Republic and slavery: democratic transition for whom?

November 20, 2019

On November 20, the Day of Black Awareness (Dia da Consciência Negra) in Brazil is celebrated. To discuss this date, it is necessary to revisit contemporary events to the 1888 Abolition of Slavery, such as the Proclamation of the Republic and the promulgation of the Constitution of 1891. These are three historical phenomena that represent an important moment of transition in Brazil, which will guide the construction of the Brazilian state. Equally important for this construction is the process of redemocratization, marked by the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution. It is important to talk about transition, because in the end we must ask ourselves: democratic transition for whom?

A republic without political equality

If the end of slavery would spark a spark of hope in the bodies and hearts of hitherto enslaved black people, who fought tirelessly for their freedom and equality, imagine allying this with the rise of a new regime that promised to end the imperial privileges of the Empire? A regime that, at least in theory, has as its main foundations the absence of institutional and religious privileges, as well as alternation in power. We are talking about the republic, a concept that, despite evoking the affirmation of the value of political freedom and the high level of equality between citizens – there are people who still discuss whether Brazil has an heir prince.

The “in theory” quoted above is to demonstrate that, in practice, what was seen was not quite so. Except for the Royal Family, the Republic maintained privileges for the elites. It would be too much to dream: to imagine that a country that was born and developed 300 years on the shoulders of black enslaved people would make a fair transition to a republic without slaves, and end its privileges overnight.

Professor Lilia Schwarcz, in her latest work “Sobre o autoritarismo brasileiro” (“On Brazilian Authoritarianism”), states, contrary to the common sense, that the Brazilian people are authoritarian individuals. And it was precisely through the process of slavery that this characteristic developed, creating a kind of structural racism that has its effects perpetuated even today. Through the process of writing the country’s official memory, government technologies were created to the detriment of the memories of the enslaved people, who were to be relegated to the illegality or underground places of the Republic. This is what sociologist Michel Pollak calls the framing of memory, this process of (re)building official collective memory.

Regarding these technologies, Professor Achille Mbembe deals with the concept of necropolitics. This consists of a type of policy that chooses who should live and who should die, occurring predominantly in countries originated from the process of forced colonization. In this sense, by denying humanity to certain groups located in certain territories and electing them as enemies, any kind of violence, even death, is justified. If this concept seems well suited to today’s Brazil, it is possible to return to the origins of these practices.

It is important to remember that the end of slavery, the proclamation of the Republic, and the promulgation of the 1891 Constitution unfolded in the nineteenth century, when racial theories reached their peak, especially in Brazil, where many of the local elite appropriated them. The question from that moment on would be to leave slavery in the past, since a new country was born from there, idea present in the hymn of the Proclamation of the Republic that ““ (…) Nós nem cremos que escravos outrora, Tenham havido em tão nobre País… (…)” (“We do not even believe that slaves once were in such a noble country”, in free translation).

The lack of material and symbolic policies for ex-captives reinforce the attempt to relegate slavery to the imperial past. This should be a responsibility of the slave past, not of the promising present republican present. Recall the Burning of the Slave Archives in 1890 by the then Minister of Justice Rui Barbosa, justified by avoiding compensation for slave victims, what brought great damage to the collective memory of the black people.

The 1891 Constitution came to institutionalize republican values. On the one hand, there was an expansion of the concept of civil citizenship, one that would determine who would be recognized as a Brazilian person, but the restriction on political citizenship remained, one that would allow people to intervene in the political will of the country. For example, in its article 70, § 1º, it is stipulated that beggars and illiterates would not be considered citizens, being necessary to emphasize an unpleasant “coincidence”: most of the contingent of beggars and illiterates came directly or indirectly from slavery.

The abolition of slavery, the growth of race theories, and the absence of any material protection policy for these people, and the silence about it, lead one to believe more in a technology of government based on popular hygiene and the elimination of a kind of enemy. It was hoped that, by leaving these people to their own devices, they would disappear in a “natural” way, remaining only the “strong ones,” as Professor Hilton Costa recalls.

