Sunday, December 18, 2016

John Malveaux: National Public Radio: Since Established In The 1950's, Brazilians Say Anti-Racism Laws Aren't Enough

Racism has been illegal in Brazil ever since an African-American dancer was barred from a hotel in the 1950's. But the problem persists.

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 about it.

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.


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 tells me.

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