A Race Devoid of Race: Racial Politics of Brazil’s Election

The obvious is treated discretely in Brazil: Two women are fighting head-to-head for the presidency, one black and one white, and yet race is not at the forefront of the debate.

Compared to when when President Obama was running for the presidency, there has been nowhere near as much fanfare regarding Marina Silva. If she wins, she will be the first Afro-Brazilian president in Brazilian history.

Silva’s campaign has not emphasized the remarkable accomplishment of perhaps being the first Afro-Brazilian president in a country that is, since 2010, composed of a majority of black and mixed-race Brazilians. Amongst her campaign’s “40 reasons” to vote for her, we find #13 emphasizing that she is a woman, but the fact that she is the child of mixed-racial parents is, strangely, not cited.

The relative silence surrounding Silva’s race is certainly not because we are experiencing a post-racial Brazil. Rather, the race card has proven a two-edged sword for Silva. While racial attitudes may possibly have an impact on the election, Silva’s heritage by no means guarantees her the black vote, as she still faces strong resistance from the Afro-Brazilian community.

As the president of the Brazilian Association of Researchers (ABPN) Paulino Cardoso stated, “We are glad someone self-identified as black, but under no hypothesis does Silva represent the struggle of this population”. That is, Silva has largely failed to play to issues that are key to winning the Afro-Brazilian vote.

Firstly, Silva’s Evangelism has alienated followers of religions of African origin. Described by her autobiographer as “the hardened Communist militant [who] became a religious believer,” her religious identity has allowed her to capture the imagination of a number of Evangelicals, who account for about 22 percent of the population. On the flipside, Evangelicals have been harsh critics of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion widely practiced in the country. Rather than compensating for her personal devotion with a developed government program to legitimize religions like Candomblé, Silva limits herself in her platform to “combat disrespectful attitudes towards Afro-Brazilian cults.”  Even Silva’s campaign manager for the promotion of racial equality has admitted their failure to detail policies towards Afro-Brazilian religions.

Furthermore, in an effort to appease her Evangelical constituency, Silva has already taken a conservative stance on LGBTQ rights. She has stated several times she is in favor of a laic state, but her conservative views on social issues continue to undermine the persuasiveness of her alleged commitment to the separation of church and state.

Secondly, while Silva is the only candidate amongst the three forerunners who has a specific chapter in her platform to address Afro-Brazilians, she has been criticized for her unassertive stance on affirmative action and other measures for the inclusion of Afro-descendants in the public university system — a group that has been systematically disadvantaged at all levels of education. Despite Silva’s public statements in support for racial quotas to address this historical bias, President Dilma has questioned her challenger’s commitment to continue implementing racial quotas.

Silva has defined her promised quotas as a temporary, emergency, and reparatory measure with a definite end-date. In later interviews, campaign managers have specified they believe the appropriate expiration date for racial quotas is 10 years. Considering that these quotas started during the Lula administration 12 years ago, if campaign statements offer any prognostics for how candidates will act when in power, then the quotas program is sure to be discontinued during her term.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, Silva’s neoliberal economic policies are seen as contrary to the interests of the majority of the Afro-Brazilian population, who are amongst the most socio-economically disadvantaged. Cardoso, from the ABPN states, “Us [blacks] are the most miserable amongst the miserable in Brazil.” To get a sense of the extent of racial inequality in Brazil, more than half of the people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are black, whereas only 7% of the richest districts’ inhabitants are black.

There is a visible contradiction between Silva’s potential appeal to lower classes and the policies she supports. On the one hand, Silva’s background evokes the life or death struggle that is part of everyday life for many Brazilians. Born in the backlands to an extremely poor family, she learned how to read at age 16 and has battled adversity her entire life. She became a syndicalist militant along with Chico Mendes, and later helped establish the Workers’ Party before serving as Minister of the Environment under the Lula administration.

On the other hand, the reduced state that Silva proposes is unlikely to sustain the same social policies that the Workers’ Party has implemented during the popular ‘Lula’ da Silva and now Dilma administrations — policies from which, given the intersections of race and class, many Afro-Brazilians benefit from. While Silva has stated that she won’t eliminate headline programs such as Bolsa Família, to many her victory represents a retrocession in the efforts that the Worker’s Party has made towards greater redistribution.

No matter how much Silva paints her background as closer to the general electorate, it is President Dilma who, despite her middle-class upbringing, maintains a strong lead amongst the bottom two socio-economic classes, broadly referred to as “excluded” and “lower-middle”; with 50% approval ratings in the former and 38% in the latter, according to the latest poll.

This is not to say Silva has avoided the racial question altogether in these elections. After being bombarded by Dilma’s aggressive campaigning in the past two weeks, Silva has sought to take a stand on her heritage and to try and leverage it for wider popular appeal. Silva has campaigned three times in Salvador, the capital of Bahia and the historic epicenter of Afro-Brazilian history and culture. Two days ago, during her visit to Manaus, Amazônas, the candidate announced: “I will be the first black woman elected president of the Republic.” We may all be conscious of the significance of Silva’s victory to the struggle of Afro-Brazilians, but drawing too much attention to race may not be the most effective strategy when her policies and performance have failed to convince negros and pardos in Brazil that her government is for them.