For 300 years, the Negroes of the African continent were subjugated and enslaved in various parts of the world, including Brazil. It was three centuries of dehumanisation of millions of people. Today, 134 years afterwards its legal abolition in Brazilian territory, slavery does not hide its profound marks which, unfortunately, the ruling classes turn their backs on as if they were “minor problems”.

Dehumanised by slavery, men, women and children built the wealth of much of the world we know, under the merciless scourge of the whip and so many other forms of violence derived from this condition which, most of the time, was justified as necessary and even positive for the slaves themselves – since, according to the Catholic Church, it would remove the Negro people from sin and give them eternal salvation thanks to their conversion to Christianity.

This condition, to which millions of people were subjected, not only claimed lives in the past but continues to do so in the present, as a result of a perverse system – formed by the alliance of large estates, monoculture and slavery – which laid the foundations of what we know today as Brazilian society, marked among other things by the racial division of labour, one of the pillars responsible for the accumulation of capital and all kinds of exploitation resulting from it.

A blind eye

Today, when we hear the discourse of “meritocracy”, instead of blindly nodding to the false argument that “whoever gets ‘a place in the sun’ deserves it”, we should reflect not only on the intentions of the ruling classes when they use it repeatedly, but also take a historical retrospective to understand how unfortunate it is to resort to meritocracy in such an unequal society.

It is necessary to review the document called the Golden Law, of only two articles: 1: From the promulgation of this law, slavery is declared abolished in Brazil; 2: All provisions contrary to it are hereby repealed. As can be seen, the aforementioned law does not deal with or mention – even superficially – any measures to be adopted to assist the population which, as of that date, was no longer officially enslaved.

It is also necessary to pay close attention to the reality that surrounds us 134 years afterwards. It was to be expected that in the absence of structures designed to integrate in a dignified manner this newly freed population from slavery, disaster would befall them. The statistics bear this out.

Access to education, health, housing, employment and living wages is much lower for the Negro population. Conversely, the rates of incarceration, homicide, illiteracy, unemployment, and physical labour are infinitely higher for the same population.

Yet many people want to continue to turn a blind eye to this. They want to forget the contempt that the Brazilian state has historically shown to the Negro population. Some of these people are even perverse to the point of trying to “justify” the social ills that affect this part of the population by linking them to the demographic issue. Incredible as it may seem, I heard a university professor ask: “Isn’t the fact that blacks are the majority in the prison system due to the fact that they constitute the majority of the Brazilian population?”

Well, this discourse is as perverse as that of “meritocracy”. If it were a question of equivalence to the demographic situation of the Negro population, then why are we not the majority in the Judiciary, in Medicine, in the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, in the Brazilian Academy of Letters, in Journalism, in the National Congress, etc.?

Surely it is not because we do not have the capacity to do so. For most of our lives, most of us have to worry about surviving (literally). Whether it is not to die from a bullet fired by the police (or by a racist neighbour in the very building where he lives, as happened to Durval Teófilo Filho, 38, mistaken for a “delinquent” by a Marine sergeant in February this year), whether it is not to die in prison cells, whether it is not to die of hunger… The statistics show the reality of the black population in this country.

A marker of inequality

In 2019, according to the Brazilian Yearbook of Public Security, blacks made up 66.7% of the prison population, compared to 33.3% of the non-black population (considered white, yellow and indigenous, according to the classification adopted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, IBGE). This means that for every non-black person incarcerated in Brazil that year, two black people were incarcerated.

Also in 2019, a survey conducted by the Mortality Information System (SIM), in conjunction with the Ministry of Health’s Mandatory Notifiable Diseases Information System (Sinan), showed that black men were the most affected, accounting for 75% of all firearm deaths, while non-blacks accounted for 19%. In the same period, black women accounted for 4%, compared to 2% of non-black women.

In 2020, according to IBGE, 65% of women in paid work in family homes were black. The same study showed that 75% of the people performing these functions were not registered with the Ministry of Labour, meaning that they are informal workers, which leads us to the logical conclusion that the majority are black people, especially women.

In the same study, IBGE shows that the national average income fell from R$ 924 to R$ 876 in all regions, except in the North Region, which remained stable. However, informal workers earn 40% less than formal workers; and Negro workers receive, on average, 15% less. In addition, data from the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies (Dieese) show that, in 2021, the unemployment rate for black women is 18.9%, compared to 12.5% for non-black women.

Regarding access to basic sanitation conditions, the Synthesis of Social Indicators (SIS) conducted by IBGE in 2018, showed that all housing and sanitation indicators analysed, demonstrated that the situation of the black or brown population is more serious than that faced by the non-black population. While 72.1% of the non-black population had access to mains water, sewerage and daily waste collection, this percentage drops to 54.7% when referring to the black population.

These statistics are just a few of many that unfortunately demonstrate how race is a marker of inequality in Brazil. Because, although they may seem “clichés” to some, the favelas, the cells, the streets, are contemporary slave settlements; the policemen and jailers are today’s “foremen”; the cells in the police stations are places of torture; the family homes where so many black women toil every day are the “bosses’ houses” of the slave ranches….

If all this were not enough, Repórter Brasil – an organisation whose aim is to encourage reflection and action on the violation of the fundamental rights of Brazilian peoples and workers – published in November 2019 a survey based on data from the Undersecretariat of Labour Inspection, which shows that black people make up 82% of those rescued from slave labour in the country. Four out of every five workers rescued in situations analogous to slavery are black, and most of them come from the northeast, are young, uneducated or have a low level of schooling.

All this means that the Brazilian state left blacks adrift at the end of the 19th century. And it continues to do so in the 21st century. And so, although we are 134 years after the promulgation of that law, we still have to keep fighting to get rid of the stereotypes, stigmas, prejudices and exclusions resulting from the racism that runs through our lives – from birth to death – even though they are often disguised as “praise” or charged with “good intentions”.

The positive thing, in this scenario, is that we do not give up. We continue to resist, whether by denouncing or fighting for respect, dignity and equal rights. We will not be paralysed by attempts to maintain oppressive structures. The road is hard, but we draw inspiration from our ancestors who bravely resisted by organising and fighting for the right to dignity and humanity.