RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Aleixo Joaquim da Silva was working in this city's famed seaside Copacabana neighborhood, far from the slum where he lives, when he was reminded that racism was well and alive in Brazil.
While refurbishing the service elevator of a high-rise apartment building, da Silva had to ride the elevator reserved for residents to fetch supplies. A white woman entered and, taken aback, ordered him out.
"'I'm not riding with a black!' she told me. 'The place of blacks is in the service elevator!''' da Silva recalled.
Although black Brazilians have long endured such insults, many are deciding that they've had enough. Da Silva, 50, reported the woman to state authorities, and she was convicted for breaking laws prohibiting discrimination.
It was a small victory for da Silva, but he's only part of a growing movement to turn back centuries of pervasive and unchallenged racism in this country whose black population of 90 million — nearly half of its total 190 million people — is the world's second-largest, after Nigeria.
From university classrooms to television airwaves, black Brazilians are fighting for what they say is long-denied space in a society that has kept them on the margins.
They're pushing for two affirmative-action bills in Brazil's Congress that would open college enrollment and government payrolls to more Brazilians of African descent. Already, many state universities have implemented their own affirmative-action programs.
In 2005, black entertainer Jose de Paula Neto launched the country's first television station aimed at black audiences, TV da Gente. Meanwhile, hundreds of communities known as quilombos that were founded more than a century ago by escaped slaves are winning recognition and federal protections.
And Brazilians are finally discussing race after decades of telling themselves and the rest of the world that the country was free from racism.
"The Brazilian elite says this is not a racist country, but if you look at whatever social indicator, you'll see exclusion is endemic," said Sen. Paulo Paim, author of one of the pending affirmative-action bills. "We want to open up to more Brazilians the legitimate spaces they deserve."
Starting in the 16th century, Portuguese slave traders sent about 5.5 million Africans to Brazil, with more than 3.3 million surviving the journey, according to historians. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the last country in the Americas to do so.
That African legacy is clear in census numbers: About half of Brazilians identified themselves in a 2005 survey as black or pardo, meaning a mix of races but predominantly white and black. Another half identified themselves as white, and less than 1 percent were Asian or indigenous.
Despite their numbers, black Brazilians have long been poorer, less educated, less healthy and less powerful than white Brazilians. Brazilians may regularly eat foods and use words that originated in Africa, but their history books talk almost exclusively about the deeds of white heroes.
Census figures show pardos and blacks earned about half of what white Brazilians made last year, with the gap widening among more educated Brazilians. In comparison, African-Americans earned 62 percent of white American wages in 2004, and more schooling helped blacks approach white incomes.
The U.N. Human Development Index, which measures countries based on health, income and other factors, paints an even worse picture. If measured separately, Brazilian whites would be ranked 44th in the world, on par with oil-rich Kuwait, while Brazilian blacks and pardos would be ranked 105th, about the same level as El Salvador.
"I have never seen any evidence that suggests anything other than there's widespread racism in Brazil," said University of California-Los Angeles sociology professor Edward Telles, an expert on the subject. ''Racial and social inequality are strongly linked."
Despite the disparities, debate about race is rare in Brazil, and problems are more felt than spoken about.
Black Brazilians have never launched a civil rights movement like that in the United States nor have they developed national black leaders in the mold of Martin Luther King Jr. or South Africa's Nelson Mandela.
Also nonexistent are black civic groups with the power of U.S. institutions, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or financial networks that could spur black entrepreneurship.
Those who do speak out about racial disparities, such as TV da Gente, are accused by critics — including some prominent blacks — of fomenting racial divisions or of racism.
"Every time we try to put together a project like this, we're criticized by the government and everyone else who says there is no racism in Brazil," said Hasani Damazio, TV da Gente's director of international programs. "It's clear that race is treated very differently here than in the U.S."
A key difference is that Brazil never imposed legal racial segregation like the United States and South Africa did, which meant black Brazilians didn't have an institutional injustice to rally around.
Black leaders also blame what they describe as decades of self-censorship about race spurred by the "racial democracy'' vision of their country, which long defined Brazilian self-identity.
Preached in the early 20th century by sociologist Gilberto Freyre, the vision depicted a Brazil that was freeing itself of racism and even of the concept of race through pervasive mixing of the races.
Opponents to the pending affirmative-action bills have echoed key points of Freyre's argument, especially those about miscegenation. Census statistics show about 30 percent of Brazilian households were headed in 2000 by couples from different racial backgrounds — six times the U.S. ratio.
Ali Kamel, executive director of news for the country's biggest television network, Globo, said Brazilians don't think in terms of white and black, and he argued that poverty affects all Brazilians. He blamed a collapse in public education and not racism for social disparities.
"Our big problem in Brazil is poverty, not racial discrimination," Kamel said. "The racism here is at a degree infinitesimally less than in other countries."
Opposition to the affirmative-action bills also has come from some black leaders, including Jose Carlos Miranda, coordinator of Brazil's Black Socialist Movement, who fear race-based policies could aggravate racism.
"The worst thing we could do is pass laws that deepen divisions that already exist," Miranda said. "What wounds us the most is class, and the only way to fight racism is to promote more equality."
Still, polls show that the time-worn idea of a multihued racial democracy is losing its sway, as the race debate heats up. A 2003 poll showed that more than 90 percent of Brazilians said racism existed in the country.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former leftist activist and union leader, is credited with helping to spur the changes in attitudes.
Soon after taking office in 2003, he made race a key issue and appointed Brazil's first black Supreme Court justice, Joaquim Barbosa. Lula also created a special secretariat for racial equality and launched initiatives such as requiring Afro-Brazilian history to be taught in all primary schools.
Many black leaders are skeptical that the latest changes will have any lasting impact. They point out that although the country's 1988 constitution criminalized racism, few people have served jail time for breaking the law. The woman who insulted da Silva in the elevator was sentenced to community service but has appealed the ruling.
Da Silva, however, said the confrontation marked a personal turning point.
"When that happened, I felt such disgust that I knew something had to change," he said. "I knew that if I didn't do anything about it, I wouldn't be able to live with myself anymore. So I did something."