Joaquim Barbosa was elected on Wednesday as Brazil’s new Supreme Court president in a plenary session held by the court’s 10 justices. His two-year tenure begins in November with the retirement of the court’s current president, Carlos Ayres Britto.
Barbosa was appointed by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the Supreme Court in 2003 and is the only Afro-Brazilian to have ever served on the court. Barbosa is currently presiding over the high-profile mensalão (“big monthly payout”) trial, involving a congressional cash-for-votes scheme that surfaced in 2005.
Brazil has the largest black population behind Nigeria, with Afro-Brazilians representing 53 percent of Brazil’s population. Though there are a total of 200 million people of African descent in Brazil, they face significant challenges in reaching the higher echelons of society. Barbosa has constantly criticized what he views as pervasive racism and social inequality. For example, illiteracy rates among Afro-Brazilians run as high as 20 percent, but drop to only 6 percent for whites.
Barbosa came from humble beginnings. He was born as the son of a builder and was educated in Brazil’s state school system. He then moved to the capital, Brasília, where he studied for a law degree at the city’s best university. To support himself through college, he worked as a typist and a domestic worker in one of the city’s courts, and later began a successful career as a public prosecutor.
“Barbosa made history today, as it is very rare in Brazil to see Blacks in positions of power in the corporate world, in universities and in government,” said Marcelo Paixão, who directs the Laboratório de Análises Econômicas, Históricas, Sociais e Estatísticas das Relações Raciais (Laboratory of Economic, Historical, Social and Statistical Analysis of Race Relations—LAESER), a research center that focuses on issues of race at Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro—UFRJ).