RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — What struck the Brazilian woman most forcibly as she watched U.S. election-night returns on television was seeing Barack Obama’s two young daughters.
“I can’t believe those two little girls with hair like mine will be in the White House,” said 31-year-old Carolina Iootty Dias, putting her hand to her head, tears in her eyes as she watched the screen.
Black Brazilians such as Dias, a human rights worker, celebrated Obama’s election as giving hope worldwide. But the country that prides itself on racial mixing and tolerance is also being forced to take a reality check.
Though half of Brazil’s 190 million people are black — the world’s largest black population outside Nigeria — power remains firmly in the hands of whites. The country has few blacks in top political positions, and government studies consistently show blacks in Brazil earn half as much as whites.
“This Brazilian hypocrisy that says racism does not exist is one of the things that keeps the nation from advancing,” said Stepan Nercessian, an actor and Rio de Janeiro city councilman, who is white.
Latin America’s largest country has long looked down its nose at the racial discord in the U.S. — segregation laws, civil rights battles and a strained social dialogue that continues today.
But Obama’s election is making Brazilians look inward, with some arguing that an American-style struggle is exactly what Brazil is missing.
“I think it is important for young black Brazilians to know how the civil rights movement progressed in the U.S. and how it produced not just Obama, but blacks at the highest levels of American businesses,” said Edson Santos, Brazil’s minister of racial equality, who is black. “It is important that they have contact with this reality.”
Glaucia Carvalho Oliveira is one of those young people.
“All of a sudden, Obama has arrived and taken us to the next level,” she said, sweat glistening on her face as she assembled her snack stand on Rio’s Copacabana beach. “We black Brazilians need him as much as the Americans do.”
Brazil and the U.S. were two of the largest slave-owning societies in the Americas — some 4 million shipped to Brazil and 500,000 to the U.S. — and the two countries that benefited most from the slave trade.
Brazil freed its blacks in 1888, the last country in the Americas to do so. In that year it abolished all its race laws, while American blacks had to fight for more than 100 years after they were freed to gain full rights as citizens.
Black and white Brazilians mix easily in both marriage and social venues, from soccer matches to samba clubs. Beyond the half of the population that is black, most Brazilians are of mixed ancestry and have a census category, “parda.”
No such category exists in the U.S. census. Obama, who is half white and identifies as black, could call himself parda if he were Brazilian.
Despite Brazil’s social ease when it comes to race, many argue that its blacks simply moved from the slave quarters to the slums.
They account for only 3 percent of Brazil’s college graduates. Only one senator among 81 is black, which mirrors the U.S. breakdown, except that blacks are only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Twelve of Brazil’s lower house’s 513 members are black, compared with 46 out of 435 U.S. house members.
With Brazil’s history of authoritarian governments and extreme poverty, blacks only started organizing in the last 40 years, said Reginaldo Lima, who is black and directs AfroReggae, which works on race and violence issues in Rio’s slums.
Six years ago, the country elected its first blue-collar president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a white man who enjoys huge support among blacks. But only two of his 28 government ministers are black.
In 2003, Brazil appointed its first black Supreme Court justice, Joaquim Barbosa, whom some consider a future presidential candidate. Barbosa traveled to Washington to watch the U.S. elections.
Many whites play down the level of prejudice in Brazil, saying the inequalities are economic, not racial.
“We see people not as black or white. We don’t look at a black person and think they are not as capable as whites,” said medical secretary Liliane Lyra, 43. “It is more a social problem that separates the races here, a lack of opportunity for the poor.”
But Alannah Xavier, 26, says her black skin, not her economic status, keeps her from getting work as a model in Brazil.
“You know where I work the most? In Germany … a nation that is supposedly so racist with its Nazi past,” said Xavier. “Here in Brazil they only have work for blondes. Crazy, no?”
Since Silva took office, there have been positive changes, notably affirmative action in the university system, said Jose Vicente, director of Ciudadana Zumbi dos Palmares University, who is black.
Lima says Obama’s election will help that struggle.
“Barack Obama represents what every black person in the world has been hoping for: that the fight of the dream for racial equality in North America can spread to the entire world,” he said.
Others doubt there will be an “Obama effect.”
“This is a very racially mixed country, but all the elites are white. Things have been so bad for so long, I think people just accept it,” said Carlos Eduardo Antones, 21, a waiter and part-time student who is black.
Either way, Emmanuel Miranda is happy to savor the moment.
The 53-year-old Rio de Janeiro policeman, who is black, sipped an espresso in a cafe off Copacabana beach, lit his first cigarette of the day, and declared a new era.
“The U.S. is a country to dream about, and for us black Brazilians it is even easier to do so now,” he said. “God bless you and your beautiful country.”
Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and Associated Press Television News producer Flora Charner in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.
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