In the past few months alone, Brazil has been shocked by multiple black and Indigenous deaths that bring up different dynamics of racism in the country.
We want to take a moment to look at 3 of these stories and learn from them, to reflect on racism as a system that permeates society, and not only as an attitude of some people (see Part 1 of this series for more on racism as a system).
Here are the cases, and the contexts that enabled them.
João Pedro and police violence
The case: In May, João Pedro, a 14-year-old black boy, was murdered by police officers while playing billiards with friends of the same age, in his own home, in a city next to Rio de Janeiro. The police came in firing because they believed thieves were hiding there. Afterwards, the police took the boy’s body, and his family spent 14 hours without news of their son. The case led many Brazilians to question whether the police would have acted in the same way had they been in a wealthy, white majority neighbourhood.
The context: The João Pedro case speaks to the broader trend of who dies at the hands of police in Brazil: about 75% of murders committed by police in 2019 were of black people, mostly young people from poor neighbourhoods, according to the Brazilian Report of Public Security.
Mirtes and income inequality
The case: In May, 5-year-old black boy Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva died after falling from the ninth floor of an upper class building in downtown Recife, one of the largest cities in Brazil. His mother, Mirtes, is a domestic worker and worked for a family living in that building. She had taken the boy to the house because she was called to work, even in a period when there were restrictions on circulation because of the pandemic, because she had no one to leave him with.
When Mirtes went for a walk with the family dogs, she left the boy in the care of the white employer. The boy started looking for his mother, and the employer, instead of distracting him, placed him in the building’s elevator, alone, and let him stay there. Upon reaching the ninth floor, Miguel got out of the elevator, opened a door that gave access to an area overlooking the street and, when he leaned over to try to see his mother, fell and died.
After being arrested for negligence in the care of the child, the employer paid bail and is waiting for the investigation conclusion at her luxury apartment. Mirtes lost her five-year-old son and is mourning at her home, in a poor neighbourhood in the outskirts of Recife.
The context: Mirtes is part of a group that, before the pandemic, included 6.2 million Brazilians: domestic employees. Of these, 3.9 million (62%) are black women. Approximately 18% of black women in Brazil work as cleaners in other people’s homes, one of the factors that helps explain why this is the lowest income group in Brazil. Black people are also more vulnerable to unemployment, underemployment and informal employment.
The Xavante baby and the pandemic’s impact
The case: An 8-month-old baby died of Covid-19 in May, in Marãiwatsédé, the Indigenous land of the Xavante people, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. At the baby’s funeral, people followed the usual funeral tradition with an open coffin, which may have contributed to the “uncontrolled transmission” of the virus in the child’s family village, according to NGO Operation Amazon Native.
But the Indigenous people, and the health team that accompanies the villagers, claim that they were not informed about Covid-19’s transmission and how it entered the community.
The context: This is just one of many examples of how the pandemic has spread to Indigenous villages throughout Brazil. Indigenous leaders, health professionals and NGOs denounce the invasions of Indigenous lands by loggers and land grabbers as one of the main factors for the accelerated transmission of the virus. They also point out the poor access and quality of health care to the villages and the insufficient educational and preventive actions for Indigenous peoples, which often isn’t adapted to their languages and realities.
Like black people, Indigenous people are the target of racism in Brazil. Disinformation, indifference and even hatred towards native peoples are reflected in criminal actions against these communities, such as the invasions of their territories, and in insufficient public policies, which make them even more vulnerable to problems like the pandemic.
In urban areas too, coronavirus has spread from the wealthiest to the poorest neighbourhoods. And in the poor neighbourhoods, it makes many more victims than in high-income regions. Social inequality has become a risk factor even for children, and as blacks and Indigenous people have, on average, a lower income than white people in Brazil, they are also more exposed. According to data from the Ministry of Health, more than 57% of people who died because of Covid-19 in Brazil are black.
A survey by the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ) found that Covid-19 kills 55% of blacks admitted to hospitals, compared to 38% of whites.
One interpretation is the fact that proportionally, more black people have diseases that increase the risk of death from coronavirus, such as diabetes and hypertension, than white people.
Black people are also more represented at the forefront of essential services, such as health care, cleaning and delivery. According to the National Nursing Council, 53% of nurses who are caring for patients with the coronavirus are black.
Proportionally, more black people depend on poor health services. The risk of death in hospitals in regions with low and medium Human Development Index (HDI) scores, where a larger proportion of black and brown people live, is twice that of hospitals with high HDI, where white folks are more represented.
What to do in the face of this situation?
People who study and live with racism say that one of the best actions we can take, individually, against racism is to listen and learn from black and Indigenous people how this problem manifests itself.
350 Brazil will offer its social networks, for a week, to people who are willing to share their experiences and views on the topic.
In addition, in two upcoming blogs in this series on Racism in Brazil, we will share why climate justice is closely related to the anti-racist struggle, and offer some suggestions on how we can learn about racism and act to eliminate it.