Black Brazilians Fighting Racism with Slavery-Era Resistance Tactic

Black Brazilians are embraced in a struggle of resistance against institutional systemic state racism, like Black people in Amer
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Photo: Twitter

Black Brazilians are embraced in a struggle of resistance against institutional systemic state racism, like Black people in America and Europe.

A dozen people are dancing around a bonfire in a yard between two large warehouses in São Paulo. It’s early November and members of Quilombaque—a Black community hub in Perus, a poor neighborhood on the city’s northern fringes—are celebrating. They’ve raised 50% of the funds they need to buy the space they’ve occupied for the past decade and avoid eviction by the owner, who is selling up. As the fire spits embers up to a dark sky, and a steady drum beat marks out a rhythm, the group sings: “I will build my refuge, I will build my place, I will build my quilombo.”

The word quilombo–derived from languages brought to Brazil by enslaved Africans–was the name given to rural communities established by those who escaped slavery in the centuries before Brazil abolished it in 1888—the last country in the Americas to do so. At least 3,500 of those rural quilombos still exist.

But today, quilombo is taking on a wider meaning. Young Black Brazilians say they need to form new communities of Black resistance to deal with a society still shaped at every level by the legacy of slavery.

Racial tensions in Brazil were inflamed by the 2018 election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who on the campaign trail compared Black quilombo members to cattle and said “they don’t even serve to procreate.” But the president is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Brazil’s systemic racism. Around 56% of Brazilians identify as Black—the largest population of African descent outside of Africa—yet Black people make up just 18% of congress, 4.7% of executives in Brazil’s 500 largest companies, 75% of murder victims and 75% of those killed by police.

Things are getting worse.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Brazilians, who already earn just 57% of what white Brazilians do on average, have died and lost their jobs at a higher rate. Police killings rose to 5,804 in 2019—almost six times more than comparative figures for the U.S.

Bolsonaro pushed forward an anti-crime bill last year that included a blanket “self-defense” justification for the use of force by police; the congress passed it with some limitations in December 2019, though critics still say it grants officers significant impunity. Activists and academics have accused the Brazilian state of employing a “death policy” against the Black population.

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