Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Everybody Hates Chris

By Ernesto Alvarado

Man I hated that show in the United States. Yet, it's a small slice of home that I enjoy on the local TV stations here in Brasilia. I never thought it would become such an enlightening point of conversation between myself and my Brazilian counterparts.

Once the pleasantries are exchanged, most of the conversations I've had evolved into talks about my favorite cities, what local spots I've visited, whether I'd given in to cheering for Flamengo (a soccer team that mirrors the love/hate relationship of the NY Yankees in the US), and what I would miss most about Brazil once I leave. This conversation was different however.  It oozed of that feeling one gets before they pick up the massive rock in the backyard with the hopes/fear of seeing those bugs that lie beneath.

"Man I love that show! If you go to any barbershop when it's on, everyone is laughing and watching intently." For those of you who haven't seen this show, it revolves around Chris Rock's childhood in Bedford Stuyvesant, NY during the 80s. For me, the shock was not in the popularity of the show, but in the understanding of the immense amount of American cultural references and racial undertones of the show. "Wait, how do you guys understand the references in the show that aren't as well-known outside of the U.S.?" I had lifted the massive rock and was in for quite the evening.

Brazil is the country with the second largest amount of Afro-citizens in the world, only behind Nigeria. It was also the last country to abolish slavery (there was quite the debate about whether it was a moral abolishment or one forced by the British) and the economic inequality between races is staggering. Many live in dangerous outskirts and inner cities in favelas working difficult jobs for low wages. There is a 1980s Bedford Stuyvesant in Rio, in Brasilia, in Sao Paolo, in Salvador and anywhere else where blacks remain at the bottom floor of the socio-economic construct. "We can relate to a hard-working father, a mother that has to work and hold down the household. Many of us see ourselves as Chris when he deals with a low quality school, racial problems in a socially divisive environment and difficulties found in a lower economic class. It is also difficult to see blacks as prime characters on TV that do not include women dancing or soccer players."

Racial divides in Brazil exist but the lines along which they are defined are blurred to say the least. More than 50% of the 191 million Brazilians are descendent of African roots. In such a racially diverse and intertwined country, defining or categorizing those blacks can be difficult to say the least. Even with the massive Afro-population in the country, only a fraction of Blacks hold public office or are able to enter the illustrious public universities in the country (a staggering 2.2%). In 2001, the public University of Rio de Janeiro started what would be one of the most controversial debates in recent Brazilian history; the race quotas.

The race quotas are seats reserved for black students in universities that were seen as a way to assist the social movement of the group that has remained largely marginalized academically. "We need to create these role models. In the United States, you have the successful minority and it gives young blacks an aspiration of social movement," said a colleague of mine at a Brazilian university. The issue of contention arises when these reserved seats are given to black students who sometimes score lower than their non-black counterparts. A massive outcry from both sides claiming the necessity or dangers of racial quotas bellowed throughout the country and Brazil was forced to face a candid discussion on the roles of black citizens in Brazil.

Having lived in a country with deep racial divisions submerged within its culture, my vision of a racially harmonious Brazil was shattered when their divisions became all too clear. The elephant in the room (or country) is gargantuan. For some, the racial harmony exists through the inability to separate the infinite combinations of origins throughout the country. Sao Paulo's Japanese and Italian blocos, the German infused Southern region and the Afro-centric Northeast all fuse together to create Brazilians of every fathomable color. Yet for others, the massive amount of blacks living in favelas, under the poverty line, or unable to attain higher education cannot go ignored. The truth or myth of meritocracy rears its ugly head - those that have claim that it can be attained and those who don't claim that the ladder to the top is made of paper rather than wood.

One of my good friends here discussed how the myth of Brazil's racial harmony came to be so prominent in the world. "Look around you. Where have you seen a black that isn't sweeping or cleaning up a floor here? We sell you the idea of a racially equal country because it's a part of the Brazilian allure. It's carnival, it's samba, it's all the things packaged as neatly as the tour guides foreigners take through our cities. We feed it to the outside world but once the party is over, its back to the favelas until the state calls upon them (black citizens that dance at carnival) to entertain the masses again. For many Afro-Brazilians, you can be a samba dancer but not a doctor."

Others disagree with this point. "If I score higher than my Afro-counterpart but they get the opportunity to attend college, its a violation of my right to a good education," said one student in a recent forum here in Brazil. "You won't make things equal through reserving special places for blacks. All you are going to do is create racial tensions that haven't existed in Brazil." Her position was one shared by the majority of non-Blacks in the discussion forum.

Ultimately, the role that race plays in Brazil can be reduced to one point: money. The equality gap is massive in Brazil and the middle class, while growing, is substantially smaller than expected in such a rapidly expanding economic power. Blacks have been at the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder since their independence in 1888. Since that time blacks have been incapable of rising up the social ladder and, as a result, the economic one. Most blacks attend public high schools which do an abysmal job in preparing them for entry exams due to a lack of funding which results in an inability to realistically reach college. Meritocracy as an arguing point can be nullified for a vast portion of the poor black communities in Brazil.

The Brazilian Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the race quotas as a way to jump start a transitional period that would assist the Black community out of the vicious circle it has been trapped in since their ancestors were liberated. The aim of creating a socio-economically equal black community will force Brazil to explore what it means to be black in the country and what the micro-racisms are in modern society. Will Brazil be able to create a role model for black society without marginalizing the white Brazilians? Can a nation of such a diverse racial amalgamation ever define what black is? Should the causes of society trump the ambitions of individuals?

Would you give up your seat at a university for a social cause or would you end up hating Chris?

1 comment:

Nancy Campos said...

This is interesting, as when I've read or listened to people in education talk about Brazil's education system, the United States seems to view it as a model of a country that has made significant changes in their system and has vastly improved conditions for their less fortunate; however, we also talk about Brazil as a country that has more class issues than race issues, where in the US we tend to think of us having more race issues than class issues.

It's interesting that you bring up what seems to be a new idea in Brazil - what it means to be Black. It will definitely be even more interesting to see how these "affirmative action" type quotas play out. Just like in the US, affirmative action programs take a huge backlash, but people fail to realize that these students who people assume are "less qualified" are less qualified for a reason, usually one that benefits those who complain that their spots are being taken.