Racism has been illegal in Brazil ever since an
African-American dancer was barred from a hotel in the 1950's. But the
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Racism is a criminal offense in Brazil. Discrimination on the
basis of skin color is even defined in the country's constitution. And
that came about after an African-American dancer visited Brazil nearly
70 years ago. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro has the story.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It was 1950 in Sao Paulo to be
exact. Katherine Dunham, the famous African-American dancer and
choreographer, was visiting the Black Experimental Theater in Brazil.
ELISA LARKIN NASCIMENTO: She had a reservation at the very fancy
hotel in Sao Paulo, the Esplanada Hotel. And when she arrived, she was
told that there was no place there for her.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Elisa Larkin Nascimento, the current
director of the Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute in Rio.
She was married to the theater director who invited Dunham to Brazil.
After being turned away, Dunham sent her white Canadian husband alone to
inquire for a room, and he was told one was available. It was a clear
case, she thought, of racial discrimination. But when Dunham went to a
lawyer to sue the hotel, she was told...
LARKIN NASCIMENTO: Well, I'm so sorry that this happened with
you. It's really a shame. But unfortunately, there's nothing I can
really do about it because we have no racism in Brazil. There's no
racial discrimination in Brazil. For that reason, we don't have any laws
against racial (laughter) discrimination.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At this point, we have to note the following.
Brazil, like the U.S., had a long history of slavery. Some 5 million
enslaved Africans were brought here, and slavery only ended in Brazil in
1888, the last place in the Americas. But unlike the U.S. with its Jim
Crow laws, Brazil never put in place any legal segregation. In fact,
after slavery ended, they never really addressed the matter of race at
all. Dunham and the director who had invited her took what happened at
the hotel to the press.
LARKIN NASCIMENTO: And what happened was the Black Experimental
Theater, this organization that my husband ran, made a lot of noise
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it got the attention of Afonso Arinos, a
famous intellectual and legislator. He sponsored a bill that made racism
into a crime punishable by jail. And it was put into the constitution
in Brazil in 1951, says Nascimento.
LARKIN NASCIMENTO: Essentially, what they do is enumerate a
certain number of incidents of racial discrimination, such as barring
someone at a door, discriminating against them because of their color,
refusing a job because of their color.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how is that law applied today? Racist speech
is supposed to be a punishable crime. Leonardo Valentim Pereira is a
39-year-old former delivery man with three children. We meet him in a
crowded mall in a working-class area of northern Rio.
LEONARDO VALENTIM PEREIRA: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It was last year," he tells me, "I was making a
delivery with two of my companions as we did every day. It was a black
heritage national holiday. We went to make a drop-off when the owner of
the restaurant we were delivering to, who was white, came out and gave
us some bananas. And he said it was in honor of the Day of Black
Consciousness, which the country was celebrating. I was shocked," he