancy.”

The long shadow of slaver
Part 3

The long shadow of slavery

Even as the former slave owners set about diluting the country’s blackness, they also went to work on their cover story. In the Brazilian creation myth – the country’s version of Canada’s “cultural mosaic” or the U.S. “melting pot” – the country is a democracia racial, a racial democracy. This official story was built on the idea that from the day slavery ended, Brazilians of all colours were equal. After all, there was no segregation, no apartheid, no Jim Crow. Glossing over the massive disparities between the former owners and the newly freed slaves – who had no education, land or assets – the Brazilian elite, almost entirely white, declared the country uniquely equal and, in effect, postracial.

“It was ‘invisibilization,’” says Marcelo Paixão, who is black and a professor of economics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “The discourse was that we don’t have race in Brazil, so you don’t have race problems in Brazil, and you don’t need to discuss the inequality.”

The first census after the end of slavery, in 1890, asked not about race, but about colour: Citizens were asked if they were white, brown, black, yellow or caboclo – a Portuguese word for those with some indigenous ancestry, more commonly known here as being vermelha, or red. Over the next years, racial identity was steadily replaced with considerations of colour. In 1976, the national statistics institute, seeking to hone the precision of the census, surveyed thousands of Brazilians about what word they themselves used – and came back with a list of 136. They included terms such as amarela-queimada (burnt yellow), canela (cinnamon) and morena-bem-chegada: very nearly morena, a word for brown.

“It was ‘invisibilization’. The discourse was that we don’t have race in Brazil, so you don’t have race problems in Brazil...”— Marcelo Paixão, a black professor of economics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

On some level, it was a progressive ideology, notes Prof. Paixão – it allowed for nuance instead of clear-cut indicators of racial purity. It also resulted in a more genuinely mixed culture, although that mixture is the outcome, in part, of appropriation. Cornerstones of black culture – such as samba music and the martial art capoeira, practised in secret by slaves – have been thoroughly co-opted into Brazilian identity.

But within that culture, and that society, there was an ineluctable hierarchy of what were to be considered racial traits. The dominant idea, propagated by whites, and eventually accepted by many black and mixed-race people as well, he explains, was that the “white” part of the mix brought a European rationality, while Africans brought happiness and creativity, a positive outlook – he ticks off adjectives and rolls his eyes. The more white that one was, the more of the “valuable” characteristics one had. To be whiter was to have a better chance of getting a job, and of earning more in that job. To be whiter, in other words, was to have it easier. Brazil became what is sometimes called here a “pigmentocracy.” (Prof. Paixão is among the fewer than five per cent of faculty members at the Federal University who are black.)

Meanwhile the division of power and wealth that locked itself into place at the time of slavery’s abolition was never addressed. Brazil’s freed slaves were “free,” as well, of the fundamental things needed to forge material equality: assets, education and access to capital. There was no land reform to break up the giant plantations and give the former slaves a way to support themselves. In Rio, former slaves were denied the right to live in the city proper, and so scrabbled for rough housing on the surrounding hills – this is the bleak origin of the favelas, or slums, that today are integral to the city’s postcard identity.

Race by neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro

Out of Rio’s 6,320,446 people, 51 per cent identified as white in the 2010 census, 36.5 per cent as mixed (mixed race between white and black) and 11.5 per cent as black. In the neighbourhoods below, the darker the red, the higher the concentration of people who identified as white. The higher concentration of self-identified white people tends to lead to a higher average monthly income in the neighbourhood.

Average income


Mouseover regions for details. Click to zoom in and out. Monthly income includes respondants with no income.

The legacy of slavery, and the failure to address it, is visible in myriad other ways as well. Brazil has seen enormous social progress in the past 13 years: more than 30 million people, nearly a sixth of the population, has moved out of poverty into the lower middle class. That boost came from both an economic boom (driven by vast offshore oil finds, and high commodity prices fuelled by Chinese demand) and from progressive social policies implemented by a series of left-wing governments that dramatically raised the minimum wage and used targeted cash transfers to bring economic security to the poor.

But that progress has not touched all Brazilians equally. Even after those 13 years of rapid change, black and mixed-race Brazilians continue to earn far less than do white ones: 42.2 per cent less. More than 30 per cent fewer of them finish high school. Black Brazilians die younger, and young black men die at dramatically higher rates, than do white ones, typically victims of violence, often at the hands of police.

Thanks to an economic boom and progressive social policies, average income in Brazil has risen across the board since 2003, however the large income gap between whites and non-whites remains. (Income in Brazilian Reais.)

Indeed, in many ways the economic and social progress has served only to bring into stark relief how entrenched the hierarchy of race and colour remains. At the last census, in 2010, 51 per cent of Brazilians identified themselves as black or of mixed race. But the halls of power show something else. Of 38 members of the federal cabinet, one is black – the minister for the promotion of racial equality. Of the 381 companies listed on BOVESPA, the country’s stock market, not a single one has a black or mixed-race chief executive officer. Eighty per cent of the National Congress is white. In 2010, a São Paulo think tank analyzed the executive staff of Brazil’s 500 largest companies and found that a mere 0.2 per cent of executives were black, and only 5.1 per cent were of mixed race.

