When Brazilians collectively embraced their first gold medalist of the 2016 Olympics, it was hard not to notice the irony.
Rafaela Silva, an Afro-Brazilian from the infamous City of God slum, had won the gold in judo, but her Olympic moment offered a window into something much larger than sport: it exposed the state of race relations in a country that has the largest number of African descendants outside Africa.
Four years earlier, returning to Rio from London empty handed because of a disqualification in judo, Silva suffered abuse on social media platforms, with some even calling her a monkey. The insults left Silva so depressed, she considered quitting.
Moments after winning gold Monday, she reminded viewers on live television that the woman who had been the subject of those racial insults was now an Olympic champ.
“Everybody criticized me, said judo was not for me and that I was a disgrace for my family,” she recalled. “And now I’ve become champion.”
In Brazil, persons of African or mixed-race descent comprise more than 53 percent of the population, according to Brazil’s most recent census data. Still, studies show that Afro-and mixed-race Brazilians earn about 42 percent less than white Brazilians and are more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of police.
Flavio Canto, a 2004 bronze medalist who once coached Silva, acknowledged the racist commentary. “We unfortunately still see those kind of things nowadays,” he told McClatchy, “but I’d rather not give voice to those kind of people.”
Brazil was the last nation to abolish slavery, in 1888, and like the United States, it has discovered that its road from slavery to integration and inclusion is a long one.
Today, Brazil is attempting to put in place racial and income quotas in federal universities, seeing a nascent Black Lives Matter movement, and struggling with the legacy of frequent killings of Afro-Brazilians by police in the slums.
African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Brazil, persons of African or mixed-race descent comprise more than 53 percent of the population, according to Brazil’s most recent census data.
That alone makes the race question distinct between the two countries, since Brazilians with some degree of African descent are the majority. But there are similarities. Studies show that Afro-Brazilians like Silva and those of mixed-race earn about 42 percent less than white Brazilians and are more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of police.
It’s why the country is in the midst of an aggressive affirmative action program designed to impose quotas on its 59 federally funded universities.
Public universities are free, but entrance is based on exam performance – a system that favors the wealthy, whose parents can afford private schools and tutoring, over the poor, who attend public school and are disproportionately of African descent.
We’re living a black enlightenment in the country, where people don’t just self-declare as black but fight for their rights as black people.
Cecilia Olliveira, activist
By the end of this year, all federal universities must reserve slots for students coming from public schools. Of these slots, which vary by state, 50 percent must be reserved for low-income students and those of indigenous or Afro-Brazilian descent.
Just how many of the slots are reserved for indigenous, mixed-race and Afro Brazilians is determined state by state, depending on the racial makeup found in census data.
“It’s good for the university because we have classes that are more diverse and better represent the Brazilian society. It’s good for the student because they’re getting their studies,” said Mauricio Santoro, a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, which pioneered affirmative action quotas a decade ago. “But it’s also good for society in general because you’re going to have a doctor, engineer or professor graduate from this diverse classroom, and they’re going to have a more interesting perception of the challenges Brazil faces. It’s not going to be an upper-middle-class bubble.”
Brazil has long been viewed abroad as a post-racial society, in part because it is largely a mixed-race majority. But that image masks the country’s racial divide.
“It wasn’t until the last census in Brazil in 2010 that the majority of the population identified itself as black,” said Cecilia Olliveira, a researcher and activist who has tried to create a Black Lives Matter movement here. “It’s to say, we’re living a black enlightenment in the country, where people don’t just self-declare as black but fight for their rights as black people.”
And one reason for the awakening of the slumbering masses is the question of policing in the poor communities like the City of God, the dirt-poor and violent community from which Silva comes. It was featured in a 2002 movie of the same name that was a global hit.
Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 6,000 people have been killed by police in Rio over the past decade, 645 in 2015 alone.
For almost two decades, rights group Amnesty International has spotlighted racial disparity in policing in Brazil, a country where massacres by police are commonplace, as are killings of police by slum drug traffickers.
To highlight the trend, Amnesty in late July displayed 40 body bags in front of the offices of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, reminding that 40 people were killed by police in Rio in the month of May.
A report from the group found that of the 1,275 people killed by on-duty police between 2010 and 2013, 79 percent were black men.
“The number of violent deaths of black youth in Brazil is absurd,” said Humberto Adami, a lawyer who also runs a rights group.
Politicians “left or right have shown the same disinterest in the racial question,” said Adami, who is also president of the National Truth Commission on Black Slavery in Brazil.
“The law is not the principal way to transformation” for equal rights, cautioned Col. Ubiratan Angelo, 59, a retired police officer who now works with poor communities. “What’s not said is that not everybody has the same access to these rights.”
An Afro-Brazilian, Angelo stops for a minute to choke back tears when comparing his childhood to that of Rafaela Silva. He recalls how the kinky hair they both share is commonly called “cabelo ruim,” or bad hair.
Pointing to Silva’s televised comments, Angelo noted she promised to help others like her find a way out of the favelas, as the slums are known here.
“She had to leave it to succeed,” he said, underscoring the challenges.
For many Afro-Brazilians, racism continues to be felt in subtle but stinging ways.
“I tried to get a job in clothing stores but to this day no one has ever called back,” said Thamerys Chamdra Cassino, 22, a striking dark-skinned singer and dancer in the funk band Bonde da Maravilha. “They just want white girls with straight blonde hair.”
Cassino may get the last laugh. The band from Niteroi, across the bay from Rio, is readying to tour Europe.