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Since Established In The 1950s, Brazilians Say Anti-Racism Laws Aren't Enough


Racism is a criminal offense in Brazil. Discrimination on the basis of skin color is even defined in the country's constitution. And that came about after an African-American dancer visited Brazil nearly 70 years ago. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro has the story.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It was 1950 in Sao Paulo to be exact. Katherine Dunham, the famous African-American dancer and choreographer, was visiting the Black Experimental Theater in Brazil.

ELISA LARKIN NASCIMENTO: She had a reservation at the very fancy hotel in Sao Paulo, the Esplanada Hotel. And when she arrived, she was told that there was no place there for her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Elisa Larkin Nascimento, the current director of the Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute in Rio. She was married to the theater director who invited Dunham to Brazil. After being turned away, Dunham sent her white Canadian husband alone to inquire for a room, and he was told one was available. It was a clear case, she thought, of racial discrimination. But when Dunham went to a lawyer to sue the hotel, she was told...

LARKIN NASCIMENTO: Well, I'm so sorry that this happened with you. It's really a shame. But unfortunately, there's nothing I can really do about it because we have no racism in Brazil. There's no racial discrimination in Brazil. For that reason, we don't have any laws against racial (laughter) discrimination.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At this point, we have to note the following. Brazil, like the U.S., had a long history of slavery. Some 5 million enslaved Africans were brought here, and slavery only ended in Brazil in 1888, the last place in the Americas. But unlike the U.S. with its Jim Crow laws, Brazil never put in place any legal segregation. In fact, after slavery ended, they never really addressed the matter of race at all. Dunham and the director who had invited her took what happened at the hotel to the press.

LARKIN NASCIMENTO: And what happened was the Black Experimental Theater, this organization that my husband ran, made a lot of noise about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it got the attention of Afonso Arinos, a famous intellectual and legislator. He sponsored a bill that made racism into a crime punishable by jail. And it was put into the constitution in Brazil in 1951, says Nascimento.

LARKIN NASCIMENTO: Essentially, what they do is enumerate a certain number of incidents of racial discrimination, such as barring someone at a door, discriminating against them because of their color, refusing a job because of their color.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how is that law applied today? Racist speech is supposed to be a punishable crime. Leonardo Valentim Pereira is a 39-year-old former delivery man with three children. We meet him in a crowded mall in a working-class area of northern Rio.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It was last year," he tells me, "I was making a delivery with two of my companions as we did every day. It was a black heritage national holiday. We went to make a drop-off when the owner of the restaurant we were delivering to, who was white, came out and gave us some bananas. And he said it was in honor of the Day of Black Consciousness, which the country was celebrating. I was shocked," he tells me.


PEREIRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The ensuing argument was filmed on a cell phone and made the news. Pereira says he went straight to the police and made a formal complaint. And the man was ultimately found guilty, and he had to pay a fine. Pereira, who eventually left his job over the controversy, says, he feels the anti-racism laws in Brazil are not strong enough.

PEREIRA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have children who suffer from this every day. It's an aggression. It's stupidity. And it affects the way you see yourself. It makes you want to explode. Racism, for me, is a form of violence, he says.

Black empowerment organizations in Brazil also say the laws need to be strengthened with harsher fines for guilty verdicts. Dr. Marcelo Dias is the President of the Lawyers Association Commission on Racial Equality.

MARCELO DIAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Brazil, he says, 95, 96 percent of the judges are white. They have never lived in a favela or a shanty town or in the periphery of the cities, where the majority of the black population live. Many judges don't see it as a serious crime, he says, so it's a crime without punishment. No one has gone to jail for racism, he says.

The lawyer says racism in Brazil has actually gotten worse with the advent of social media and the ability of people to hurl racial epithets anonymously. He also says the rise of the global far-right movements are also affecting what people feel they can say to someone else. But in Brazil, there is no freedom of speech for racism. It is illegal.

DIAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "You can't stop people from being prejudiced," Dias says. "I can't make someone like me. A white person is not obliged to like me, but he has to respect me. And that is what we want. We want to live in a society of respect," he says. And he says, "the laws of Brazil are there to make sure that everyone will be treated with dignity."

Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.