A higher percentage of whites have had 15 or more years of education, while black Brazilians are most likely to have gone to school for less than a year.

Even interracial marriages are not the tribute to colour-blindness that they might appear to be. Disaggregate the data on who is marrying whom, and they show that such marriages are least common in the highest (predominantly white) income brackets, and most common among the lowest earners, who are almost entirely black or of mixed race. Carlos Antonio Costa Ribeiro, a white sociologist at Rio’s State University who studies race and economics, describes it as a sort of bleak bargain: When such marriages do occur, the darker-skinned partner usually has a higher level of education or a higher income or both. The relationship, at least on one level, is an economic transaction – each person is gaining social mobility, of one kind or the other.

There is also a sort of alchemy, Prof. Ribeiro explains, by which people with a mixed racial heritage who succeed in business or politics, such as billionaire media magnate Roberto Marinho, come to be viewed as white. Even in the two fields in which black Brazilians succeed at the highest levels – sports and music – that alchemy can work its dark magic. Soccer phenom Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., who presented as black when he first began to attract attention on the pitch, has, with his ascendancy, become in the popular perception, if not white, certainly not black.

Ms. de Araújo, right, was relieved when her daughter Sarah Ashley, centre, was born white like her husband, Mr. dos Praseres, left. (Mario Tama/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)

It was against this long and complex backdrop that Ms. de Araújo and Mr. dos Praseres met 15 years ago as teenagers in a rough part of Rio. They hung out with a multiracial bunch of kids, and neither thought about race, they say, when they wound up kissing on a street corner one night. Mr. dos Praseres, shy and stocky, recalled in a recent Sunday afternoon conversation that he knew, from the minute he met her, that this willowy girl who could talk the birds out of the trees, was the one for him. He didn’t hesitate, even briefly, to bring her home to his family (Why would he? His own father is as dark-skinned as she is.) He says it went over just fine.

But that’s not quite how his wife remembers it. Turning to him with an expression of exaggerated surprise, she says: “They called me neguinha [little darkie] and all sorts of things! I heard people asking you, ‘You’re with that dark one?’ ”

At her family’s home, on the other hand, the new boyfriend was received differently. “They congratulated me,” she says matter-of-factly. “Because I was lightening the family, right? It felt like I was doing some great thing.”

‘If you’re not white, you’re black’
Part 4

‘If you’re not white, you’re black’

There is a cost, for Brazil, in this determination to let race continue to dictate opportunity: in the huge numbers of black men who find themselves in prison rather than in schools or workplaces, in successive generations of black women consigned to domestic work because that is all for which they are perceived to be suitable. In 2008, Jose Vicente, rector of Universidade da Cidadania Zumbi dos Palmares in São Paulo, calculated that Brazil’s gross domestic product would be two per cent higher if blacks were full participants in the economy. This costs everyone, notes Prof. Paixão, and yet the captains of industry who maintain nearly all-white work forces are still “too shortsighted” to see it.

And then there is another kind of cost, the kind that comes in an intimate moment between mother and daughter. Sarah Ashley sometimes sits in her mother’s lap and holds her own arms against Ms. de Araújo’s.

“I wish I looked like you,” the five-year-old says. “I wish my skin was like yours; your skin is beautiful.” Her mother gently corrects her. “I tell her, ‘My skin is ugly. This colour is ugly.’ ”

“I believed I was the worst of the worst, the ugliest. I believed everyone was looking at me.”— Daniele de Araújo, on how she felt as a child when her mother made comments that Ms. de Araújo thought were about her darker skin colour

Ms. de Araújo clearly struggles with the contradictions in her own ideas about race. She moves with the confidence of a woman who knows she is beautiful. And as an evangelical Christian, she does not want to suggest that God could have made a mistake when he created her. But those innately felt truths are sometimes hard to reconcile with what she has been told all her life. When she was growing up, her mother, who is white, said things such as, “I found you in the garbage.”

“She didn’t say it in a mean way, exactly,” Ms. de Araújo says. Yet her mother never made comments like that to her sister. “I always wondered if it was because my sister was older, or because she was lighter,” she recalls. “I believed I was the worst of the worst, the ugliest. I believed everyone was looking at me.”

Ms. de Araújo and her family live in Nova Iguaçu, a dormitory city that is only 40 kilometres inland from the palm trees and white sand of Copacabana. But it could be another universe. The roads are terrible, the police swoop through only to collect bribes, and people live in rough brick houses behind high walls. But there is space out here, away from the more expensive, congested favelas in the city centre, and a chance to build a house like she and her husband have; extended families move here seeking a toehold in the new middle class. Ms. de Araújo’s grandmother, Nadir de Mattos Corrêa, lives about two blocks away, with her daughters, Daniele’s aunts Simone and Michelle, and their families. They pop in and out of each other’s houses all the time.

Ms. de Araújo is close to her aunt, Simone Vieira de Lucena, whose skin is as dark as hers, and who grew up, like Daniele, as the darkest of her multihued siblings. Ms. de Araújo often uses the family nickname for her: Neguinha.

