Summary: Discusses the consequences of racism in Brazil and how racism is deeply intertwined in capitalism – Editors.
This is written in the wake of the massacre that took place in Jacarezinho, Rio de Janeiro, in May 2021. I present the facts which we already have access to from the press coverage, but I also do an analysis of the engagement and the profile of the discussion that emerged here since then. Before continuing the text, I will say that I will use I use the expression “non-white” to address “people of color,” the latter most common in North American vocabulary. This expression is unusual in Brazil, where people declare themselves as Black, Indigenous and white. Thus, when using the expression “non-white,” I include people who are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, in Brazil’s specific case, Blacks and Indigenous people.
In the early hours of May 6, 2021, a Thursday, the most lethal police operation in the history of the State of Rio de Janeiro took place in the Jacarezinho favela. There were 28 dead, 27 of whom were civilians, and one a police officer. According to the police, it was an operation to combat drug trafficking since the region was said to be under the influence of a large criminal organization, the Comando Vermelho. The police entered the favela with 21 arrest warrants to serve, actually arrested three of those people (six people were arrested in total, three of whom were targets of the same warrant) and killed four others on the same list. Another 25 dead, who were not on that list, had a criminal record. The exchange of fire lasted more than five hours, with the police raiding at least five residential houses during the persecution of alleged criminals. In addition, people who were on the train (a public transport constantly overcrowded here) on their way to work were hit and injured by stray bullets from this confrontation. At the end of the day, the streets and some houses of the favela were covered in puddles of blood, images that were also shown in international newspapers.
From these facts, debates and discussions begin in the press, in society and on the part of public and political authorities. On the one hand, there are those who point out the slaughter involved in this operation. Residents and protesters reported the execution of people throughout the process and engaged in demonstrations in the streets. The Bar Association and the Public Defender’s Office – a state body that represents and defends in court people who cannot afford to pay lawyers – carried out investigations, analyzed execution reports, and argued that the simple existence of criminal records does not justify murder within the rule of law. The press pointed out errors in the official documents provided by the police, in which it was found that the crime scenes were altered before the investigation was carried out. Among many of the documents accessed by the press, a medical assistance bulletin on five of those dead notes: still without identification, these bodies were identified as “Black man”, “Black man II”, “Black man III”, “mixed-race man I “,” mixed-race man II .” On the other hand, we have the speeches of the police authorities, alleging the seizure of weapons and that a good part of the dead had a criminal record. The president of the country praised the operation. Many supporters, also in defense of the police, pointed to the criminal profile of the dead, who were said to be bandits, and therefore held that the agents fulfilled their mission and did their job well.
The conservative and racist sectors of society that defend the State’s violent actions against the country’s poor and Black population are an important point of analysis. It is a structure that shows racism by hiding it from their speeches, by understanding that if they are slum dwellers and/or have a criminal record, they are criminals, and for this reason, their murder is justified. A few years ago, I would have endeavored (which I intend to do even more ahead) to develop a more focused analysis on the progressive sectors of the country that identify racism in society and present liberal ways of fighting it. However, it turns out that we are in even darker times, when the authoritarian assaults of the Bolsonaro government have made me rethink how I approach yet another massacre in Rio de Janeiro.
In 2020, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that there could be no police operations in favelas during the pandemic, save absolutely exceptional cases. In violation of this decision and claiming that the operation fell within the limits determined by the Court, the Rio police proceeded with the raid. The State Governor, aligned with the President of the Republic, supported the event, and so did Bolsonaro and his Vice President Mourão. In fact, the lower ranks of the armed forces and police are strong supporters of this government, whose leader, Bolsonaro, has never hidden his support for police actions that “kill bad guys.” The police blatantly placed themselves above a judicial decision, and the leader of the nation backed them up. The current government not only denies the existence of racism in Brazilian society, but also acts to dismantle departments and institutions created to protect, to some extent, the country’s non-white population. For example, the Indigenous protection foundation (Funai), linked to the federal government, defended the Federal Police against Indigenous leaders who criticized the government and the current President. The director of the Foundation assigned to create social politics of Black culture valorization (Palmares Foundation) was appointed to the position by President Bolsonaro, and states that structural racism does not exist in the country. Today in Brazil, we have a federal public department assigned to the protection of Native peoples that criminalizes Indigenous leaders and a federal institution, assigned to value Black culture, that denies structural racism. The feelings of concern and fear are constant. The Jacarezinho massacre draws with blood and strong images, a portrait of actions that have always been undertaken in the country, but which now more than ever, are explicitly defended in the speeches and acts of government officials.