Racism and tolerance in the Republic

In the transition from the Empire to the Republic, it is clear that for the newly liberated black people, the only transition that took place was from the “big house” (enslavement farm houses) to the suburbs and the first favelas of the country. Even exposed to human precariousness and all kinds of violence, the struggle of black people to regain their human conditions has never ceased. It is important to remember with Lilia Schwarcz that the same owners of the imperial period also dominated the Republic.

In the troubled 1930s, Brazil, faced with the failures of the first decades of the Republic, needed to create a new image to mark the new moment. It is in this context that the Getúlio Vargas government appropriates the idea of ​​racial democracy, coined by sociologist Gilberto Freyre, to demonstrate to the world that the process of Brazilian slavery was “less violent” than the others, to further hide the disputes of the black population and subjugate them to the underground memories of the country.

The most contradictory in this period is the fact that while it was being preached to the world that “races lived in harmony in Brazil”, a policy of tolerance was created internally. So much so that an institutional policy of the Brazilian State was based on stimulating eugenic education, as established by article 138, b, of the 1934 Constitution. Not to mention the debates of the constitutional process, where was defended that “(…) We will never be a great nation if we do not care to defend and improve our race.”

The transition to a “modern” country would be conditional on the elimination of a new enemy, in this case, the presence of black people. In this way, national progress would only happen if a population whitening policy was adopted. From that moment on, there is an increase in the European immigration to Brazil, a fact of general knowledge, made invisible by the official narrative that Brazil is a receptive country of solidarity and “peaceful” people.

Already in the dictatorship of the “Estado Novo” (1937-1945), any kind of contestative political manifestation was violently repressed. Racial discrimination increased as market competitiveness increased, as black people remained exposed to precariousness and marginalized in favelas. As an instrument of resistance and denunciation of these practices, in the 1940s stood out the UHC, União dos Homens de Cor (“Union of Men of Color”) and the TEN, Teatro Experimental do Negro (Experimental Theater of the Black), under the leadership of the intellectual Abdias do Nascimento. Among its guidelines were: the defense of the civil rights of Brazilian black people, as well as the creation of anti-discrimination legislation.

How did the civilian-military dictatorship dealt with the black movement?

With the establishment of the military dictatorship in 1964, an ethic of its own was created in the fight against a common enemy, that is, anyone who could be considered contrary to the political and moral ideas of the regime. It was, however, necessary to adopt an image that minimized or concealed the arbitrariness committed by the regime. This brought back racial democracy, now as an official state policy, with the criminalization of hate speech or racial discrimination.

During this period, the Brazilian black movement was strongly influenced by the movements of Pan Africanism, Black Power, the Black Panthers and the civil rights struggle in the United States. That is, a period of appreciation of black culture. Today we know from official documents that both the Army and the Federal Police kept the black movement in Brazil under constant surveillance.

The dictatorship understood that the black population could use the denunciation initiatives against structural racism as a pretext to disrupt the social order. Thus, if the Brazilian state adopted racial democracy as a policy, incitement to racial hatred was not meant to persecute white people, but rather black people who suffered racism and claimed equal treatment, whether culturally, religiously or politically.

By way of example, it is in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the first studies on racial quotas in public institutions were held, a discussion that would fit the criminal type of incitement to racial hatred. The dictatorial crackdown delayed this discussion by at least 50 years. Another technology of government to keep the black population under control, after all, as the official document itself said: “the black, as it organizes itself, is now considered a danger.”

Finally, the period of democratic transition and the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution come. Some advances are being made, such as the criminalization of racism in both the constitutional text and the law, but they are still minimal, given the size of the suffering inflicted on the black population at the expense of supposed progress.

Did the democratic transition reach black bodies?