Simone Vieira de Lucena is Ms. de Araújo’s aunt, and the two are close: Both grew up darker-skinned than any of their siblings. (Mario Tama/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)

“I’m the darkest – so they always called me that,” says Ms. de Lucena, 42. When she was a kid, she says, her sisters told her that someone with her nose, her hair, could not hope to find a husband. The idea took such firm hold that she would not let anyone take her photo until she was in her 20s. Like Ms. de Araújo, she credits the church for somewhat improving her sense of self-worth. And, she says, as she got tired of hoping, fruitlessly, to be lighter. She and her niece refer to each other as preta, black, sometimes, instead of by name, and Simone calls her best friend, whose skin is darker than hers, macaca (monkey) or fumaça (smoke). They do it, Simone and Daniele say, with complete affection. “It’s different,” says Simone, “when it’s between us.”

When she fills out the census, Ms. de Lucena ticks the box for “preto.” Her husband, Joacinei Araújo de Lucena, 48, has a black parent and a white one, just like she does, but identifies himself as “pardo,” or brown. He insists that he, Ms. de Lucena and their two children are mixed – not one, not the other – and that mixed is a race of its own. Ms. de Lucena doesn’t buy it. “Não passou por branco é preto,” she often says, often tells their teenagers: If you’re not white, you’re black.

Such bluntness makes Simone’s mother flinch. At 68, Ms. Corrêa says she has no memory of racial discord in the house; she rejects the idea that some of her daughters could have used race to torment each other. And she insists she was blind to race, too.

“It’s true, I’d be with her in line somewhere and people would say, ‘She’s cute, is she adopted?’ and I’d say, ‘No, she’s mine,’ ” she recalls, sitting on the couch in Simone’s small living room.

“It was just because she looked different. But I treated everyone the same.”

Nadir de Mattos Corrêa, Ms. de Lucena’s mother and Ms. de Araújo ‘s grandmother, says she treated all her children the same regardless of their skin colour. (Mario Tama/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)

Simone, listening to this, is so frustrated she can’t stay in the room, and goes to dry dishes – vigorously – in the kitchen. Her childhood, as she recalls it, was marked by the fact that no one in the family could or would take on the task of styling her hair, and instead her mother kept it in a buzz cut. “I looked like a boy.”

Nadir disputes this. “I took care of it,” she assures a visitor.

Simone cannot help herself; she pops her head back in the room and glares. “Mother, tell the truth!”

Nadir looks defensive. “Her hair is not so awful,” she says.

Simone stalks out again.

These are not conversations that Brazilians have easily. Although Simone and Daniele can call each other preta, among strangers, it is polite to describe colour by using a word that implies lightness: Call the person you’re looking for morena, not negra, even though her skin is black.

And for sensitive topics, it is better not to use the word at all. There is a universal gesture – hold out one arm, then take a finger from the other hand and rub a bit at the skin, as if you are testing a cream. That’s code for black. Ms. de Araújo remembers adults at school doing it, with a significant lift of the eyebrows, when something went missing in the classroom and a thief was suspected. And when Ms. de Lucena’s son Rodrigo, now 23, wants to let her know why he isn’t interested in dating that nice girl from church – he does it, too. It makes his mother throw her hands up in exasperation.

A black doctor in Liberdade
Part 5

A black doctor in Liberdade

They call Liberdade the blackest place outside Africa. It’s a neighbourhood – a city within a city, really – in Salvador, the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia. The state is 80-per-cent black; Liberdade, even blacker. Freed slaves settled here, below the formal town; today the neighbourhood is a jumble of small stores and coffee shops, brick houses perpetually awaiting another storey, and creaking buses navigating narrow alleys. Liberdade is under the control of criminal gangs who run drugs, and extract extortion payments from the small businesses; it is also full of kids playing in the street and old men gossiping on sunny stoops.

The two-storey Santa Mônica Health Post stands on a crowded corner where the guy with the fruit cart doubles as a lookout for the drug runners. The clinic is crowded from the moment it opens each day; it serves 6,500 people, or twice as many as it is meant to on paper, and it has a star attraction: Dr. Ícaro Vidal.

Dr. Ícaro Vidal puts on his lab coat in his office at the Santa Mônica Health Post in the Liberdade neighbourhood of Salvador, Brazil. (Mario Tama/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)

He is one of two doctors at the clinic. Six-foot-four and lanky, with hipster glasses and a funky T-shirt under his white coat, he has a joke and a smile for everyone, and the line outside his door lasts all day long. “Everyone loves Ícaro,” says Ana Cláudia Sousa Farias, who has staffed the clinic reception desk for the past 12 years. But it wasn’t always that way; when he first began to work here, many people were dubious, she recalls, the old ladies, especially: They didn’t trust his hair.

About that hair. Some days Dr. Vidal wears it in narrow braids gathered in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. Sometimes, he leaves it loose, in a nimbus like a late-season dandelion. He never cuts it short, the way most black Brazilian men do. “Proper hair,” he calls that, with a derisive snort.

