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In a society historically marked by stark and deeply rooted racial inequality, what advancements have been made in order to break with the past? How are we going to achieve genuine equity in rights and opportunities for black people?

These themes and other questions are discussed in this special episode of Único, the Mattos Filho Podcast, mediated by the firm’s managing partner, Roberto Quiroga. Joining him are two experts on questions of race, Cida Bento and Sueli Carneiro, together with Mattos Filho professionals Patrícia Soares and Vítor Macabu.

To listen in Portuguese, please click on the player above or access your preferred streaming platform. You may also read a translated transcript of the conversation on this page.

A in-profile picture of Roberto Quiroga, smiling. He is wearing a dark blue jacket and a light blue shirt.
Moderator: Roberto Quiroga
Managing partner of Mattos Filho and creator of the firm’s Social Ecosystem – based on the pillars of pro bono law, corporate citizenship and Instituto Mattos Filho.
A picture of Cida Bento, smiling, wearing a red blouse, earrings and glasses.
Photo: Zanone Fraissat/Folhapress

Structural racism is not expressed in overt acts. It is expressed in statistics. For example, where are the black women in our institutions? Precisely because racism is a serious crime, it does not manifest itself explicitly.”

Cida Bento

Roberto Quiroga: I’d like to begin our debate today with a conceptual question for Cida. Would you be able to explore the question of structural racism in society a little, and the differences between structural racism and racial inequality? Also, why do you think there are still so many people who say racism doesn’t exist in Brazil?

Cida Bento: I’ll start by responding to your last comment. I’d say this happens because racism is not always explicit, it pervades our institutions and reflects the inequality between men and women, black people and white people, LGBT groups, people with disabilities – whether by their absence or by their under-representation. It also manifests itself in the way we conceive relationships, the way products are made and the types of services on offer. Structural racism is not expressed in overt acts. It is expressed in statistics. Where are the black women in our institutions? In our councils? In our boards? Are there any among the staff? When we relate to our community, are we also relating to black women’s organizations? Though I mention women here, it could be black youth as a whole.

Precisely because racism is a serious crime, it does not manifest itself explicitly. As the main theorists in the field will tell you, it’s in the statistics where you see it. There is a scholar who works with the psychoanalysis of institutions who I like very much, [Eugène] Enriquez. He says that institutions function in line with the profile of those at the top of the organization. That is why people say there is no institutional racism, because naturally this is a place of meritocracy, and white men happen to dominate institutional leadership as a matter of merit, of a meritocratic system. So, when the question of institutional racism is brought up in our institutions, everyone either reacts with surprise or thinks that you are whining about nothing.

Roberto Quiroga: Sticking to this concept of structural racism, in terms of Brazil, what would be some examples of the existence of this type of racism in our everyday lives?

Cida Bento: Criteria. For example, when the health secretariats and public agencies stopped considering postal codes when gathering data about the pandemic in Brazil. Postal code data identified that the pandemic had a greater impact in favelas and on the outskirts of the cities. Or they disregard racial data. There is legislation that states it is necessary to collect data on race, but we have done more than one survey showing that this data is not filled out in 70% of cases. So, it isn’t made clear that out on the edges of society we have ten times more black people dying than white people. This data is no longer described in the reports, and nobody says it has anything to do with racism. They just say things like it was too difficult to fill out the information.

Roberto Quiroga: Sueli, following on from what Cida was just saying, we can see that the effects of racism on the black population are devastating. According to Brazil’s Atlas of Violence 2020, the homicide rate for black men has gone up by 11.5% in the last decade, while the same statistic for white men has fallen by almost 13%. Meanwhile, the mortality rate for black women is almost double that of non-black women. We have also seen several examples of physical aggression against the black population. Do you see any changes in the reactions to this violence?

Sueli Carneiro: Racial violence is a recurring dimension of structural racism, which you started this conversation with. What is surprising about the way racism manifests itself in Brazilian society is not just that this violence intensifies – in my opinion, as a symptom of the racial issue worsening in Brazil – but that it occurs with the complete and utter indifference of society. If any of us were to research this violence, I imagine that it would generate such absurd and extraordinary results that even South Africa would not have seen during the apartheid era, in terms of unpunished killing and extermination of black people. For me, above all, what is most astounding is the indifference with which this killing takes place. I don’t know of any other society that has tolerated and lived with the levels of genocide we find here in such a comfortable way, and perhaps this is the most perverse and terrifying dimension of Brazilian racism.

