Beyond the soccer fields, racism is the enemy of millions of Latin Americans

May 2, 2014


A soccer match at Morro Santa Marta, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

Fernando Frazão/ABr.

  • Afro-descendants account for half of the poor population in the region, and in some countries they represent the majority

From bananas thrown at players to insults from their employers, the most recent manifestations of racism in sports are an indicator of how deeply-rooted discrimination against Afro-descendant people remains, even in Latin America, where this group accounts for 50% of the poor population.

Recently, social networks exploded following a racist incident against Barcelona’s Dani Alves during a soccer match: a fan in the stands threw a banana at him. The soccer player casually picked it up and took a bite.

At the same time, another wave of indignation hit the social networks in the United States after the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team made a racial slur against African-Americans.

The hashtags #somostodosmacacos and  #ClippersOwnerIsaRacist were among the most used on Twitter this week. In the case of Brazil, the incident generated a counter response from activists (with  #nãosomosmacacos), who complained that the original hashtag only reinforced prejudice against Afro-Brazilians.

Controversy notwithstanding, an increasing number of Brazilians are defining themselves as Afro-descendants: between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of individuals defining themselves as black on the census rose from 6.2% to 7.6%, according to the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute (IBGE). If those who define themselves as “brown” are included, 50% of all Brazilians are of African descent.

This “increase” in the black population is due to the fact that the 2010 census enabled survey respondents to identify their race. As a census, this method covered all Brazilian households rather than just a statistical sample. This phenomenon is also part of “a broader global movement to recover ethnic identities,” according to World Bank expert Fabio Pittaluga.

In the rest of Latin America, however, it is still difficult to identify the size and distribution of the Afro-descendent population since not all censuses includes questions on race. Notable exceptions are Colombia –on whose 2005 census 10% of the population defined themselves as black– Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

Countries such as Peru or Guatemala, for example, are known for their indigenous heritage, but also have a black population that is as unknown as it is discriminated against.

" With few exceptions, such as in Colombia, the region is reluctant to reserve leadership positions and political party membership for them "

Germán Freire

World Bank social development expert

Excluded from economic growth

The lack of information on these Latin Americans is just the tip of the iceberg of the issue. But it is enough to know that Afro-descendants have not benefited from the region’s economic growth.

It is estimated that a third of the Latin American population is Afro-Latin; however, this population represents half of the region’s poorest citizens, on average. In Colombia, 80% of black people live in extreme poverty; in Brazil, 14.5% of the poor and 80% of murdered youth are black, according to the World Bank. This population also has only half the possibility of attending secondary school.

These disadvantages are reflected in the capacity of political representation of the black population.

"Afro-descendants are among those least present in public office. With few exceptions, such as in Colombia, the region is reluctant to reserve leadership positions and political party membership for them,” says Germán Freire, World Bank social development expert.

Freire adds that outside of the arts and sports, black people in Latin America still do not have outlets to express themselves.

 “As a result, they remain in poverty. This is a loss for Latin America, because it is like throwing away an enormous cultural legacy,” he says.

On and off the field

For all of these reasons, two consensuses are emerging in the region. The first is that poverty can be fully overcome only when the Afro-descendent population is taken into account.

One pressing need is to determine why racial inequality has increased and exactly how much it is costing Latin America, according to Pittaluga.  He says policies and strategies should be designed to involve Afro-descendants in the regional development agenda.

The second consensus is that the World Cup –with its anti-racist campaigns on the social networks, such as #copasemracismo– provides a good opportunity to discuss the problem of discrimination on and off the playing fields.

"We should reflect on whether or not ‘what I do and say in daily life’ perpetuates discrimination,” says Freire.