Still, he understands the unspoken questions; he knows why people push open his office door, look at him in his white coat, then ask when the doctor will be back. He is the first black physician most of his patients have ever had. When he graduated from the medical school at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), just two years ago, he was the only black student on the stage. He grew up here, in Liberdade. “Doctors don’t come from here,” he says.

Progress and pushback
Part 6

Progress and pushback

For 130 years, Brazil’s census data showed one steady trend: Every time the government counted its citizens, more of them were white. The successive waves of immigration played the biggest role in this. But so did a less tangible process: the slippery business of “passing,” through which mixed-race people took on a white identity.

And then, in 2010, came a change that startled demographers. For the first time since the slavery era, there were more black and mixed-race Brazilians than white ones. The census enumerates adults, so the birth rate doesn’t explain the change – and in any case, that rate is nearly equal across races.

In 2010, for the first time since slavery ended in 1888, the Brazilian census recorded more citizens as black or mixed-race than as white. The shift is attributed not to the birth rate but to a change in the way that people see themselves.

Something else is going on, says Sergei Soares, who heads the national Institute For Applied Economic Research. It’s a shift in self-identification. “You could say that what’s happening is not that Brazil is becoming a nation of blacks, but that it is admitting it is one,” says Mr. Soares, who is white. There has been a black movement here since before the end of slavery, but it has never been influential. With the end of two decades of military dictatorship in 1985, however, there began to be new space for debate about rights.

The constitution adopted in 1988 awarded some descendants of former slaves title to the land they lived on. By 1996, there was a national human-rights action plan, and it included a directive on the need to compensate black people for slavery, although no plan for how to do it. Slowly, there began to be a public conversation about the legacy of slavery as more than just a range of skin tones and their corresponding adjectives.

That conversation began just in time for Ícaro Vidal.

His grandmothers on both sides were illiterate; two generations before, his ancestors had been slaves. Dr. Vidal’s mother, Raimunda dos Santos, finished eighth grade, and moved from the countryside to Salvador to be a maid. At 21, she married a man with a basic education, like her own; he was a low-ranking member of the military police force, part of the vast pool of low-paid black men (and lately women) Brazil uses to do most of its street policing.

The couple had two children; his work often took him away, while Ms. dos Santos got a job as a cashier in a furniture store. The boss urged her to bring her young son Ícaro in to help out in busy seasons, the way other employees did with their kids – but she found ways to dodge the invitation. Instead, she sought out English lessons to fill his afternoons. English is still not widely spoken in Brazil; at the time, it was a preposterous pursuit for a poor black kid. Everyone thought so, except Ms. Santos.

Dr. Vidal with his sister Isis Carine Vidal dos Santos and mother Raimunda Vidal dos Santos in Salvador, Brazil. (Mario Tama/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)

“I didn’t think it was fair: Me working hard, the father working hard, so they could be like us?” she recalls in a conversation in the living room her son renovated and filled with new furniture, using his first paycheques. “What kind of ladder doesn’t go up?”

Ícaro and his sister, Isis, absorbed this sense of ambition. “I wanted a professional, comfortable job working Monday to Friday with a salary that let me travel two or three times a year – to have leisure and security,” Dr. Vidal says nonchalantly, as if this were a perfectly normal thing to want in a neighbourhood where the only kids who ever had new shoes were the ones who ran packages for the drug lords.

But his plan required a university education. And that presented a conundrum. Brazil has two kinds of universities: There are private ones, which are either exceedingly expensive or of very poor quality. And there are public ones, run by the federal and state governments, which tend to be of a much higher calibre – and are free. But because competition for spots in the public schools is fierce, only applicants who have had a private-school education, and the benefit of months or even years of private coaching for the entrance exam, can pass the entrance test.

But in 2004, UFBA introduced a new policy: 36 per cent of seats would now be reserved for black and mixed-race students. For years, black activists had been targeting the universities, as the ultimate symbols (and purveyors) of the elite, for a first effort at affirmative action. In 2002, university administrations began to adopt ad hoc strategies, reserving spots for non-white students. The quotas, as they are baldly called here, applied to every faculty, but they had an outsized impact on the prestigious schools of law, medicine and engineering, which, even in majority-black Bahia, had long graduated all-white classes, year after year.

Students attend a lecture at the Steve Biko Institute in the city of Salvador in Bahia state. It offers a free, year-long course for black students from low-income families to prepare them for the grueling entrance exam for federal universities. (Mario Tama/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)

The quotas pushed the normally veiled discussion about race in Brazil into the open. Students and faculty staged large, angry protests against them. Television news programs showed weeping white mothers describing how their children had prepared their whole lives to follow in their parents’ footsteps but suddenly were being denied their birthright. The harshest critics of affirmative action insisted the policy was introducing racial discrimination into Brazil – rather than working to mitigate it – simply by noting the very existence of a hierarchy between the races.