Roberto Quiroga: I have a question that is just as much for Vítor as for Patrícia regarding this issue of structural racism. As black people who live the reality of this society and its consequences, what actions do you think could be taken in the public sphere, in legal norms, or even at an individual level, to end or reduce the violence that black people experience? What should the state do so that we can improve on the statistics that I mentioned earlier?

Patrícia Soares: I like to quote [Brazilian lawyer and philosopher] Silvio de Almeida, who says that racism is always structural because it permeates into very deep questions in our society. It infiltrates our economics, politics, science and education. So, one way we can rethink society and rethink how we deal with this issue is to bring this discussion into the political and public agenda. I truly believe that taking action with real intention can make a difference. I think we really have to first consider the question of historical reparations and then apply them, so as to create some change in the scenario that we see today.

Vítor Macabu: For me, that question cuts across the state as a whole. Patrícia has already talked about intentionality, and I will complement that with the question of locality, understanding that it is something that permeates across all spheres. When we think about how the black population is treated in the judicial system, something Cida Bento touched on earlier, I then think about policing and how the black population is disproportionately subject to police brutality when compared to the white population in the same locations, which Cida also explored. How to access health services, how to access education, what the policies are for mass integration of black people in the labor market… I agree with Patrícia on intentionality, but I think it has to be thought about from a 360-degree perspective. We have seen historic reparations in Brazil, in the sense of the policy of implementing quotas in higher education and others which give access to the public service, etc. This policy started when I was still at university, a few years ago. I haven’t benefitted directly from these quotas but today, I can see that fifteen, seventeen years on we are in a different place from the one I used to see. University is no longer like the one that I experienced, and society, the labor market – the people who are entering are the same as those I saw when I joined. Today we have young black women and men accessing the labor market, and the effects of this will multiply over time. But this was one action. And what about the others? I think is it this very 360-degree question which intersects with the state that I am interested in looking at and debating from now on.

Roberto Quiroga: We can now talk a little about a topic that was addressed by Cida in the first question – the intersection of identities as an aggravating factor in this system of oppression. We know, for example, that a black lesbian is more likely to experience some form of violence during her lifetime, exactly because of these intersecting identities of race, gender and sexual orientation. In these cases, Cida, do you believe it is necessary to think about public policies and specific actions that account for this increased exposure to violence?

Cida Bento: I am always thinking about public and private policies. My understanding is that the present scenario exists only because there are those who pay for it to be so. For example, neoliberal reforms have a devastating impact on the black population, on black women, on the lives of lesbians. This has been promoted by the corporate media, which presents a more neoliberal voice, one of investors. These are policies that affect the country precisely in terms of public policy… We should have a well-structured social welfare state, because Brazil’s black population essentially uses public education and health services. The role of the private sector must not be disregarded in this process, as it presses to reduce the influence of the public sector. Who does that matter to?

I think it is essential to think about the intensifying social tension arising in part from the arrival of black presence to spaces it did not inhabit earlier, defined by white people as exclusively theirs – universities, media, airports. This presence is uneasy, and can trigger discomfort in the faces of those whose voices claim racial equity. Several scholars have said the following, including Frantz Fanon: In the white universe, the idea that there is a creditor and there is a debtor has not gone away.

So, the question of inheritance for white people and black people is a central point in how I think about race relations in Brazil. Every time I have spoken at courses or companies about white inheritance, it’s as if the white man did not see himself as part of the story. Whatever you say, he replies: “it’s because black people were enslaved, that’s why they are in this situation today.” And the question remains: “are white people in the situation they are in today because they were slaveholders?” I think what troubles us is that somewhere inside all white people and [all] black people, it is understood that a process of expropriation has caused disparity between the groups. And finally, whoever has spent time abroad looks at this system in a different way, a more critical way. Not so tied up in the way they think they are supposed to be, those who have been on the outside are freer to think about what irsociety should be like. What exactly is a democracy?

