BAURU, Brazil—In its 124-year history, this midsize, mostly white city in Brazil’s prosperous farming belt had never had an Afro-Brazilian as mayor. Until now.
The inauguration Friday of Suéllen Rosim, 32 years old, comes as thousands of Black and mixed-race politicians from across the political spectrum take office in municipal governments across Brazil in what is being hailed as a victory for people of color and a big step against racism in Latin America’s biggest country.
A growing appreciation of Brazil’s African heritage and the rising profile of influential Black politicians have fueled the shift. Brazil has the biggest Black or mixed-race population of any country outside Africa, nearly 120 million—more than half the population—but only 4% of politicians in Congress are Black.
A Supreme Court ruling in October that forced parties to allocate a percentage of their state-provided campaign funds to Black and mixed-race candidates also elevated politicians of color and encouraged more to identify as such.
“We’re showing that it’s possible—it’s possible to be a woman, to be Black, and to be a mayor, a state governor or even president,” said Ms. Rosim, a gospel singer and former television news anchor in this city of 380,000 people.
In November’s municipal elections, for the first time, Black and mixed-race politicians made up a majority of all candidates running for mayor and council seats across this country of 210 million people. That was up from 48% in the 2016 municipal elections. In the first round of voting more than 40% of Black or mixed-race candidates were elected, about 1,700 of them as mayors and close to 26,000 as council members, according to Brazil’s electoral court. Brazil’s most common racial mix is black and white; political candidates with black ancestry can identify themselves as either black or mixed-race.
The outcome in some corners of Brazil points to the newfound power: More than 50 people from quilombos, remote communities made up of the descendants of escaped slaves that have had little political representation, will settle into jobs as council members in towns outside these settlements. Large cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, usually represented by whites, saw inroads by Black politicians into city councils.
There are few Black and mixed-race people in politics in Brazil’s top cities, and some Afro-Brazilian leaders say racial equality is arriving too late. But change is happening. The share of Brazilians embracing their African heritage and identifying as Black or mixed-race has risen to 56% of the population in 2019 compared with 51% a decade earlier, according to the government statistics agency.
While leftist parties have traditionally been the first to champion racial equality in the country, Brazil’s rising generation of Black politicians includes some who lean left and many others who are conservatives and devoutly religious.
Ms. Rosim, the daughter of evangelical Christian pastors, ran for Brazil’s right-wing Patriota party, which is allied with President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been accused of racist rhetoric by opponents. In 2017, Mr. Bolsonaro sowed anger when he said that people from quilombos aren’t “even fit for procreation.”
Ms. Rosim said Patriota party officials proposed that she run, hoping to capitalize on her familiar face in Bauru.
While she said she doesn’t always agree with the way Brazil’s fiery leader expresses himself, she shares his socially conservative agenda.
A third of Brazilians define themselves as evangelicals, according to pollster Datafolha, espousing values such as sexual abstinence until matrimony, with Pentecostalism particularly popular in poorer, Black communities. But Black conservatives have been politically underrepresented.
“Because of being a conservative, people wanted to put me in a box, they told me I was acting against my own race,” said Ms. Rosim.
Like many Black Brazilian leaders, Ms. Rosim said she found inspiration in African-Americans, citing Michelle Obama as a role model despite their ideological differences. She said she hopes the election of Black politicians in local government could one day lead to more representation at the federal level.
Brazil received far more African slaves than any other country in the Americas and was the last to abolish the practice, in 1888. Unlike the U.S., there was no civil war, no large-scale civil-rights movement and no countrywide debate over a national racial reckoning.
Instead, Brazilian leaders promoted the idea of “racial democracy,” presenting theirs as a society where people of all skin colors mixed harmoniously. Rights activists say it is a myth that has allowed racism to persist in the shadows.
“I believe that racism is worse here than in the U.S.,” said Paulo Paim, one of Brazil’s few Black senators. “In the U.S. there is a problem and society, in one way or another, is dealing with it…. But here people just refuse to see it.”
White Brazilians not only dominate politics but are more likely to be richer, have a university degree, hold managerial positions, and live longer and healthier lives. Of the poorest 10% of Brazilians, three quarters are Black or mixed-race.
Black Brazilians also accounted for three quarters of homicide victims and nearly 80% of the 6,375 people killed by the police in 2019.
Anger over violence against Black Brazilians rose here and abroad in November when security guards were filmed beating a Black customer to death outside a grocery store in Porto Alegre, a city in the south, a region made up mostly of descendants of European immigrants.
For Ms. Rosim, racism had always presented itself in subtle ways, she said.
She recalled a university professor told her to straighten her tight curls to get a job. She said she has gotten dirty looks from store employees, which she chalked up to them concluding she lacked the money to make a purchase.
In politics, she said, the prejudice has been more open and extreme. A death threat came in an anonymous email on the weekend of the runoff vote in late November, referring to her as a “monkey.”
“It said, ‘I’ll kill you, that horrendous hair, how can a city have a mayor like you, I know where you live,’” said Ms. Rosim. Other anonymous messages over WhatsApp have called her a “slum-face,” saying that no person of color is competent enough to run a city.
Despite the threats, social media has been a factor helping more Black politicians to break into politics, some of those politicians say. The killing of Marielle Franco, a Black council member in Rio de Janeiro who died in a 2018 slaying that has yet to be solved, also galvanized Black political hopefuls.
“We’re seeing new figures of leadership emerge…I believe we’re heading down a path of no return,” said Bia Caminha, a 21-year-old, mixed-race student who was elected as the youngest-ever city council member in the Amazonian city of Belém.
Recently implemented affirmative-action policies, including scholarship programs and racial quotas at universities, are also helping, say rights activists and politicians of color. But there is also a growing appreciation of Black culture, with more Afro-Brazilians featured on the covers of fashion magazines or starring in the nation’s much-loved soap operas.
For Ms. Rosim, the most important thing, she said, is to be seen, whether on a television screen or in government. “I want people to see themselves in me,” she said.
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