The policy “costs Brazil the mixed identity created in the beginning of the 20th century and that’s an important thing because if you see yourself like a mixed person, you don’t have racial politics,” says Demétrio Magnoli, a prominent white sociologist whose criticisms of the quotas are widely published in Brazil. “I am against racism – so I prefer we don’t have racial questions.”

The goal of the quotas, he says, is to help a small slice of middle-class blacks – not because the government particularly likes them, but because they are a useful political constituency. “If you create races in the law, you create races in politics. And I don’t want to live in a country like that.”

The essential argument against affirmative action is this: that Brazil’s chief problem is economic inequality and, that as this is reduced, the lives of the poor, who happen to be majority black, will improve – that there is no need to target intervention on race. The argument, notes the activist Ivanir dos Santos, neatly sidesteps the discussion of the historical roots of the inequality, or the need to compensate for it.

In 2005 Dr. Vidal wrote the UFBA entrance exam, applied as a black student, and was accepted in the first class under the quota system. He says that he and a handful of other affirmative-action students, while not publicly identified as such, were startlingly visible against the backdrop of the all-white student body. There was rarely overt hostility – racism in Brazil is never overt, Dr. Vidal notes sardonically – but opposition to the policy was palpable. A professor, looking somewhere over Dr. Vidal’s head as he sat in a lecture hall, one day observed that the average grade on a test had been quite low but “that’s the effect of the quota.” Other students talked about it in groups, just loud enough for Dr. Vidal to overhear. “People would say, ‘All my life I studied and now someone comes who’s not as good as me or my friend, and this space is taken by someone who is not as qualified.’ ” Brazil would no longer reward those with merit, they said – only those with certain physical characteristics.

Dr. Vidal, who graduated at the top of his class, examines young patient Davi Luca as his mother, Liliane Soares da Silva, looks on. (Mario Tama/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)

When people said that to his face, he had a succinct response: “I said, ‘You know, merit starts when you’re a child. If you have a room of your own in which to study, all the food you need to eat, if we’re at the same school and you don’t have to start working at 13 to look after other children or earn money to feed them – then we’re all competing on equal ground, and then we’ll talk about merit.’ ”

Research at UFBA and other Brazilian universities has found that affirmative-action students do as well as or, in many cases, outperform their classmates. Dr. Vidal graduated at the top of his class and promptly began a residency in the family-health program in his old neighbourhood. The older women soon made peace with his hair. All the pregnant ladies began to seek him out, for his patience and that 1,000-watt smile.

“When he started, people were dubious – you heard it in the community – because he was black and young: Black patients had even more skepticism than white ones – they think white people have more capacity to study or learn,” Mônica Nascimento França, a 39-year-old teacher jittery with anxiety over an imminent first baby, confides one afternoon in the stuffy waiting room. “But you can see it in the kind of doctor he is, that he’s Afro-Brazilian and from this community – you know how much prejudice there is here. And he faced it.”

Seeking truth, and equity
Part 7

Seeking truth, and equity

On a sunny day last November, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, presided over a reception to mark the opening of a 22-storey office tower. Waiters passed trays of canapés, and smartly dressed guests lounged on white leather sofas. The tower is the first new building in that multibillion-dollar redevelopment project, which the mayor calls the Porto Maravilha – the Marvellous Port he vows will reclaim the blighted inner city.

Mr. Paes, who is white, talked at length about Rio’s glorious history, but in a few words glossed over the previous period during which it was the centre of the slave trade.

The new tower had been built by a U.S. development company, and its CEO, a white American named Rob Speyer, spoke that day about how happy he was to be in Brazil, where “different ethnicities blend together” in “wonderful unity” – so preferable, he said, to the violent demonstrations then under way back home, in Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. His listeners nodded approvingly. There were about 200 people at the event; of the eight who were not white, six were waiters or other staff.

While the mayor was opening the tower, another event was unfolding less than a kilometre up the road. Brazil’s Black Bar Association had gathered about 100 people (all but two of them black) in a conference hall looking out over the harbour, and announced the launch of a “truth commission” to explore the history and repercussions of slavery in Brazil, and what redress might be made for the descendants of slavery.

“We always say: All whites now, who are alive today, are not responsible for the slavery process, but they benefit until this day from this system.”— Marcelo Dias, member of a new truth commission on slavery

At the meeting, Marcelo Dias was named to head the commission’s work in Rio; he called the initiative “the most important moment for Afro-Brazilians since the end of slavery.” From their seats on the dais, the new commissioners vowed to probe precisely which companies got rich on forced labour, and to dig deeply into the atrocities visited on the Africans who were brought here – details that have received little public airing. They said they would push the federal government to make their initiative a national effort, like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, concluded last year, that investigated decades of human-rights abuses during military rule in Brazil.

But in the months to come, the commission foundered. Public meetings were sparsely attended, and received scant media coverage. The federal government made no move to take over the commission or even endorse it. And the commissioners struggled to find sources for the truth they wanted told – for a variety of reasons, including the fact that, because few slave owners were themselves literate, there is a much thinner surviving historical record of Brazilian than, for example, American slavery.

One question, of course, is what happened here; another is what its victims are owed. Commissioners made cautious use of the word “reparations” – a subject of growing debate in other countries that have a history of sharp racial inequality, such as South Africa and the United States – but one that is almost never discussed in Brazil.