On November 18, 2011, the National Truth Commission (CNV, in the portuguese acronym) was established to investigate the serious human rights violations committed by state agents that occurred between 1946 and 1988. The final CNV report concluded that the serious violations of human rights were a part of a state policy, identified as crimes against humanity. However, CNV has investigated the crimes committed against indigenous, LGBTQ + populations, but not on the black issue.

And that is curious, to say the least, as we were the last country to officially extinguish slavery, we are the largest black population outside the African continent and all the technology of governments presented in the timeline outlined in this text has one thing in common: the choice of those who they can live or those who let themselves die – the necropolitic. And it was not for lack of warning. The MNU, Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement), drew attention to this fact in the amnesty discussion process.

Professor Edson Teles, in an interview for the Podcast Mas e se? states that in this process of democratic transition, the state’s repressive apparatus was reshaped to maintain its truculence, but with the democratic veneer. This is where the idea of ​​democratized public security comes from. Once the democratic veneer passed, even without any real structural reform, it became necessary to replace the subversive enemy. This new “enemy” has always been present before, during and after the dictatorship: the black body.

On all these remarkable moments of national transition, the end of formal slavery, the proclamation of the Republic, six constitutions, two dictatorships, I wonder: these transitions, democratic or not, had any relevant effect on the black population? Did it aggravate or keep black people subordinate? If we enter any Brazilian favela, we will see that the “enemy”, the “evil”, remains exposed to all kinds of violence, precariousness and even death. In other words, there is no way to talk about democratic transition in these spaces.

Every conquest that the black people acquire with much struggle comes with a setback: if they are freed from slavery, their political citizenship is restricted; if they are entitled to quotas for insertion in public institutions, the so-called progressive government establishes as a heinous crime drug trafficking, knowing that the great victim of the war on drugs is the black population, increasing the new slave quarters we now know as mass incarceration. The instruments of domination are practically the same, only adapted to their time: cruel penalties in slavery, versus the subversion of public order, acts of resistance and exclusion of illicitness present in Minister Sérgio Moro’s “anti-crime package”.

There are countless cases of systematic human rights violations of the black population, from slavery to the present day. “The enemy”, the “evil” and the victim of oppression are always the same. Slavery alone would merit a Truth Commission. A model of transitional justice, drawing on the instrument of a National Truth Commission, which is silent on racial issues, has made the choice to maintain the secular structural racism that is deeply rooted in our society.

If it is to settle accounts with the past, let it be in the form of an alliance, as defended by Judith Butler. An alliance in the strong sense of the word capable, of not choosing what kind of precarious situation should or should not have primacy. Note: there is a fracture in the narrative of the national collective memory and it is precisely through this gap that clandestine memories of the black people emerge to demonstrate the narrative inconsistency of this process of memory framing. That is why the question with which we started and ended this text, in the month of Black Consciousness, comes from the clandestine and underground memories of the Brazilian “democracy”: democratic transition for whom?

By Deivide Júlio Ribeiro [1]

You can read and think more about the topic here:

[1] Master and PhD student at the Postgraduate Program in Law, Faculty of Law of UFMG, with research funded by CAPES. One of the coordinators of ALAFIA, Grupo de Extensão e Pesquisa em Direito, Estado e Relações Raciais (“Extension and Research Group on Law, State and Race Relations”) of the same institution.

References cited:

BUTLER, Judith. Corpos em aliança e a política das ruas notas para uma teoria performativa de assembleia. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2018.

COSTA, Hilton. Escravidão, liberdade, privilégios e tradição, 2017.

MBEMBE, Achille. Necropolítica. São Paulo: N-1, 2018.

NASCIMENTO, Abdias. O genocídio do negro brasileiro. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2016.

POLLAK, Michael. Memória e identidade social. In. Estudos históricos. Rio de Janeiro, v. 5, n., 10, 1992, p. 200-212.

SCHWARCZ, Lilia. Sobre o autoritarismo brasileiro. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019.