In Brazil a black man is killed every 23 minutes
What if I told you there is a city, a world famous city, with a police force that kills more people in a month than Minnesota police has killed in 20 years? What if I told you there is a country, not some backwater state, but a major economic and cultural player, where a black man dies at the hands of the police every 23 minutes?
The city is Rio de Janeiro, and the country is Brazil.
As demonstrators around the world take to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd, the international battle cry of black people worldwide is trending again: black lives matter. Of course they do. But some black lives seem to matter more than others. Even within the fight for racial and social justice there are some glaring inequalities.
If I asked you about a Brazilian boy named João Pedro, would you know who he was? What about a little girl named Ágatha Felix, ever heard of her? I could tell you about their lives, their dreams, aspirations; I could tell you little Ágatha, 8, took ballet and English classes, I could tell you João Pedro, 14, loved playing football and to fly his kite. Nothing remarkable about that, children’s lives are not supposed to be remarkable, they are just supposed to be normal. João Pedro was murdered by police officers while playing at home on May 19, his house shot at more than 70 times. Little Ágatha was hit by a police bullet while returning home with her mother in September last year. I could write a full page with just the names of lives cut short, murdered by those who were supposed to protect and serve. All of them black, mostly men, mostly poor.
In New York a few years ago, a friend took me to an exhibit in Harlem which consisted of a series of painted portraits of incarcerated black men. There was a group of us, and at the end the museum guide asked us what we made of the work. I said something along the lines of “it seems to me that to apply punishment is a strong part of American culture. You guys equate pain with justice.” This black American lady, somewhat offended, interjected: “Well, at least our prisons are not as bad as some in Peru or other South American countries.”
For decades, black American culture has been adopted by black people the world over. As a teenager playing basketball in Portugal I wanted to be like Allen Iverson, I listened to Tupac and Biggie, fully convinced that even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, they were talking to me, their struggles were my struggles. America, as I came to find out when I lived there, is an insulated place. People don’t know what’s happening in their own state, let alone in other countries. Tupac and Biggie were never talking to me.
Which brings me back to the country I know best. As far as I know, there was no major coverage of Ágatha’s or João Pedro’s death; they didn’t spark nationwide debates on police brutality and racial inequality, let alone worldwide ones; Brazil didn’t burn like the U.S is now burning for George Floyd. Some societies, especially in underdeveloped countries, are still so enamoured with America, the idea of it — with its big cities, skyscrapers, Nikes, and Apple watches — , that we assume that if a tragedy is happening there, then it must really matter.
There are some similarities between Brazil and the US. Both are countries of continental size, both were founded on the backs of slaves. Both now have presidents who don’t believe racism even exists, a mere excuse from people who should be doing better. But there is a stark difference. While in the US black people make up 13 percent of the population, in Brazil we are 54 percent, the biggest black population outside Africa. A majority that’s still fighting for basic rights: good-quality education, health, housing. The right to live.
Speaking to a black Brazilian journalist over the phone the other day, I asked him what’s his biggest fear in a post-covid19 Brazil. He simply said “the return of slavery.” I asked what he meant. “Think about it, we are about to face the worst recession in history. The black cleaning-lady who today charges 120 reals for her services, will have to the job for 40 reals. The world post-covid, economically speaking, is a world which will be crushing for poor black Brazilians.”
In the summer of 1992, a little over a year after Rodney King was brutally assaulted by Los Angeles police officers and the riots that ensued, the greatest American basketball team ever assembled took part in the Barcelona Olympic Games. They became known as the Dream Team. Led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, that team, comprised mostly of black men, went to Barcelona not just wanting to beat the competition, but to crush it; to assert America’s dominance over a sport invented by a Canadian.
When influential African-Americans travel abroad they are promoting, consciously or not, an ideal. They are ambassadors of the land of the free and home of the brave, pitchmen and women of Americana. They see themselves, just like the lady who cut me off at the exhibition in Harlem, just like the 1992 Dream Team in Barcelona, as American first and black people second; emboldened by a false sense of superiority, obsessed with crushing the competition.