While inaugurating a new administration underLula da Silva, the country attempts to examine its racialized violence and COVID policies over the last years. 

Ynaê Lopes dos Santos – UFF[1]


Being unable to breathe.

In recent years, this predicament has taken on new implications. All of them are equally nefarious.

One of the most terrible symptoms of the new coronavirus pandemic, which swept over the globe in early 2020, killing millions, was being unable to breathe. On May 20, the same year, an American named George Floyd screamed furiously, "I can't breathe!!" He was not one of the thousands afflicted with COVID. George Floyd was another Black man brutally killed by US police, simply for being Black.

The killing of Black men and young people by US cops is nothing new. However, in this instance, the crime was captured in real time and witnessed by all who dared to watch. The killing of George Floyd has had worldwide ramifications, specifically catalyzing the #BlackLivesMatter movement that originally emerged in 2013.

As with the majority of global public opinion, the main communication platforms and media in Brazil openly condemned George Floyd's death. Moreover, this condemnation was reinforced by a sense of strangeness in relation to this type of violent execution, as if Black men were not routinely assassinated by police in Brazil.

Apparently, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. And large portions of the Brazilian population continue to believe that racism in the United States is more violent than in Brazil. This is a very convenient misconception for a nation that relies on not perceiving itself as racist.

Moments of crisis merge and sharply reveal the intricacies and disparities that organize social reality. In the context of Brazil, the confluence of the coronavirus outbreak and the Bolsonaro regime revealed the extent to which racism pervades Brazilian culture.

If we concentrated only on the data relevant to the pandemic and the criminal manner in which it was dealt with in Brazil, we would have sufficient material to demonstrate the systemic nature of racial prejudice in the country. Looking at the information compiled by the consortium of press vehicles and municipal secretariats, we can see that fatalities from COVID followed the same mechanism that organizes social inequities in Brazil: racism. This is not to say that only Black men, women, and the poor perished from COVID in the country, but these groups died at a higher rate, most likely due to fewer economic, social, and political opportunities to remain isolated or to seek medical attention after acquiring the infection.

However, in Bolsonaro's Brazil, for the last four years Black males, women, indigenous people, and the poorest population did not die solely from COVID. The lack of assistance to indigenous communities is directly responsible for the most recent genocidal tragedy that befell the Yanomami in the state of Pará. Security forces (both public and private) continue to believe that a good criminal in Brazil is a Black criminal, supporting the false perception that every Black person is a potential murderer. Police activities continue to victimize the Black community, particularly the youth. As if that weren't enough, famine has returned to Brazil: almost a third of the population was vulnerable to food insecurity by the end of 2022.

Racism has raised its ugly head throughout Brazil in the last four years. And, thankfully, many people who imagined living in a kind of "racial paradise" have awoken to the nightmare that continues to kill thousands of Black and indigenous people in the most varied ways: either through genocidal policies, through the suffocation of Black men in supermarket parking lots, or through the negligence of white women who abandon 5-year-old Black children to their fate, causing terrible deaths, such as that of young Miguel in Pernambuco.

But, justice must be done, even if Brazil has had a government that openly flirted with fascism during the previous four years, what we have seen is nothing new in our history. The previous years might be seen as a sharpening of a conservative, racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and transphobic heritage that, sadly, is part of Brazilian history. A practice that seemed to be kept under the rug, but when brought to light with federal government consent, caused a path of ruin that has yet to be quantified and reckoned with.

It is important to emphasize this history in order to recall that there is still a long way to go in developing a democratic society with the struggle against inequality as one of its guiding principles. The administration of President Lula responded positively. The symbolic inauguration event on January 1, 2023, might be seen as a form of "self-blame" for those who presently hold the country's greatest positions of authority. The establishment of the new Ministries of Indigenous Peoples and Racial Equality was particularly significant, especially as both ministries are chaired by two women, one indigenous and the other Black.

Representation became a recurring topic, as did the selection of the Minister of Human Rights and Citizenship, the Minister of Science and Technology, and the President of the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples, which for the first time in history will be headed by an indigenous woman. Our most diverse cabinet in Brazilian history is the result of an intentional political decision. We know that representation alone does not provide significant results. But we know that without it, no change is possible.

We can definitely breathe better now. However, the air is still thick, and fascist particles are still present in the Brazilian atmosphere.

We must be alert and courageous as we continue.

[1] Professor of Historical Studies at Federal Fluminense University, Brazil, with a PhD in History from the University of São Paulo. DW Brasil columnist, Querino Project Consultant, and author of the book Brazilian Racism: A History of the Formation of the Nation, 2022

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Feb 27, 2023
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