There is a discomfort that appears in the voices of black women, indigenous women and lesbians which is shaped by the idea that another society needs to be created with another set of parameters, proposing something that will dismantle the system from which we benefit at least in some regard, even though we are poor. So, the murder of black men and women comes down to ‘this is the creditor’ or ‘this is the one that was expropriated’, in a way we all know this. A poor white woman knows that she still comes from a place of privilege when compared to a poor black woman. So, these voices calling for another type of society are voices that dismantle what benefits me.

A picture of Sueli Carneiro wearing a black coat and glasses, together with a beige blouse and necklace.
Photo: Ze Carlos Barretta/Folhapress

I don’t know of any other society that has tolerated and lived with the levels of genocide we find here in such a comfortable way, and perhaps this is the most perverse and terrifying dimension of Brazilian racism.”

Sueli Carneiro

Roberto Quiroga: I’d like to touch on a topic linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. A study by the Health Operations and Intelligence Center at PUC [Pontifical Catholic University] in Rio de Janeiro revealed that the lethality rate among black people and people of color was 55%, while for white people it was 38%. Sueli, could you please comment on what we are going through at the moment and the increase in violence the black population is subject to in the wake of the pandemic?

Sueli Carneiro: Before doing that, I think it’s important to go back to a point that Cida made and that I have wanted to highlight from the beginning of our conversation, which is how we are in the habit of always keeping this debate hidden in the background. One of the issues I have with the concept of structural racism is directly linked to the fact that it can be manipulated in such a way as that it loses its humanistic aspect. We are talking about an abstract concept, one that does not materialize in concrete subjects which systematically produce and reproduce racial inequality. When I say structural racism, we hear “oh, it’s the company”, but there is no real agent. And structural racism does have an agent. It is necessary to reintroduce white people as a hegemonic being, one with the power to promotive effective change in race relations, one who needs to renounce privileges for equality and democracy to really take effect in Brazil. White people must appear as an active subject in these debates, rather than an abstract idea behind an abstract concept of structural racism, in which black people have to appear as if they were exclusively the agents for this change.

In this debate, this active subject needs to be pulled out of the shadows, a “hegemonic self” responsible for organizing the structure of this form of racism. That’s why I have a hard time with this concept [of structural racism]. Instead, I prefer to work with the concept of an African American philosopher, the racial contract. As we are in this ‘law firm’ context, the paradigm of a contract is very applicable, because this philosopher’s concept starts from the social contract, which he says is the lingua franca of our time.

He starts from this assumption not only to question the social contract but also to propose the idea of a racial contract, which is very useful in comprehending what we are talking about here. He says that the racial contract establishes a racially organized society, state and legal system – where law and custom plainly demarcate the status of whites and non-whites. Above all, this racial contract is one signed between equals – therefore, between whites. Based on this racial contract, Brazil has constructed a social dimension that is like a private club for white people, into which black people only enter to serve, when they are allowed to enter. Therefore, all social inequity is segregated in the black world, whose HDI [Human Development Index] is below most of the poorest nations in the world.

White people have to be brought to this debate so that we may find out how long we are going to insist on living in a country with islands of prosperity, development, social justice – experienced by a white minority, surrounded by human poverty, the country inhabited by black people. Without the participation of the “hegemonic self”, it is not possible to negotiate a new project for society, a new project for the nation to be effective. It is yet another dimension of oppression that we should have to re-educate society as victims of an oppressive structure that we did not create, and that we should have the exclusive responsibility to correct the problems instituted by whiteness in our country’s political system.

I think that the issues of inequality that have arisen in the context of the pandemic were absolutely to be expected. Racism produces inequality across all social dimensions. Clearly, the greatest burden falls upon vulnerable groups, and there is nothing new there in that regard. It happened with all the other previous pandemics too. What has been relatively unexpected is the explicitness of how communities have resisted this social abandonment and genocide – which is how this pandemic has been handled. If the white population was most at risk of death from the pandemic, it would be very difficult for the government to act as it does. It is this certainty that the very poor, very black, very Northeastern Brazilian will die that allows the government to act with such negligence during the pandemic.