“We always say: All whites now, who are alive today, are not responsible for the slavery process, but they benefit until this day from this system,” Mr. Dias explained in an interview before the meeting began. The commissioners discussed the model that was implemented in Germany after the Second World War, but concluded that it would be impossible, hundreds of years later, to calculate a value that is owed to individuals – and in any case government would never pay.

“Affirmative action already generates a heated debate. Imagine when we hand them the bill,” Mr. Dias said the first day, laughing heartily. “ ‘Look, here it is, your bill. Half of what you own is ours. We want it back.’ There would be a civil war here!”

As Mr. Dias notes, affirmative action benefits only a minority of rare individuals (such as Dr. Vidal) who are able to take up spots at elite universities. And yet broad-based reparations cannot be made in the form of straightforward monetary compensation. So his commission proposes they take the form a fund that invests in majority-black communities – new spending on hospitals, transport, schools, social services and job creation. And museums, more ambitious and official than that of Ms. Guimarães, with her living-room-based exposé of the slave graveyard: Brazil needs a genuine effort at telling an accurate story of slavery, Mr. Dias says, of making it public instead of paving it over.

A teen dives off the rocks in front of the Gamboa de Baixo community in Salvador, Brazil. (Mario Tama/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail).

“I don’t know if we will be strong enough to obtain these reparations from the state,” he said, when the commission had been in operation for four months. “But we need to create this debate in society.”

In 2003, the federal government created the Ministry for the Promotion of Racial Equality; it oversees the implementation of affirmative action and of anti-discrimination laws covering everything from hate speech (most frequently applied to racist fans at football games) to bias in hiring, housing and school enrolment. After universities began to adopt affirmative-action policies, the federal government moved to implement them for other institutions as well. Roughly 20 per cent of jobs in state governments, plus some federal institutions such as the diplomatic corps, are reserved for applicants who identify as black and mixed race.

In late June, the National Council of Justice, which manages judicial appointments, announced that, from now on, 20 per cent of seats on the bench would be reserved for black applicants – an apparently straightforward plan that crystallizes the challenges of trying to build diversity in the centres of power. But it is doubtful that there are enough black lawyers in the country to fill that many spots, even if they were all to apply. And, as with the university-entrance tests, the exam given to potential new judges is so difficult that, by the council’s own admission, the only people who pass it are those who can take years off to prepare.

Mr. Dias and others want to see the reservation policy extended to private-sector jobs. That suggestion is viewed dimly in Brazil’s boardrooms and political caucuses. But it is increasingly uncommon to hear it repudiated in public.

Marcelo Nilo, for example, was once an outspoken critic of quotas of any kind. Mr. Nilo, 60, is a slick conservative politician who, after seven consecutive terms as an assembly member, rose to be president of the state legislature in Bahia. But a few years ago he switched parties, when power shifted and left-wing parties came to dominate – a move that allowed him to keep the top job. That meant championing quotas. So when a reporter recently came calling in his vast office in the Brutalist concrete state assembly, he set out to defend affirmative action.

A man walks near the Santa Mônica Health Post in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Liberdade, in the city of Salvador in Bahia, the state represented by Marcelo Nilo. (Mario Tama/Getty Images Assignment for The Globe and Mail)

“Today, Brazil has evolved a lot, because white people and black people have the same rights, but black people have yet to achieve the same economic power,” he began, then trailed off, then began again. “To get into university, in my point of view, blacks don’t have difficulties; there is no prejudice against them. There’s discrimination against poor people. … If you put a quota for blacks, are you discriminating against whites? I am in favour, because I know black people have a hard time to access these jobs. But some people aren’t.”

Mr. Nilo says that progress on racial equality is evident in the assembly he represents. The Congress in Brazil’s blackest state appears, at first glance, almost uniformly white. Asked who, exactly, is black, he shouts out the name of the two mixed-race deputies, before turning to a gaggle of white aides who fill a row of sofas in his office: “That guy, that guy, what’s his name? We have him!” An assistant flicks frantically through a list on her phone, trying to come up with the name of a black congress member.

Anyway, Mr. Nilo continues, skin colour is irrelevant. “I’ve talked to all the congressmen here, and I don’t know one racist. I’ve talked to them all and I swear I don’t know one racist one. Yes, all are white, and married white women. But that’s because they like the colour white better … It’s a question of affinity.”

He pauses to offer small cups of coffee, carried in by a black waiter, while two security guards, both black, look on. In fact, Mr. Nilo says, it is specious to talk about skin colour when everyone in Bahia has a mixed racial heritage. “I’m not white,” says the deputy, whose skin glows like a first snowfall. “My father was moreno,” he adds, using the word that means brown, and is the catch-all term for mixed-race.

He then sends the aide to fetch a picture of his father, who also appears white to the uninformed observer. Mr. Nilo concedes that many people probably read his father, who was also a politician, and mayor of their town for years, as white. But no matter, he concludes, “I’m moreno.”

