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Racial Apartheid Persists in Latin America

In the second annual release of its Social Inclusion Index, Americas Quarterly measured 16 Latin American countries based on numerous performance variables, including access to formal employment and adequate housing, enrollment in secondary school and civil society participation. Among its most interesting findings, the Index provided insight on the systemic nature of racial discrimination in Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil and Colombia—which possess two of the region’s largest Afro-descendant populations—offered particularly unsettling results.

The Inter-American Development Bank estimates that Afro-descendants represent one-third of the Western Hemisphere’s total population, with the largest concentrations living in Brazil, the United States, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.

Across the region, Afro-descendants are more likely than others to live in impoverished areas affected by high rates of crime and violence. Racial inequality is further exacerbated by structural economic factors, including deep income disparities and minimal socioeconomic mobility among Afro-descendants.

Brazil and Colombia possess the region’s largest Afro-descendant populations and both countries continue to face formidable obstacles to reducing racial inequality. The 2006 national census in Colombia estimated that Afro-descendants accounted for 10.6 percent of the country’s population, but some demographers say this number is likely closer to 26 percent. Experts suggest this may be due to the fact that many Colombians of mixed European and African descent do not identify as black because “they do not feel discriminated against—or as a means to avoid discrimination.”

Similarly, the 2010 Brazilian national census marked the first time in history that a majority of Brazilians identified as Afro-descendants, including 50.7 percent of the population identifying as “black or mixed race.” In its official release of census results, the Instituto Brasileiro de Georgrafia e Estatística (Brazilian institute of Geography and Statistics—IBGE) noted that, “Among the hypotheses to explain this trend, one could highlight the valorization of identity among Afro-descendants.”

As reported in the Social Inclusion Index, despite reporting the highest percentage of GDP spending on social programs in the region, Brazil’s Afro-descendant population continues to face obstacles in attaining quality educational opportunities. While 76.4 percent of white students are currently enrolled in secondary schools, only 65.3 percent of non-white students attend high school. According to a 2012 report by Fundación Carolina on educational disparities in Brazil, 26.7 percent of Afro-descendant adults are fully illiterate, while only 5.9 percent of whites fall into the same category.

Afro-Brazilians are also economically marginalized by the cyclical effects of poverty and racism. For example, a study conducted by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics—IBGE) found that women and Afro-descendants are disproportionately impacted by long-term unemployment, collectively representing 60 percent of chronically unemployed adults. Furthermore, a study released by the Instituto Data Popular revealed that 39.5 percent of Brazilians do not have bank accounts, with 60 percent of individuals within the group identifying as Afro-descendants. Perhaps most strikingly, Afro-descendant populations  earn an estimated 53 percent less compared with the rest of the population in hourly wages, and 70 percent of Brazilian families living in extreme poverty are black.

Colombia faces comparable rates of racial inequality, yet its government has failed to collect comprehensive data regarding racial disparities. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) states that Colombian municipalities where Afro-descendants represent 30 percent or more of the population have an elevated rate of extreme poverty, at 43.1 percent, compared to 27.8 percent among the general population. Afro-Colombians have also been severely impacted by their country’s civil conflict—as of 2009, 288,000 reported being forcibly displaced from their communities. Substantive legislative action to combat racial inequality also remains a challenge, as the Bancada Afrocolombiana (Afro-Colombian Congressional Caucus) is composed of a small group of just seven members in the House of Representatives, and two in the Senate.

Despite the challenges of combating racism in the region, substantive policy efforts have already begun to improve opportunities and living conditions for many Afro-descendants.

Brazil pioneered this effort in 2003 when it created a specialized federal agency—the Secretaria de Políticas de Promoção da Igualdade Racial (Special Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality—SEPPIR)—dedicated exclusively to the development and promotion of racial equality policies. It also set a new precedent in 2012 when it approved a sweeping affirmative action law that has dramatically increased diversity in federal university admissions and public employment. Since its implementation, the law has doubled the number of federal university spots available to Afro-Brazilians, and research has demonstrated that students participating in the program have higher rates of academic performance than their classmates. 

Colombia has also taken important steps to address racial discrimination. Beginning in 1991, the country established a constitutional mandate to implement “measures in favor of groups which are discriminated against or marginalized.” Since then, it has developed affirmative action programs to improve Afro-descendants’ opportunities to access higher education, and in 2011 it approved a sweeping anti-discrimination law known as Law 1482. The new law imposes sentences of to up to three years’ imprisonment for individuals charged with committing acts of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, political belief, or sexual orientation.

Persistent economic and educational disparities—coupled with limited access to public services and systemic violence—continue to affect a majority of Latin America’s Afro-descendant population. Despite these challenges—and in addition to individual laws and efforts taken on a country-by-country basis mentioned above—a large step in the right direction was offered this June, when the 43rd OAS General Assembly introduced the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Forms of Intolerance, aimed to outlaw racial discrimination in OAS Member States. Far from a simple solution to a complex problem, it marked an important step in the hemisphere’s newfound willingness to acknowledge and address the widespread effects of racial discrimination.

*Wilda Escarfuller is a former policy associate at AS/COA. Follow her on Twitter at @Wilda_E.

*Adam Frankel is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a human rights researcher specializing in race, gender and sexuality issues in Latin America. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamJFrankel.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Social inclusion, Afro-descendants, Racial discrimination

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