So really, there is nothing new. Yes, there is an extraordinary resistance and resilience in the communities, who have proven their great organizational capability for harm reduction and prevention during the pandemic; the resistance that neighborhoods have demonstrated to his abandonment. The best thing that we have seen in this whole context is that these people who have to fend for themselves remain ready for the struggle, for the defense of their communities.

Roberto Quiroga: Thank you, Sueli. What you spoke about in your response is very important, fundamental. The idea you brought up about the racial contract is not well known, and a concept that we can analyze more carefully. And as you said, the role of the white people to get involved in this debate and do what is rightly necessary to compensate for the period of expropriation that the black population has gone through. Expanding on this issue, I would like to ask Patrícia what role would be necessary for us whites to play in this debate so that it may be fruitful. The role of an ally, for example, would be important. How do you see white people next to you in this context, and to what extent can we nurture this idea within the debate that Sueli introduced?

Patricia Soares: Sueli’s response was brilliant in that sense. In the struggle against racism, what I understand is that, yes, white people need to play a role and be agents for change as well, understanding the responsibility they have in relation to this issue. I also think that black people should be given a leading role. When we talk about the struggle against racism, there is an important role for black people who, in fact, speak for the cause. Yet here, I see the role of white people as allies as fundamental to changing the structure and social paradigm that has been imposed on society. I really like a point that both Cida and Sueli brought up – and that Laura, a colleague of ours at Mattos Filho often raises – that after we create room for discussion, regular dialogue and awareness, people start to take action, and this action regularly is met with aversion. This is because deep down, we are talking about white people giving up certain privileges in order to find common ground with the black population.

We have seen historic reparations in Brazil, in the form of quotas in higher education. Today we have more young black women and men accessing the labor market, and the effects of this will multiply over time. But this was just one action. What about the others?”

Vítor Macabu

Roberto Quiroga: Thanks, Patrícia. As Sueli already said, the white population also does have to be in this debate, especially when you consider that we have been the active subject the entire time during this period of expropriation. However, at least in Law – where, by the way, Cida has been involved in a number of initiatives in this regard – we have some progression. Of course, it has only been on a small scale, but at least there is a greater awareness in the legal world that we need to be more concerned with these issues.

I would like to hear from Vítor, whose corporate background is very relevant in relation to the racial diversity and equity programs that companies have been developing. Do you think they have been effective? Is it possible that these programs get too mixed up in companies’ marketing strategies? How genuine do you think these actions are, and how do you see these initiatives?

Vítor Macabu: I welcome them, and I think they move the debate forward. When I was at university, and even at the earlier stages of my career, there was no such debate. Until five or ten years ago, what was frequently heard was the empty idea of meritocracy, which I think is has been overcome via good debate. I have been talking to some black executives I know who are engaged in their institutions. They come from the business environment rather than the legal environment itself, but we have been talking a lot and exchanging information about how their internal processes are going, how certain initiatives have attracted a lot of attention and how a genuine effort is being made to do the right thing. I imagine that in a few years, you will be able to open CVM’s [Securities and Exchange Commission] website and see a much greater proportion of black directors than what we have seen historically and today.

Specifically regarding the legal environment, again I think there has been an evolution. To contextualize the issue here a little, I have been qualified for about 11-12 years now, and when I was still a university student there were no quotas, hence no large number of black students. Though there were many black lawyers, few of them could be found participating in job selection processes. From the moment that higher education quotas were implemented, black students have been talking more, collectives have been created… I did not see this during my time as a student. Today, what I notice is that there is a place for us within the law firms – the Legal Alliance for Racial Equality, which Mattos Filho is a part of, has been thinking about how to create initiatives to increase the number of black professionals going forward. I see that such initiatives have been effective in attracting the student base. I am one of the few [black] people of my generation who did not end up in a public career, who did not go to work in the judiciary or for the Prosecutor’s Office. Why? Back then, [law firms] were often hostile to the rise of black lawyers, they were not historically receptive to the black population. There was no real desire to attract black lawyers to firms, to develop and retain them. What I notice now is an enhanced awareness and motivation to attract these lawyers, but at the moment, we are still populating the base of the pyramid. I wonder if we will not be in the position at some point to take another step forward in attracting the mass of black lawyers who would like to work in legal firms but who either don’t feel totally comfortable with this idea or are occupied for other reasons. I think we are already in a position to attract people in the lower and middle parts of the hierarchy, in order to create a little more accelerated, consistent progress. Otherwise, it will take some years – perhaps decades – for us to achieve our goals in relation to law firms.