Missing: an explicit conversation
Part 8

Missing: an explicit conversation

Ten years ago, Daniele de Araújo moved from her job as a domestic worker to one as a telemarketer – she was fiendishly good at it, but she had even bigger ambitions. So she went back to school, and now is about to graduate as a radiation technician with a specialty in bone-density scans. Her husband Jonatas left the military after seven years and now works as a security guard at a steel plant – a union job that comes with an excellent benefits package. Sarah Ashley goes to a private school where the curriculum includes English classes – the stamp of aspiration.

It’s tempting, says Marcelo Paixão, the black economist, to believe that the narrowing of economic inequality in recent years will also, in time, reduce the racial inequality. And yet, he notes, while the income disparity has shrunk, the rate of police violence against blacks, for example, has actually risen. There needs, he says, to be an explicit conversation that acknowledges that all poor people are not equal. “Can Brazil transform itself without examining racial inequality? I believe it’s impossible.”

For now, that conversation remains muted. In Brazil’s federal election last year, for example, one of the three candidates for president was a black woman, Marina Silva. She came close to winning. But, Prof. Paixão says with a laugh, you would “have to remind her” she is black, so little mention did she, or anyone else, make of it through her campaign.

But in Salvador, Icaro Vidal finds himself talking about race more and more. One day during Carnaval festivities last year, a guard snapped the velvet rope down in front of him as a line of his friends (all white) filed into a party in a club. “I said to the security guy, ‘You know what your problem is? You believe that black people like us can only be the ones holding the rope.’ ”

The guard apologized, and waved him through. Dr. Vidal went dancing. His hair was loose, and wildly curly. He knew people were talking about it. And that was just fine.

Editor's Note: Carlos Costa Ribeiro is a professor at Rio de Janeiro's state, not federal, university, as a previous version of this article stated

