Columns, Opinions

Cardoso ’19: After Marielle Franco’s death, Brazil can no longer ignore its racism

Opinions Editor
Monday, April 23, 2018

As Abdias do Nascimento once famously noted, Brazil has the largest African population of any country in the world besides Nigeria. As of 2010, 97 million Brazilians — 50.7 percent of the country’s population — identify as black or mixed-race. Over the course of the 20th century, racial diversity — particularly among people of European, African and indigenous origin — became a dominant theme in the country’s social consciousness. By the end of the 20th century, a national mythology had emerged around Brazil’s unique multiracial development. Brazil was, as Gilberto Freyre famously commented (though he did not coin the phrase), a “racial democracy.” That is, through generations of coexistence, Brazilians learned to live in a state of racial co-harmony. So how did Brazil — the only former European colony in South America to be ruled by the royal family of its colonizer following independence and the last state in the Americas to outlaw slavery — become a paragon of racial tolerance? Simply put, it didn’t.

Fast forward to March 2018. Marielle Franco, an openly lesbian Afro-Brazilian councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro, was assassinated, along with her driver. Throughout her public life, Franco had been critical of Rio de Janeiro’s approach to managing crime in the city’s favelas and the government’s indifference to the poverty of black or mixed-race Brazilians who live in urban centers. Most recently, she had been an outspoken opponent of the federal government’s decision to deploy the military to control crime in the predominantly black favelas of the city.

Her supporters have claimed that her murder was an act of “black genocide” perpetrated by members of the military, eager to silence an especially vocal critic. Yet while her murder actually remains unsolved, there is a kernel of truth in her supporters’ suspicion: Brazil is a society deeply divided by race. Franco’s assassination — in bringing attention to the brutal tactics of the federal military against the predominantly black favelas, her life’s work challenging institutional racism and even the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death — has challenged the idea of racial democracy publicly in a way that it has not been in decades.

For instance, let’s examine one crucial pillar of the myth of racial democracy: Inequality in Brazil exists along class, not racial, lines. Many Brazilians, including many black and mixed-race Brazilians, when challenged, are quick to point to a number of wealthy or successful Afro-Brazilians as proof that social mobility can transcend racial limitations. Yet this is not true. On average, white Brazilian men make approximately 50 percent more than black Brazilian men, according to one study. When one controls for education, experience and labor market characteristics, race continues to strongly influence wage disparities. Similarly, despite making up 51 percent of the population, black and mixed-race Brazilians make up only 8.5 percent of deputies to the House of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s national legislature. And if black or mixed-race Brazilians are underrepresented in politics, they are overrepresented in prisons: 64 percent of the country’s prison population is black.

While Franco, and many others, have been critical of these trends in Brazilian politics, the country has largely been unable to have serious discussions about race due to the mythology of racial harmony that made criticism of institutional racism seem unpatriotic or even subversive. Fortunately, these discussions are beginning to take place in mainstream forums. Of course, none of this is to say that many Brazilians were not critical of institutional racism and the illusion of “racial democracy” since the term gained popularity in the beginning of the 20th century. Rather, it is to say that mainstream and international attention given to Franco’s death is beginning to neuter claims of racial democracy as an acceptable refrain when debating racism in Brazil. Brazil can and should work toward the realization of the so-called “fable of the three races.” But to do so, it must continue the process of recognizing that it is still just a fable.

Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at Please send  responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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  1. Man with Axe says:

    One murder is hardly a genocide. We should reserve such words for what they really mean rather than use it hyperbolically.

    It probably doesn’t help to think of the racism in Brazil as “institutional racism.” The pay gap is not institutional. By that I mean that it is probably not the result of laws that require one race to earn more than another. There is no actual institution that is racist. I’m guessing, rather, that the divergent outcomes are the result of a multitude of actions taken by individual employers, who may (or may not) be racist, along with who knows how many other actions that have racially unhappy outcomes.

    In the American context, with which I am much more familiar, it is not easy to point to any actual institution that has racist policies that justify the claim of “institutional racism.”

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