What is structural racism?

Structural racism refers to the set of institutional practices and social, economic and political relations that favor one ethnic group over another.

It is the structures of society that directly or indirectly promote racial prejudice and contribute to perpetuating inequalities.

Structural racism in Brazil has its origin in the process of enslavement of the African population brought in from the 16th century by Portuguese colonizers.

This structuring condition of racism results in the maintenance and intensification of exclusion, the lack of opportunities, violence and poverty of the black population.

Structural racism in Brazil

Structural racism originates with slavery

From the 16th century, the Portuguese brought about 5 million blacks from the African continent to work as slaves in the dominated lands.

Slavery took place between the years 1550 and 1888 and throughout that period the enslaved population was subjected to a barbaric regime of violence and forced labor.

The end of slavery did not end the social exclusion of blacks

Even with the end of slavery, in 1888, the black population did not have the right to enter society. They remained without access to land, education or work.

One example was the 2nd official act of the Complementary Law to the 1824 Constitution, which prohibited blacks from attending schools, as they were “sick with contagious diseases”.

The lack of opportunities for blacks after liberation led this population to crime or to engage in low-paid, manual activities.

Racial theories justified maintaining racism

The domination of white over black was based on scientific theories that tried to prove the physical and mental inferiority of blacks.

These theories spread among Brazilian intellectuals in the 19th century and gave justification for maintaining the marginalization of blacks in society even after the end of slavery.

European immigration and the attempt to “whiten” the population

With the end of slavery, laws were created to bring workers to Brazil. There was an attempt to promote the “whitening” of the population, offering privileges to European immigrants.

Decree No. 528 of 1890 opened the gates of Brazil for immigration, with the exception of “Indians from Asia and Africa”.

Many European immigrants received land and benefits from the Brazilian state to settle in the country. Blacks, who were already in Brazilian territory, did not receive such privileges.

Racism has intensified social inequalities

These centuries of exclusion allowed the very structures in which society operates to promote the continuity of racism and the maintenance of the black population on the margins of society.

As a result of these years of exclusion, the black population in Brazil has more difficulty in accessing the labor market, opportunities for study and professional qualification.

On the other hand, blacks in Brazil are the biggest victims of homicide, feminicide, violence and illiteracy. Due to the lack of opportunities, they are also the majority of the prison population in the country.

Also understand what racism is .

Examples that reveal structural racism in Brazilian society

Lack of political representativeness

One example is the state’s own power structure: although more than 50% of the Brazilian population declares itself to be black, only 17.8% of the parliamentarians who make up the Federal Congress are black.

The same is repeated in other spheres: of the state governors elected in 2018, none are black and of the mayors elected in 2016, only 29% were black.

National Congress plenary session.

Lack of representativeness in television programs

Another example of the reproduction of racism in structures is the TV programs. There is little representation of black program presenters and also in the lists of soap operas.

One example was the soap opera “Segundo sol” of 2018, which was set in Salvador, Bahia, and whose protagonists were all white. According to the 2017 National Household Sample Survey (Pnad), 85% of Salvador’s population is black.

The Union of Blacks for Equality filed a lawsuit against the broadcaster, claiming that the cast did not represent the population of that city.

Portuguese words

This inequality is also reflected in cultural aspects such as jokes and words that have spread in the Portuguese language of Brazil. Some examples of words that use the term “negro” to refer to something negative are:

  • Blacken
  • Black list
  • Black market

Another word used in the Portuguese language is “nightstand”, the name given to bedside tables. The enslaved people used to hold the objects of their masters and could not make a noise, so they were called dumb.

Individual, institutional and structural racism

Racism has three different conceptions: individual, institutional and structural. Individual racism refers to attitudes of discrimination and racial prejudice practiced by individuals.

Institutional racism occurs when public and private institutions act in a racist manner, granting privileges to certain social groups and disadvantages to others.

Structural racism occurs when prejudice in social, economic, cultural and political relations is normalized. In such cases, even if people or institutions are punished for racist acts, this accountability does not reduce social inequalities.

It is for this reason that experts in racial studies argue that the construction of a less unequal society will only be possible with the end of structural racism.


by Abdullah Sam
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