Roberto Quiroga: Thank you, Vítor. Cida has been working at Ceert [Center for Labor Relations and Inequality Studies] on several interesting projects precisely related to this issue of increasing racial equity in the corporate world. These projects include censuses on the participation of black people in this respect – such as one in the financial sector in collaboration with Febrabran [Brazilian Bank Federation] and another with the Legal Alliance for Racial Equality. I would like to hear from Cida a little bit about what progress could still be made in the corporate area so that we would be able to discuss these topics more frankly. Also, how do you see this possibility for growth in these discussions in other areas outside of financial and legal markets?

Cida Bento: I am very optimistic. This is because on one hand, I see the black population and black youth moving into other spaces, with a sense of impatience in their voices, wanting answers and not accepting that things may carry on like this. On the other hand, there is a growing number of white people and organizations that also understand that this is unsustainable. I am quite optimistic about all the tensions that Sueli and I have raised here in that sense. This is becoming increasingly possible, as long as we can continue to talk of a society that yearns for democracy, for the space to have conversation and dialogue, new ideas and consensus, face dissenting voices and see the past through a lens of different subjective and objective experiences for the groups involved.

I think we are heading in the right direction and it helps that white people at different levels are exploring these issues. In a society where white people continue to function as the ‘in group’ with the real power to make decisions, I see no way that we can really move forward. Some would seek to weaponize society as a solution, which I am against – even with the President saying as much and investing in weapons. The other way is to enter into dialogue at different levels with all types of institutions, whether judicial or legislative, to enter these institutions and talk about the issues. I feel as though I’ve had a lot of experience managing tensions and the growing self-consciousness and impatience in the black community, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by white people – they know. If we want a more sustainable society and institutions, we have to get going. This dialogue we are having now indicates to me that things will change.

A picture of Patrícia Soares smiling, wearing a white blouse and beige necklace.

One way we can rethink society and how we deal with this issue is to bring the discussion into the political and public agenda. I truly believe that taking action with real intention can make a difference.”

Patrícia Soares

Roberto Quiroga: We are coming towards the end of the discussion, so I would like to go around to each of you once more, starting with Sueli. In the future, what do you think we will be prepared to face? Do you see any breakthroughs? In which areas do you think we should be doing more? If you could, give us an insight into the next steps and where we should invest our time and energy in order to actually make progress with these issues.

Sueli Carneiro: I think we have got to the heart of the matter today. There are serious racial problems in this country, producing misery, violence, injustice and inequality. We are arriving at a point where we have to decide if we continue insisting on this path, or if we are going to find some kind of ethical consensus in society to build a different project. I always insist on highlighting a phrase that could have been said by Nelson Rodrigues [Brazilian writer] – “underdevelopment is not something improvised, it is the work of centuries”. As such, the country we have is not the result of chance. It is human-made, the product of decisions made throughout its history, especially by its elites.

For me, the intellectual elites of Brazil at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries only really disagreed on one point – how long it would take for the country to rid itself of this “black stain”. The idea of getting rid of the black population has always been present in the Brazilian elites’ national project, and it has not yet been left behind – to the contrary. We can see this paradigm resonating in the current government very clearly. May 13 [1888, the date of abolition of slavery in Brazil] also led to the social abandonment of the black population.

Another national project is needed, one that includes black and indigenous people – the two populations that have been discarded and disregarded since the beginning of the modernization of Brazilian society. This means that we need to consider some assumptions as well. I agree with Cida that we can find groups in society who insist that the present national project is not viable, as it implies keeping more than half of the country’s population in a state of apartheid. This is a bomb. A bomb whose effect is delayed, and unknown at the time of the explosion.