On the other hand, there is one part of society that understands that the problem is more complex due to the existence of institutional racism in the country, although it is not always able to explain what this really means. Let us admit that there is progress here, especially these days and in this age. Today more than ever, after a series of anti-racist protests and demonstrations around the world, these sectors of civil society, politicians, and institutions point out the institutional racism in the country and understand that changes are necessary. In this sense, they demand the investigation and accountability of agents, declare that it was a disastrous police operation due to the high number of deaths, hold new debates, put forward a bill that requires the use of cameras by police officers, publish notes of repudiation, and some of the traditional press even publish articles by Black columnists to make the whole debate public. This liberal diagnosis, therefore, revolves around verifying the malfunctioning of the institutions; the police, the press, the house of representatives. Therefore, according to the liberal view, the change will come with a modification in the ways in which these institutions act. I do not deny the importance and even the concrete results of these actions. However, we need to know the limits of those solutions. The problem with this vision is a failure to think and debate the problem at its core. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls it racial liberalism when the ways to combat racism are limited to politics and actions to increase the number of Black representatives, to change the laws, to guarantee citizenship rights and to supply necessities from free market capitalism. To some extent, the debates on the Jacarezinho massacre reproduce this type of view when the demands are limited to verifying the failure of the police institution in having undertaken a disastrous operation, the creation of new laws, and the publication of articles by Black columnists.
The problem lies in not understanding the inherent limits that a liberal approach like this has when dealing with institutional racism. The fact is not debated in its essence. Brazilian favelas and peripheries are home to a large part of the country’s non-white population. It is this same population that floods the statistics of prisons and deaths in police encounters. It is this same population that is most underemployed and most frequently on the list of unemployed. It is this population that receives the lowest wages in the country. It is this population that most often dies of hunger, violence, and Covid-19. To fully debate the issue is to understand that the place where most of these people live and the amount of their wages are valued differently, only because these people are valued differently in our society. There is a criminalization and pathologization of these people and their homes, seen at times as dirty, as worse than, and where there are criminals susceptible to death. This makes explicit the core of a kind of social relation with a dynamic centered on those who have possessions and those who do not; on who is considered human in all its aspects and who is not. This is a social relation of racial hierarchy, exploitation, and expropriation of the lower portion of the scale. This form of society, racially hierarchical, does not form in history only. If we look at the past, without obviously assuming that the situation today is exactly the same as before, we can extract a dynamic that remains– a society that, guided by capitalist accumulation, is also guided by the expropriation and exploitation of peoples designated historically as inferior. But if I speak of racism, does a mode of production like capitalism have anything to do with it?
When one proposes to understand the issue at its core, one needs to grasp that the specifically capitalist mode of production means a certain way of producing both goods for human survival (which come to be understood as commodities) as social relations. Understanding that is to understand that our social constitution took place and was consolidated with the creation of those who need to sell their labor power to survive, and it took place with the commodification of material life. This mode succeeded in spreading itself globally through both colonization (expropriating the native communities of the colonies of their lands and their way of life) and modern slavery under colonialism. The continued expropriation of the working class of their means of production, initially within Europe itself and later with the peoples of the world, is compatible with the rise of imperialism. This is the fabric of capitalism itself which, in order to keep its accumulation and growth process (i.e. its expansion in the world) needs to constantly expropriate peoples and workers. These are expected impulses throughout capitalism’s development.
