Lessons in Race in Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008; 12:00 AM
Alexandre da Luz, a tall man with a wide grin and a powerful voice, left the outskirts of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil three years ago. He does not look like the 40-year-old man he is. After years of hard work at Febem, a juvenile detention and reform center in his home town, he made the decision to try his luck in Washington, D.C., along with his wife, Jucilene.
Da Luz is black. He had never been involved in race-related thinking or activism, though, until a boss started talking to him about the need to remain faithful to one's racial identity. Understanding his superior's message was not hard. At Febem, as in any detention center for minors (or adults) in Brazil, most of the detainees are black. The cleaning men are black. The guards are, too. But go up the hierarchical ladder, and automatically the skin of officials gets whiter.
So it's surprising what this poor black man from Brazil says first when asked about his life in the United States: "I've learned what racism is here."
What lesson can a man at the base of the Brazilian social pyramid learn from racism on American soil? What is it that he might not already have experienced, having been called "monkey," "Creole" and "oversize black" by his classmates in school? The novel situation, he says, was not that he was discriminated against by "brothers," that is, other blacks. It was that this time, they were American.
In Brazil, he had endured retaliation by blacks, usually the lighter-skinned and better-schooled. It is common for Brazilians to deny their own blackness in the hopes of escaping their origins and having better opportunities. That often means aggressively rejecting "real blacks."
But in the United States, where, in da Luz's mind, people are not ashamed of their skin color, he had expected a warm welcome from fellow blacks. He was greeted with much less than that.
"Some brothers would head towards me, ready to greet me, and I would flash this broad smile," he recalled. "As soon as they noticed my accent, the look on their faces turned hostile." Da Luz works in construction -- illegally. After three years in the United States, he barely speaks basic English and tries to spend his free time mostly in the company of other Latinos.
The reason da Luz comes up with for the ill treatment is simple: jobs.
In the competition for heavy manual labor, employers tend to select Latinos rather than African Americans, he said.
Jabari Asim, editor of the Crisis magazine and author of several books on race in America, offers an explanation.
"There are a lot of stereotypes about American blacks -- that they are hard to deal with, lazy," he said. "Of course that's not true. That came up to justify the argument that we were not cut out to be free. After the Civil War, this myth continued in order to perpetuate the argument that we were not cut out to be citizens, either."
Da Luz endorses Asim's explanation and then, oddly, engages in racist talk of his own, stereotyping African Americans as unwilling to work. "We Brazilians take advantage of the opportunity."