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Lula’s New Government Is Taking Steps to Combat Racism in Brazil

One of Lula da Silva's first acts as president was to create new ministries of Indigenous Peoples and Racial Equality.

Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is seen at his inauguration ceremony with his wife Rosângela Lula da Silva, and the heads of the new ministries of Indigenous Peoples and Racial Equality, Sônia Guajajara and Anielle Franco (sister of slain activist Marielle Franco) at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, on January, 11, 2023.

On January 1, Brazil’s new President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva walked up the ramp to the presidential palace, in front of nearly 200,000 cheering supporters.

Traditionally, the new president walks alongside the outgoing leader, who then hands him or her the presidential sash.

But former President Jair Bolsonaro left Brazil for Florida two days before the end of his term. So, instead, Lula was accompanied by a group of people chosen to symbolize Brazil’s diversity. They included a cook, an Indigenous leader, a factory worker, a teacher, a disabled activist and a child.

Aline Souza, a Black recycling collector, placed the presidential sash over Lula’s shoulders.

It was a profound statement, coming after the Bolsonaro administration, under which human rights policies were rolled back, Indigenous and Black communities marginalized and threatened, and racist and xenophobic attacks increased.

“It’s so exciting,” said social scientist Helga De Almeida. “It’s the return of our democracy. The inauguration was so representative. With a diversity of people. We haven’t seen anything like this in the last 4 years.”

Lula has kept his promise to bring diversity into his government. Eleven, or almost 30 percent, of Lula’s cabinet ministers are women, the highest number ever. The same number self-identify as Black or Brown. Lula has created 14 new cabinet seats, including new ministries of Indigenous Peoples and Racial Equality. In his first couple of weeks in power, he’s already taken strides to push back on Brazil’s systemic racism and Bolsonaro’s cuts to social programs for marginalized communities.

“It’s a moment to celebrate,” said Karine de Souza Silva, a Black professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, who was a member of Lula’s foreign relations transition team. “Throughout Lula’s campaign, he promised to rebuild these social policies and deepen the policies for racial equality.”

Lula has appointed prominent Indigenous activist Sonia Guajajara to run the new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. Anielle Franco, his new minister of racial equality, is the sister of Marielle Franco, a Black lesbian Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman who was gunned down in 2018, unleashing a wave of Black Lives Matter protests across Brazil and around the world. Following Marielle’s death, Anielle founded the Marielle Franco Institute, to keep her memory and her struggle alive.

Franco and Guajajara were sworn in on January 11, just three days after thousands of Bolsonaro supporters invaded Brasilia, ransacking government buildings including Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidential Palace, in an attempted coup against Lula’s government. Franco and Guajajara walked down a winding ramp, hand-in-hand, as drummers beat an Afro-Brazilian rhythm welcoming the orixá Xangô, the spirit of justice.

“Today’s ceremony holds a very special symbolism,” said Franco during her first speech as minister. “After the attacks suffered by this house and the Brazilian people last Sunday, we set foot here as a sign of resistance to any and all attempts to attack institutions and our democracy. Fascism, like racism, is an evil to be fought in our society.”

During the ceremony, Lula signed into effect the country’s new Law on Racial Crimes, which punishes individual crimes of racial injury (including racist verbal abuse) with prison terms of two to five years. It additionally states that if racist acts are carried out by multiple people, the punishment will increase by 50 percent for each person involved.

“We have to create a new culture. Because those of us who feel racism, who feel it daily. Those who are afraid, you need real action,” Black lawyer Fabiano Machado da Rosa told Band News.

Anielle Franco says that her new ministry will be an important step toward “institutionalizing anti-racist political struggle” and lifting the issue of racism into a public debate “in a way that Brazilian politics has never seen.”

That is not an easy task. In Brazil, there is a myth of racial democracy. But that could not be further from the reality.

“Racism in Brazil is endemic. It’s everywhere. It’s every day,” Black movement member and sociologist Reginete Bispo told me in 2020, after security guards killed a 40-year-old Black man by choking him to death outside a supermarket. “Racism in Brazil is recognized across the globe, because this is one of the countries that most kills Blacks.”

Analysts say Bolsonaro only made matters worse. During his administration, he helped to empower racists and white supremacists. Some of his top cabinet members posted videos featuring Nazi symbology and imagery. The number of neo-Nazi cells in Brazil increased by almost 60 percent in just his first two years in power.

“We have to do what Germany did after the Second World War. We have to ‘de-Nazify’ Brazilian society,” said Silvio Almeida, a prominent Black lawyer and Lula’s new human rights minister, last month.

In order to do that, he said there were three key elements that needed to be incorporated into the coming policies: Fighting racism, increasing political participation of unrepresented groups, and battling rising poverty and inequality.

“Thirty-three million people don’t have enough to eat in Brazil. One-hundred and twenty million people are in a situation of food insecurity. Millions are unemployed,” said Almeida. “That’s the most fundamental point. We have to take care of this, because people need to be alive to continue to fight.”

This is Lula’s bread and butter. During his first two terms in office, from 2003 through 2010, he lifted tens of millions out of poverty with a package of poverty alleviation programs he called Zero Hunger. He’s promised to do it again.

And Brazilian poverty is not colorblind. Three-quarters of Brazil’s poor are Black or Brown. Black unemployment is well above the country’s average. More than three-quarters of homicide victims in Brazil are Black. This is even more shocking considering that Black and Brown Brazilians make up more than half of the country’s population.

“So-called Abolition only exchanged slavery for racial discrimination and social exclusion,” wrote Black Workers Party congresswoman Benedita da Silva in November. “In addition to structural racism, institutional racism and racial prejudice were fed back in family education and schools to reveal the brutal force of discrimination and violence that kills the Black population, especially its young people.”

But, she wrote, now with Lula “we can have real hope that the policies against racism and the promotion of racial equality will be resumed.”

This reversal is also expected in the education sector, which saw deep cuts under Bolsonaro.

During Lula’s previous governments, he created almost 200 private and federal university systems and campuses, drastically expanding access to university education for Brazil’s marginalized and Black communities. By 2011, the year after he left office, 70 percent of public universities had affirmative action programs.

“I have benefited directly from the public university,” Priscila Marinho told me in October at a rally for Lula’s candidacy in Recife, Pernambuco. “I also did a Masters, and I had this opportunity because of the Lula government.”

“Things are prone to get even better,” said Rio de Janeiro State University political scientist João Feres Júnior, who specializes in affirmative action programs. He says many of his former colleagues, including his academic advisor, have now accepted positions in the new Racial Equality Ministry.

“The possibilities look better than they’ve ever been,” he said.

But there are concerns over how much government funding will be allocated to battling for racial justice within the Lula administration.

“The important question is how much will be invested in the ministries of Racial Equality, Indigenous peoples and Human Rights?” said Ailce Moreira, a Black Indigenous journalist and a member of the Black Evangelical Movement, which fights racism in religious institutions.

“Representation and reparations are done by creating the ministries,” she said. “Inclusion and social transformation are done with investment and the allocation of resources.”

The fight for racial equality will face conflicts and difficulties. Lula’s government is composed of a broad coalition of 16 different parties across the political spectrum, and racism in Brazil is systemic.

“It has existed in Brazil since colonization, more than 500 years ago,” said Souza Silva, “but the fact that the state is making this profound statement is a moment to celebrate and it gives us hope. It’s important that the state is committed to defending our lives and our demands.”