The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Brazil, the death of a poor black child in the care of rich white woman brings a racial reckoning

Demonstrators in Recife, Brazil, demand justice for the death of 5-year-old Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva, the son of a black maid who fell from the ninth floor of a building while under the watch of his mother's white employer. (Leo Malafaia/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO — In the early days of Brazil's coronavirus outbreak, when businesses and churches went dark, anyone who could stay home did. But not Mirtes Souza. She worked as a maid, and her duties cooking and cleaning for a wealthy family were to continue.

One day this month, she left the luxury building to walk the family’s dog, leaving her 5-year-old son, Miguel, in the care of her boss. But security footage broadcast widely in Brazil showed the woman leaving him unattended inside an elevator and the door closing.

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The boy rode it to the top of the building and wandered outside. When Souza returned from the walk, she found him crumpled on the pavement outside the luxury building. He’d fallen nine floors.

“I’m a domestic worker,” Souza said in an interview. “But if I was white, and he’d been white, would this have happened?”

Sarí Gaspar, Souza’s employer, has been charged with culpable homicide in the death of Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva. She has asked for Souza’s forgiveness in a public letter.

The alleged negligence of a wealthy white woman entrusted with a poor black child has helped kindle a nationwide reckoning over racism in a country that has traditionally claimed to be largely free of it.

Brazil has long interpreted its history through the lens of class struggle. But in the days since the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Miguel in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery is increasingly asking whether it is structural racism that’s at the heart of its many inequities.

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There are now renewed calls to remove the São Paulo statue of Borba Gato, a 17th-century settler who hunted and enslaved indigenous people as he expanded Brazil’s borders. A brand of sponge whose name has been used to ridicule Afro-Brazilian hair has been taken off the market. A prominent news show convened its first-ever panel of exclusively black journalists to discuss racism. White Brazilians are joining in the call for racial equality. And protesters have taken to the streets to condemn the racism they say has led to rampant killings by police and Miguel’s death.

“We are in a moment that is very atypical for Brazil,” said Luciana Brito, a historian at the Federal University of Reconcâvo da Bahia who studies slavery. “For the first time, we are seeing protests, that are, though timid, an inspiration.

“We have never seen this in Brazil. . . . In all social sectors, we are now debating the racial question.”

The imprint of slavery on Brazil, abolished in 1888, is still acutely felt. Fewer than half of Brazilians identify as white, but whites are vastly overrepresented in positions of power — in congress, in the courts, in the banks. They’re underrepresented elsewhere: More than 75 percent of the 5,800 people killed by police last year were black. ­Two-thirds of prison inmates are people of color.

Income disparity is so wide — whites nearly earn twice as much as blacks on average — that even middle-class families employ domestic employees, who are largely people of color. The arrangement has normalized a social system in which white upper classes are served every day by black lower classes.

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“I studied racism in the United States, and the racism is different in Brazil,” psychologist Lia Vainer Schucman said. “In Brazil, there are a lot of whites who have relationships with blacks, but they are in an inferior position.

“This is not a racism of separation, but a racism of intimacy.”

That familiarity — and often, the friendliness — between races in domestic settings has helped abet a long-standing belief that racism wasn’t the urgent social challenge that it was in the United States or South Africa. It wasn’t a country of racial strife but “racial democracy” — a concept historically advanced by the country’s intellectual elites, even as slavery persisted.

“The diplomatic argument that was made was that we had a mild version of slavery,” Brito said. “That it wasn’t that bad. There was the ‘good master.’

“. . . This narrative is the biggest challenge for the black movement in Brazil.”

After slavery, Brazil didn’t institute prohibitions of interracial relationships or draconian racial distinctions, as the United States did. The absence of a rigid racial taxonomy led to an extraordinarily mixed country, with single families composed of multiple skin tones, and far more racial fluidity.

“Every Brazilian, even the light-skinned fair-haired one carries about him on his soul, when not on soul and body alike, the shadow or at least the birthmark of the aborigine or the negro,” wrote the 20th-century Brazilian sociologist Gilberto de Mello Freyre, who examined the country’s racial mixing in the 1930s. A “paradise,” he declared Brazil, “in respect to race relations.”

That insistence has carried through to this day, particularly on the political right. “In Brazil, there isn’t this thing of racism,” the populist Jair Bolsonaro said while campaigning in 2018. And then last year, as president: “This thing racism, in Brazil, is a rare thing. All of the time playing black and against white . . . I’ve had it up to here with it.”

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But the claim is losing relevance among many Brazilians. Two decades ago, the country started imposing racial quotas — the equivalent of affirmative action — in the university system, introducing greater diversity into the upper echelons of society and bringing greater attention to systemic discrimination.

“The white Brazilian political and economic and academic elites realize the traditional discourse on race relationships has lost its cultural track, lost the power to convince people that we are really nice people and have built a culture of equal racial treatment,” said Adilson José Moreira, a law professor at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo. “No one believes that anymore. The political narrative does not correspond to the racial reality.”

Vilma Reis, a black rights activist in the northeastern city of Salvador, where Brazil’s African diaspora is strongest, has watched this process at work. In recent years, she’s witnessed a sharp social shift in how white Brazilians think of race. Earlier this month, as protests over the police killing of Floyd convulsed cities across the country, she planned a provocative full-page advertisement in the nation’s leading newspapers.

“While there is racism there will not be democracy,” she wrote.

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Reis was shocked when some of the country’s most prominent white leaders agreed to sign the document. The struggle for black rights in Brazil, she said, was no longer that of black people alone.

“For the first time, there is an understanding that Brazilian democracy can’t happen if there is racism,” she said. “Whites are seeing that the models of colonialism and racism won’t foster liberty. This is [a] new stage in our struggle.”

So when the protests over the death of Miguel took over the streets of Recife, its participants included white people, too.

Souza, the boy’s mother, said she couldn’t believe it. They were holding signs that carried her words. In media interviews, she’d tied the treatment of her boss, who was released on a $4,000 bail, to a racial double standard. If Souza had been charged with the death of Gaspar’s son, she said, she wouldn’t be free.

Now she was seeing her question repeated in the signs: “And if he had been the boss’s son?”

Requests for comment left with Gaspar’s family were not returned.

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“I have no right to talk of pain,” she wrote in a public letter. “But this weight, which is no way comparable, will be with me the rest of my life.”

To Souza, racism in Brazil has always been “discreet, subtle.” Her boss had never said a racist word to her, but she knew of no other way to explain what had happened.

“It was racism,” she said. “It was prejudice against a maid’s son.”

Heloísa Traiano contributed to this report.

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