MARAGOJIPE, Brazil — Walking through this colonial-era fishing town of 44,000 across the Bay of All Saints from the city of Salvador, your average U.S. resident would come to a quick demographic conclusion: Most people here are black.
The townspeople, however, beg to differ. Only 13 percent of the population declared themselves “negro,” or black, in the 2000 census. Another 62 percent said they were “pardo,” a response that translates as “brown” or “dark,” but which some black leaders in Bahia — generally considered the most culturally African state of Brazil — interpret as “Who, me? Black? No way.” Still others whom Americans might consider black declare themselves “white.”
If that sounds complicated, welcome to Brazil, which is either a) the color-blind melting pot where blacks have been equal under the law far longer than they have been in the United States, or b) the last country to outlaw slavery, where Afro-Brazilians make up nearly half the population and are devastatingly impoverished, poorly educated and have only the sparsest presence in the elite ranks of CEOs, television news announcers and high-level politicians. And, of course, there has never been a black president.
Black leaders hope that Barack Obama’s election in a country many Brazilians consider more racist than their own will force a hard self-examination.
“The United States has always served as a model for the world,” said Marcelino Gomes de Jesus, who runs a nonprofit cultural center in the nearby town of Cachoeira. “I don’t think that whites will change their image of blacks in Brazil now. But what will change is blacks’ image of themselves.”
Here in Maragojipe, it took until 2004 for the town to elect a black mayor, Silvio Jose Santana Santos, a broad-shouldered 37-year-old with a penchant for red clothing, the color of his Workers Party. And even then, his campaign slogan, “A star is shining” was turned against him by an opponent, who in a speech noted that, “Black stars don’t shine.”
The mayor, who goes by the political name Silvio Ataliba, distinguished the history of Jim Crow laws in the United States from race relations in Brazil. “They say racism doesn’t exist,” he said. “But here’s what happened: we traded slave quarters for favelas (slums).
“Racism is camouflaged. People call you ‘neguinho’ [a diminutive of ‘negro’] and they think they’re being affectionate. They call you ‘black with a white soul.’ We still haven’t accomplished in our society what black Americans have in theirs, and I’m not just talking about Obama’s election,” Ataliba said.
Though black leaders in Brazil often looked to figures like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as models, the movement in Brazil was dampened from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s by the military dictatorship. But there has been progress since, the mayor noted. Among the signs in the last decade: increasing roles for black actors and controversial racial quotas for admission to Brazil’s prestigious public universities. He notes that he has heard — but is not sure — that Obama was a beneficiary of quotas in the United States.
On a recent evening in Cachoeira, Gomes de Jesus, older and more skeptical than Ataliba, was watching a news report on Obama in his run-down but invitingly warm center, the Casa Paulo Dias Adorno. He is a priest of Candomble, the religion of African origin influential in this part of the country.
“Blacks in the United States had the opportunity to grow socially, culturally and politically,” Gomes de Jesus said. “So much so that today white Americans elected a black man president. That indicates that whites in the United States came to the conclusion that if you’re capable, you can have power, whether you’re white or not.”
Most Brazilian whites, he believes, do not feel the same way. He suspects that “white Brazilians find it absurd that a black man is president of the United States.”
Meanwhile, de Jesus said, Afro-Brazilians are also to blame. “Blacks here are afraid of asserting their blackness,” he said. “They’ll say that they don’t have any racial problems at all, because they don’t consider themselves black.”
Down the river and across the bay is Salvador, the city of nearly three million famous for its carnival and usually considered the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture. There, business leader Clarindo Silva, a slender 63-year-old man with a snowy-white goatee, was so excited about the U.S. election that he had bilingual “Obama — The dream of Luther King and all of us” T-shirts made up for sale at Cantina da Lua, his restaurant in the city’s historic Pelourinho neighborhood.
“I think the election of Obama is a very strong message for the world,” Silva said. “What changes there, changes here. It’s a great example for humanity.”