Brazil Struggles with Racial Redefinition in Office


Written by: Kamika Patel

In part because of growing awareness of racial inequality and in part because of growing global recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement, more attention has been paid to the self-declaration of candidates’ race in the 2020 elections in Brazil.

Electoral candidates have been required to declare their “color/race” in Brazil since 2014. However, between the 2016 and 2020 elections, more than 43,000 veteran politicians in Brazil have changed their self-identified race since their last campaign. This means that one in four candidates who ran for office in a previous election declared a different “color/race” in 2020 compared to their former filing.

Around 56 percent of Brazilians identify as Afro-Brazilians, a category including Black, Brown, and mixed-race people. The share of Brazilians embracing their African heritage and identifying as Black or mixed-race in 2019 has risen compared with 51 percent a decade earlier. Therefore, Brazil has the largest population of African descent outside of Africa. However, Black Brazilians specifically are still underrepresented, as they make up just 18 percent of Congress and 4.7 percent of executives in Brazil’s 500 largest companies.

When approximately 29,000 Afro-Brazilian city council and mayoral candidates took office on Jan. 1, 202, communities of color celebrated their growing political representation. 

Some of the contemporary efforts to change Brazil’s official racial categories are part of a broader push to correct racial inequalities that are deep-rooted in the country’s history. Of the 10.7 million slaves who arrived alive on the continent, about 5.8 million were brought to Brazil, meaning that slavery in Brazil involved more people than in any other country in the Americas. Slavery resulted in a long history of violence and discrimination against Afro-Brazilians which persists as  social and racial inequality today

Racial categorization in Brazil is largely a product of physical attributes like skin tone, facial features and hair type. If any of those characteristics change, an individual’s race theoretically could change as well. These physical characteristics create social constructions through which racism is practiced.

To decrease the social exclusion in politics, as well as other areas in Brazilian society such as education and high-skilled employment, in the early 2000s, former president da Silva established a government agency to promote racial equality. About one decade later, his successor Rousseff approved affirmative action programs including the 2012 law that reserves spots for poor, Black and Brown, and Indigenous students in federal universities and federal technical high schools, and the 2014 law that reserves 20 percent of public service jobs for Black and Brown applicants. These programs have been limited in their success as Brazilians can self-declare their race and unconventionally bypass these laws.

These initiatives to address lingering racial inequalities became less prominent under the right-wing administration of later president Michel Temer and the current far-right administration of Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s administration claims that Brazil is a “racial democracy,” a society free of racism and discrimination—essentially turning a blind eye to the persistent and relevant racial issues within the country. Bolsonaro has not made any explicit efforts to resolve issues of social and racial inequality in Brazil. This has led progressive politicians to advance social equality by encouraging judges to denounce racism through their interpretation of existing legislation, including the constitution, which repudiates racism. 

While the changes in politicians’ self-identification reflect the country’s diversity and evolving view on how to recognize and define demographic categories, there are several electoral considerations to understand the different reasons as to why politicians change their racial identity.

2015 research conducted in Brazil suggests voters use a candidate’s race as an information shortcut when deciding whom to support. When presented with a large ballot with many candidates, voters show a significant preference for same-race candidates. These results are particularly important given Brazil’s electoral rules that provide voters with an overwhelming amount of candidates to choose from. As a result, politicians use racial appeals to secure support from voters. 

These changes in politicians’ self-identification also coincide with a new electoral rule that directs additional funding and visibility to Afro-Brazilian candidates’ campaigns.

In the 2020 elections, candidates had compelling financial reasons to embrace self-White identities. In a 4-3 decision, Brazil’s top electoral court ruled that each political party must divide their electoral funds as well as media access proportionately between White and non-White candidates. Benedita da Silva, the country’s first Black female member of Congress praised this ruling for providing non-White candidates access to resources they had long been denied. But the rule change also offered opportunistic candidates with financial incentives to embrace Blackness.

Tracking how political parties manage their electoral decisions is relevant in Brazil because most party activities and electoral campaigns are publicly funded. In 2020, Brazilian political parties received a total of R$3 billion ($540 million) from national funds.

Beyond financial incentives, candidates may have chosen to identify as non-White because of growing racial consiousness across the country. Some candidates reasoned that they chose to adopt non-White identities after personal reflection attestating to their roots and affirming they are not White. Others pinned the change on the actions of their affiliated parties and campaign team members.

Porto Alegre city council candidate Marcio Souza identified as White in two previous elections before changing to Black. As a result of miscegenation, he says he made the change as a conscious statement of solidarity due to the occurrences of racial crimes. Candidate Vanderlan Cardoso, who ran for mayor of Goiânia, declared himself White for three consecutive elections, before selecting Brown in 2020. He claimed that this change in declaration was due to whoever filled his candidacy forms, refusing to make any further comments past this explanation. 

As many of these claims were made by candidates who are socially perceived as White, many Brazilians are left skeptical. Black voters, especially, are questioning whether the lawmakers actually understand their experience as a marginalized majority and will support their needs in office. The importance of representation increases more and more as minorities become the majority in Brazil

Non-White Brazilians face many of the same racial and social inequalities that non-White individuals experience in the United States. Structural disparities are visible given the fact that nonwhite Brazilians are more likely than whites to be killed by police and to die from COVID-19. Nonwhite Brazilians also fall behind Whites on almost every factor contributing to well-being, from education level to income.

There is a historical precedent for Afro-Brazilian lawmakers to explicitly fight for the rights of their people in office. Many Brazilian activists, politicians and voters in 2016 and 2018 have claimed that Afro-Brazilian lawmakers advocate for nonwhites and prioritize their needs. They pointed towards the actions of politicians like Rio de Janeiro city council member Marielle Franco, who was an outspoken critic of police violence against nonwhites. Franco was assassinated in March 2018. Another example was Da Silva, Brazil’s first Black female member of Congress. Da Silva has been explicitly candid about her responsibility towards Black Brazilians since she was elected in 1987, actively working against racial discrimination. 

Afro-Brazilians are worried that the 4,580 new Afro-Brazilian lawmakers who assumed office on Jan. 1 after years or a lifetime of passing as White may not have that understanding of Blackness, despite their claims of belonging and recovering their roots. Or they may not feel the same responsibility toward Afro-Brazilian communities.  For valid reasons, many non-White Brazilians are  suspicious whether the country has actually taken a step towards racial equality or if the people in power are reaping the financial benefit that has presented itself.