I would also like to mention what measures I think white people need to adopt in order to face this dialogue and be proactive. White men need to be saying: “right now, it is not enough to be against racism. More needs to be done. It is imperative that we place the fight against racism at the very center of Brazilian political life. Stand up for and strengthen affirmative action policies. Change corporate practices. Reform law enforcement agencies, and legally prosecute discriminatory and racist conduct that has permeated throughout our day-to-day relationships. Without tackling racism, we can forget about overcoming economic inequality, social marginalization, oppression and violence. Without defeating racism, we will never find our humanity as a nation. The actions and initiatives of the black movement do not give white anti-racists an exemption from the responsibility to take part in this struggle.”

I think this kind of statement sums up the agenda that white people have to fulfill. This statement is from lawyer Oscar Vilhena, who has been someone we have been able to count on in different situations, and who made a big impact at the STF [Supreme Federal Court] hearing defending quotas for black people in universities when these quotas were being famously challenged on grounds of unconstitutionality. So, I think they are examples of the herculean task ahead of us – the herculean task of deconstructing the perverse work that this country is, with the highest levels of social equality and with the highest levels of income and wealth concentration that exist worldwide.

Roberto Quiroga: Thank you, Sueli, for your excellent contribution. As the director of the FGV [Fundação Getulio Vargas] Law School today, Oscar’s message is being spread and is important for all of us. To finish, I wanted to hear from Vítor, Patrícia, and finally Cida about advancing these ideas going into the future.

Vítor Macabu: I’m an optimistic person, and I believe we must go beyond consensus and study, and take concrete action. The main focus of this debate has been in regard to the question of the involvement of white people, who are in charge of the prevailing structures. Before this becomes clear, I think we will struggle to continue moving forward with our efforts. These efforts will still exist, but they will not move at the pace we want. The last year has been very difficult in general, due to the pandemic, social distancing – the racial debate, which is complex, is a mental burden on black people that is not easy to bear. However, there were conversations that I had last year that were very positive and important. And, if we managed to advance more than I imagined last year, then good – we are a little bit further ahead than normal. Let’s go further, we have to buy time. The work that we have in front of us, the problems we have to solve are centuries old. If we have advanced five or six years in the debate, let us now advance ten, twenty, thirty years. That is what I think my message is.

Patrícia Soares: I am also optimistic. I think we are still facing a long journey, many things still need to be changed, some social paradigms need to be deconstructed and rebuilt. But I do think there has been progress, and I remain optimistic about the future. I see people talking more and more about the fight against racism. One interesting piece of data from 2020 was the number of bestselling books dealing with this issue, for example Djamila Ribeiro’s Pequeno manual antirracista [‘The Little Anti-Racist Manual’]. This process reinforces that it is predominantly an intellectual one, something you read about and talk about, having a permanent space for dialogue on the topic. In that sense, I think we’ve made a breakthrough. I also see the question of self-responsibility changing, both at a personal level – how I look at the world, how I understand my role as a person capable of transformation, as well as institutional – how companies, how firms position themselves as agents of change, and how they have acted in the struggle against racism.

Cida Bento: The first time I spoke at an [Legal] Alliance [for Racial Equality] event, I mentioned how much I admired the field of law. I spoke about [Nelson] Mandela, I spoke about great leaders who have made a difference in the issue of racial struggle, of fighting for promoting equity. So, I wanted to close my speech thinking about the future with this in mind. When a white person asks me, “what can I do to contribute to the fight against racism?”, I always say: do what you can from the place where you are. That is because in general, in institutions, those in leadership with the power to make decisions are white. So, do what you can from the place where you are.

I know and value what Mattos Filho is doing and what the Legal Alliance [for Racial Equality] does, but it is possible to move forward to a point where you can start talking about these issues with legal professionals – who will be white, as I am talking about judges, prosecutors and attorneys. It is also necessary for us to recognize another type of dialogue with black professionals in the field of law, to harness the knowledge they have accumulated themselves. Promote lectures at universities – in some way, it is necessary to show those who work with law how they contribute to our experiences with violence, and how it could be different. I would like to end with this, and also by saying that as a collective of lawyers, Mattos Filho and the Legal Alliance [for Racial Equality] can find a niche where they can start discussing the place of law in all this, to help white professionals understand what they are doing, their fears, their place as a white person in society, and how it could all be different.