330455705060022,Santo Cristo,1,939,650,633,510,12330,5539,4447,2278,41,25,0,66
330455705080089,Cidade Nova,3,1344,800,951,529,5466,2699,1971,747,47,2,0,49
330455705080070,Rio Comprido,3,1548,900,1078,570,43764,23134,14202,5811,561,52,4,617
330455705090437,Cosme Velho,4,4173,1540,2947,750,7178,4420,1742,936,52,28,0,80
330455705110111,Jardim Botânico,6,5811,3500,4408,2000,18009,14915,2195,802,73,24,0,97
330455705110302,São Conrado,6,6902,4000,5006,1500,10980,9090,1336,499,42,13,0,55
330455705120067,São Cristóvão,7,1613,1000,1030,510,26510,13769,9344,3078,293,26,0,319
330455705120071,Vasco da Gama,7,1198,750,818,510,15482,8226,5533,1563,124,36,0,160
330455705130278,Alto da Boa Vista,8,2094,1000,1415,600,9343,5851,2310,1141,26,15,0,41
330455705130263,Praça da Bandeira,8,2561,1600,1965,1020,8662,6125,1922,550,54,11,0,65
330455705140042,Vila Isabel,9,2502,1500,1821,800,86018,53787,23593,7964,570,104,0,674
330455705160209,Brás de Pina,11,1280,850,824,510,59222,28449,21461,8789,479,44,0,523
330455705160116,Penha Circular,11,1396,1000,885,510,47816,25296,16300,5921,270,24,5,299
330455705320035,Del Castilho,12,1294,900,866,510,15610,9180,4860,1488,46,36,0,82
330455705320125,Engenho da Rainha,12,1226,850,818,510,26659,11305,10739,4354,235,26,0,261
330455705320023,Maria da Graça,12,1783,1200,1250,800,7972,5314,2040,570,43,5,0,48
330455705320129,Tomás Coelho,12,1155,800,762,510,22676,10105,8808,3613,118,32,0,150
330455705170393,Água Santa,13,1629,1000,947,510,8756,4700,2683,1287,66,20,0,86
330455705170342,Engenho de Dentro,13,1622,1000,1118,600,45540,26428,13889,4980,180,63,0,243
330455705170075,Engenho Novo,13,1562,1000,1091,600,42172,22229,13417,6193,293,40,0,333
330455705170132,Lins de Vasconcelos,13,1682,1000,1130,510,37487,17461,14671,5088,210,57,0,267
330455705170001,São Francisco Xavier,13,1694,1000,1159,550,8343,4184,2966,1138,43,12,0,55
330455705170186,Todos os Santos,13,2600,1822,1893,1021,24646,18204,4881,1434,93,34,0,127
330455705190037,Vicente de Carvalho,14,1086,700,706,510,24964,10403,10501,3724,311,25,0,336
330455705190061,Vila da Penha,14,1428,1000,970,600,18274,9352,6560,2215,123,24,0,147
330455705190001,Vila Kosmos,14,2145,1500,1531,1000,25465,16994,6531,1741,164,35,0,199
330455705190101,Vista Alegre,14,1722,1200,1194,800,8622,5552,2226,801,32,11,0,43
330455705200405,Bento Ribeiro,15,1441,1000,967,530,43707,22100,15957,5418,182,50,0,232
330455705200076,Engenheiro Leal,15,1058,800,651,510,6113,2268,2769,1028,44,4,0,48
330455705200304,Honório Gurgel,15,1117,800,695,510,21989,9215,9446,3214,84,30,0,114
330455705200439,Marechal Hermes,15,1309,850,838,510,48061,21513,20055,6210,240,43,0,283
330455705200357,Oswaldo Cruz,15,1369,1000,895,510,34040,15635,12530,5603,239,28,5,272
330455705200015,Quintino Bocaiúva,15,1354,1000,932,560,31185,16745,10436,3880,109,15,0,124
330455705200301,Rocha Miranda,15,1191,800,777,510,44188,19294,17266,7302,296,30,0,326
330455705200211,Vaz Lobo,15,1126,800,711,510,15167,6471,5572,3045,78,1,0,79
330455705210339,Freguesia (Jacarepaguá),16,2673,1500,1860,800,70511,44303,19534,6311,325,38,0,363
330455705210442,Gardênia Azul,16,1069,750,728,510,17715,6908,8409,2274,113,11,0,124
330455705210267,Praça Seca,16,1561,1000,1048,511,64147,32474,23624,7416,572,60,1,633
330455705210219,Vila Valqueire,16,2279,1500,1503,750,32279,20890,8610,2604,140,35,0,175
330455705220001,Padre Miguel,17,1152,800,725,510,64228,27795,27652,8343,400,38,0,438
330455705220351,Senador Camará,17,965,670,576,510,105515,39612,50930,14070,859,44,0,903
330455705230036,Campo Grande,18,1362,900,846,510,328370,147323,140461,38060,2143,373,10,2526
330455705230331,Senador Vasconcelos,18,1135,800,701,510,30600,12174,14349,3858,188,31,0,219
330455705240428,Santa Cruz,19,941,630,533,500,217333,72127,110202,32554,2211,239,0,2450
330455705250278,Cidade Universitária,20,1415,1000,901,510,1556,650,756,148,2,0,0,2
330455705250094,Freguesia (Ilha do Governador),20,1607,1000,1076,510,19437,9851,7516,1933,129,8,0,137
330455705250141,Jardim Carioca,20,1594,950,1078,540,24848,12641,9893,2095,188,31,0,219
330455705250096,Jardim Guanabara,20,3565,2500,2524,1500,32213,25522,5495,986,163,47,0,210
330455705250036,Praia da Bandeira,20,2049,1500,1432,900,5948,3618,1793,464,51,22,0,73
330455705270142,Parque Anchieta,22,1311,900,802,510,26212,11800,11048,3184,167,13,0,180
330455705270216,Ricardo de Albuquerque,22,1084,700,648,510,29310,11512,13194,4316,269,19,0,288
330455705280004,Santa Teresa,23,1697,1000,1242,600,40926,21509,13956,4954,384,123,0,507
330455705290033,Barra da Tijuca,24,6835,5000,4823,2300,135924,119060,13049,2852,850,75,38,963
330455705290285,Recreio dos Bandeirantes,24,3808,2000,2639,900,82240,57890,19368,4240,585,157,0,742
330455705290287,Vargem Grande,24,1456,700,958,510,14039,6544,6098,1319,61,17,0,78
330455705290300,Vargem Pequena,24,1273,700,816,510,27250,11802,11923,3330,159,36,0,195
330455705300083,Barros Filho,25,762,580,424,500,14049,5032,7116,1775,116,10,0,126
330455705300001,Coelho Neto,25,1058,800,662,510,32423,14178,13539,4554,143,9,0,152
330455705300111,Costa Barros,25,744,538,424,500,28442,8315,14508,5264,315,40,0,355
330455705300182,Parque Columbia,25,997,700,617,510,9202,3519,4243,1367,71,2,0,73
330455705310101,Barra de Guaratiba,26,1261,800,777,510,3577,1399,1769,378,28,3,0,31
330455705310087,Pedra de Guaratiba,26,1364,900,850,510,9488,5385,3371,679,40,13,0,53
330455705350041,Complexo do Alemão,29,722,590,433,510,69143,22993,33600,11930,583,37,0,620
330455705390171,Jardim América,31,1191,900,719,510,25226,13215,9330,2481,194,6,0,200
330455705390069,Parada de Lucas,31,881,650,496,510,23923,9193,10002,4410,307,11,0,318
330455705390131,Vigário Geral,31,898,610,504,510,41820,14717,18781,7675,604,43,0,647
330455705370033,Campo dos Afonsos,33,3739,3000,1991,600,1365,1099,201,64,1,0,0,1
330455705370278,Jardim Sulacap,33,2330,1800,1513,800,13062,8358,3754,880,65,5,0,70
330455705370081,Magalhães Bastos,33,1172,800,733,510,24430,10130,11036,3069,166,26,3,195
330455705370015,Vila Militar,33,1659,1000,1029,510,13184,5512,5416,2130,105,21,0,126
330455705380001,Cidade de Deus,34,823,600,533,510,36515,9642,17454,8887,465,67,0,532