Peter Hudis is right when he explains that when capitalism posits itself globally through colonization and slavery, the material conditions to operate a cultural and social construction of racial hierarchy emerged. In this sense, racism would be a part of this impulse of capital to expand itself, and thus anti-Black racism generated by the transatlantic slave trade was fundamental to make this impulse viable, operating as a guarantor in the consolidation and reproduction of this expanding system. Slavery is, therefore, an economic category because without it there would be no raw materials to supply modern industrialization. Thus, the colonization processes, combined with the slave trade of Africans, were fundamental to capitalist accumulation in the colonizing countries. Racism is a logical element of capitalist reproduction, and not merely a historical one– that is, slavery and racism were not aspects that occurred coincidentally in world history while other parts of the world were being colonized and capital expanded itself. Capitalist accumulation and its global impulse were possible because other areas of the planet were colonized and people who were historically designated as inferior were enslaved. The history of capitalism is also the history of the expropriation of the non-white population of the world.
Thus, in order to grasp the issue at its essence, we need to understand that racism is imbued in the social fabric, in its way of producing and reproducing itself, and also in capitalist social relations. Returning to our concrete situation, the Brazilian Black population is the one that suffers the most violence, is the most incarcerated, is the one employed in the worst conditions (or even unemployed), is the one who dies most of Covid-19, and is in greater numbers in the favelas (where there are no public services, such as sewage treatment, electricity, and water supply. In many of these places, the milícias, the secretive paramilitary forces, control such services), precisely because they have historically been designated as inferior. Moreover, it is this oppression of the Brazilian Black population that is essential to the perpetuation of capitalist dynamics. Its continuous devaluation and designation as inferior in society guarantee, as Rhaysa Ruas says, that the expropriation and exploitation reproduce themselves and that the impulse of capitalist accumulation continues.
Therefore, the existence of a police operation contrary to a decision of the Supreme Court, which culminated in the death of 27 non-white civilians, in the invasion of the homes of (non-white) residents, in pools of blood on the streets and in rooms of houses, and in the execution and massacre in favelas (where a large number of non-white people are concentrated), are all because we are under a system in which non-whites in Latin America – the global South imposed by the North – are at the bottom of a social pyramid and need to remain there so that the dynamics of production and reproduction of society perpetuate themselves. Legislative changes, modifications of current institutions in society, and the increase of our representativeness in the political and institutional settings to fight racism are of the utmost importance. However, if the proposal is to think about how to radically uproot a racist society, it is necessary to understand that this is not just a malfunction of institutions and that real changes will come from the transformation of the material production of social relations.
For all I have said so far, yet another operation that kills many non-white people in favelas in Rio de Janeiro does not represent an anomalous disaster, but an action and a public security policy that obeys the very dynamics and objective of our racist social relations of production and reproduction of life. This occurs today with the explicit support and encouragement of government officials, specifically the Bolsonaro government and its institutions. Combating such actions and verifying institutional racism by proposing solutions limited to changing the way institutions operate serve only to minimize essential aspects of our history and the constitution of our society.
At the end of the day, the Black and Indigenous population of Brazil is still dying from violence, from hunger, from Covid-19. And the Amazon continues to be deforested…
HUDIS, Peter. Racismo e a Lógica do Capital: Uma Reconsideração Fanoniana. Rev. Direito Práx., Rio de Janeiro, Vol. 11, N.02, 2020, p. 1391-1417.
RUAS, Rhaysa. Covid-19 and Resistance: Life-Making, Memory, and Challenges in Seeding an Alternative Future, a Report from Brazil. Marxist-Humanism in the Present Moment: Reflections on Theory and Practice in Light of the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Uprisings. Edited by Jens Johansson, Kristopher Baumgartner. International Marxist-Humanist Organization; 1st edition (May 15, 2021).
TAYLOR, Keeanga-Yamahtta. Race for profit: how banks and the real estate industry undermined Black homeownership. The University of North Carolina Press