The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Jair Bolsonaro entranced Brazil’s minorities — while also insulting them

Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro talks to the media after a visit to federal police headquarters in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 17. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil is a majority-nonwhite country, a multicultural mix of ethnicities. So many people here are stunned by an apparent contradiction: How could a man like Jair Bolsonaro be this close to winning the presidency?

The far-right former army captain once said his sons would never fall in love with a black woman, and in 2015, he dubbed African refugees coming to Brazil “the scum of the earth.” The left has sought to portray him as an open racist — a charge the blunt-talking Bolsonaro denies.

But this is what has perhaps shocked his opponents the most. Now polling in the lead by 18 percentage points, the 63-year-old will enter Sunday’s presidential runoff with a surprising group of backers: people of color. 

In Latin America’s largest nation, Bolsonaro is now the top candidate among black and mixed-race voters, according to a major polling agency, Ibope. He is supported by 47 percent of that voter pool, compared with 41 percent for Fernando Haddad, his opponent from the left-wing Workers’ Party, or PT. 

Polls that break out figures on Afro-Brazilians separately from that group suggest they are supporting Bolsonaro in far lower numbers than mixed-race voters. Yet overall, people of color could push Bolsonaro over the top.

“Brazil is ignoring some of its characteristics,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political strategist in Brasilia, the capital. “It is a nation of largely mixed-race, lower-middle-class people. But people are putting aside their personal identities in search of political renovation.” 

While Bolsonaro has at times used incendiary language in reference to race, critics also accuse him of a more subtle form of discrimination — promoting policies they say unfairly target people of color. 

He has proposed, for instance, combating crime by sending heavily armed security forces into largely black and mixed-race slums, providing more protection for police officers who kill on the job, and stripping indigenous communities of their land rights to speed development. 

He has lashed out at a quota system enacted by previous governments that guarantees places for black and indigenous Brazilians at universities. “I would not board a plane piloted by a quota beneficiary, or be operated on by a quota doctor,” he said. 

This month, Twitter was flooded with posts about Bolsonaro tagged #MySecretRacist, which attempted to expose racism in Brazil.

“He says a good thug is a dead thug. He’s bringing death to the slums,” said Elsa Santos, 48, an expert on black history from the outskirts of Sao Paulo who attended an anti-Bolsonaro rally this month.

The strongest voter bloc for Bolsonaro — who resoundingly won a first-round votethis month but fell short of the number needed to avoid a runoff — is still white men. And this country of 210 million is now more polarized than at any point in its modern history, especially after a spate of attacks and incidents of harassment in recent weeks against women, gays and black people, allegedly committed by Bolsonaro supporters.

Yet backers of Bolsonaro include the likes of Achiles Guimarães. A40-year-old motorcycle deliveryman, he heads a neighborhood association in Rocinha, Rio’s largest slum — which Bolsonaro once suggested should be “machine-gunned” to kill off gang members. Guimarães is Afro-Brazilian, like about 8 percent of Brazilians. Mixed-race people make up about 47 percent of the population, according to the 2016 census.  

Guimarães voted left-wing in past elections — but this year, he ran out and bought a Bolsonaro T-shirt. He laughs off the accusations of racism against his candidate, saying, “We can’t agree on everything.” 

He’s far more disgusted by ­Brazil’s traditional political class. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — the leftist Guimarães once voted for and who led Brazil for eight years — is now in jail, serving a 12-year sentence for corruption. His successor was impeached. Her successor — the current president — was recently indicted on corruption and money-laundering charges, which he denies. One-third of the lower house of the National Congress is under criminal investigation.

In Brazil’s election, the traditional political class is wiped out

At the same time, Brazil has slipped into an unprecedented cycle of violence. As gang wars rage, Brazil suffered a record 63,880 homicides last year — almost twice the number in the United States and Europe combined.  

Young black males are nine times as likely to be killed in Brazil as their white counterparts — a statistic Guimarães knows a lot about. His brother and his uncle were gunned down in Rio slums.

“Today, motorcycle deliverymen run from thieves trying to steal their merchandise and motorcycles, and from the corrupt police asking for bribes,” he said. “Bolsonaro was a military man; he will demand more from authorities, including the police.” 

Yet Brazil already has one of the deadliest police forces in the world, responsible for more than 5,000 deaths last year, according to government figures. Experts warn that Bolsonaro’s tough-on-crime platform, which includes proposals to arm ordinary citizens, could make life worse for many people of color.

“There is no basis of evidence to suggest that what he proposes will work,” said Ilona Szabó, director of the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio that focuses on security issues. “Things will get worse. The police will kill more. There will be more extrajudicial killings, especially of people in the slums and of blacks.” 

Once hailed as a unique “racial democracy,” a multicultural nation where people did not view one another through the lens of race, Brazil is now confronting rifts that many here would prefer to ignore. 

Photos recently circulated on social media, for instance, showing a bathroom door at a university in southern Sao Paulo spray-painted with the message: “Blacks will die. Here, we’re for Bolsonaro.” After the first round of the election, a flurry of people took to social media to attack Brazil’s predominantly black northeast, where Haddad won a majority of votes.   

Bolsonaro’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. In recent months, he has courted the black vote and has sought to celebrate Brazil’s diversity. After media reports in Brazil said that David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, had spoken highly of Bolsonaro, the Brazilian candidate rejected any such ally.

“I refuse any kind of support coming from supremacist groups,” Bolsonaro tweeted. “To exploit this to try and influence an election in Brazil is an enormous stupidity! It’s not knowing the Brazilian people, who are mixed race.”

Within the black community, Bolsonaro’s candidacy has pitted his supporters against his opponents. On the night of the first round of the election, a 63-year-old black master of capoeira, a form of martial arts that originated in Africa and is popular in Brazil, was stabbed 12 times by a black Bolsonaro supporter in northern Brazil after he declared he had voted for Haddad. 

Carla Jesus, a 34-year-old Afro-Brazilian teacher and lesbian activist, criticized blacks supporting Bolsonaro. 

“Just because slavery is over does not mean our minds are free,” she said.

She said she is preparing for the dawn of a dark chapter in Brazil should Bolsonaro sail to victory.

“People are looking at us differently now with the campaign,” she said. “They aren’t shy about saying blacks and lesbians need to die. I’m feeling more than fear. I’m panicking about him winning.”

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