Racism’s true colours: institutional racism and police brutality in Brazil


Nowhere in Latin America are so many people killed by the police as in Brazil. But not everyone is equally affected by this. Society is divided between those people who “can be killed” and “good citizens”.

Menschen knien mit in die Luft gereckten Fäusten auf der Strat
Teaser Image Caption
Anti-racist protests in Belo Horizonte, June 2020

In September 2019, Agatha Félix, an eight-year-old girl, was on her way back home with her mother when she was shot. The mortal shot was fired by police officers as they targeted two motorcyclists passing by, suspecting them of being criminals. The incident occurred in the favela where Agatha lived, the Complexo do Alemão, in Rio de Janeiro. In May 2020, during the pandemic, a 14-year-old teenager was shot by the police in his home[1] in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro - 72 shots were fired. In cases like these, the reason given to justify said actions is, unfailingly, the fight against drugs. In Rio de Janeiro, in 2019, six cases of children, shot by police as they were on their way to school, in or in front of their homes, became a national headline case and moved everyone.

The abovementioned cases are not uncommon. But what perpetuates State violence which hits children and teenagers, resulting in cases that leave everyone speechless? What legitimizes a public official to use their weapon to fire indiscriminately in these spaces? What guarantees that if they do so, they will not suffer any consequences? The answer is not an easy one and will certainly have many facets and a number of explanations. However, there is a phenomenon at the heart of Brazilian society which plays a fundamental role in these events: institutional racism. In other words, racism is entrenched in Brazilian institutions and is perpetuated through coercion and hierarchisation practices which increase inequalities, keeping black people in a subaltern position, in a detrimental position which favours the group in power.

Structural racism creates the material basis

Institutional racism, therefore, creates material conditions which enable the static position of one group’s power over another one: e.g. low-quality education for the poorer part of the population, the negation of residence, health, and security rights. This means distancing 55% of the population from the benefits that it contributes to. Institutional racism normalises these hierarchies and inequalities. We accept it because it is part of how society “works”: it is not merely an individual position of someone who is a racist, but a series of events that normalise situations which are a clear breach of rights of a large part of society.

Therefore, the police feel authorised to use violence in these places without fearing the consequences. They need to eliminate the enemies, enemies which are a result of social and racial stereotyping. It is unthinkable that the police, regardless of the justification, would shoot 72 times in a home of unarmed, unresisting people in the richest part of the city. In these places, the norm is to ask questions first and shoot only if necessary: in other words, the rules are followed.

People who “can be killed” and “good citizens”

Brazilian society created a sophisticated form of racism, concealed in its social relations, which feeds off violence and the disaggregation of black identity since its very start. When we consider police brutality, we understand that life has a different value between those people who “can be killed” and “good citizens”. The profiles are well defined: the majority of those ”who can be killed” are black youth, invisible workers working in the informal market, those without social security guarantees, living in precarious buildings far away from their workplace and without public recreational areas. “Good citizens” are white men and women, many of them middle-class, with a good level of education, with middle-income jobs who live in the safest areas of the cities with European-like levels of crime. The geography of death is not surprising either: Most deaths by the police occur in the outskirts of the cities, in the favelas and in the suburbs, where the condominiums of the subaltern population are located and where the police kills the most. Part of the police’s role is to guarantee the material protection of the favoured classes – another element used to protect the privileged classes from the “dangerous”[2] classes, and they do so by means of physical and symbolic violence. Even for those black citizens who managed to reach higher levels in the economic pyramid, the challenge of interacting with a racist society will continue to haunt them.

But let us return to the phenomenon of violence in Brazilian cities. Brazil is the second South American state in terms of homicide rates and first in terms of police killings. The police killed 11,520 people in 2018-2019[3]. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s postcard, is mired by daily shootings between the police, drug traffickers, and the militia[4]. In 2018 and 2019, there were 4,549 shootings[5] which involved public officials. The police, once again, represent the segment which kills the most. However, the authorities do not seem to see the problem of all these killings – they actually only gain value when used as an electoral pawn.

A widely-accepted policy of slaughter

During the last election, public safety was the flagship policy for many candidates. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the elected governor, Wilson Witzel, publicly declared that the police should “take down” (“abater”, literally “to slaughter”, “to cull”) whoever had a rifle, even if they did not put up a fight or were not perceived as a threat. He said, “take aim at their head and... fire.”[6]. The policy became known as “abate” and was accepted by part of the population and consolidated daily police brutality such as flying around in helicopters and indiscriminately firing upon suspects in the aforementioned areas. All these events are interpreted as part of an overall safety policy.

This is not only circumscribed to Rio de Janeiro. On a federal level, the winning policy was one which preached violence, seen as a way of cleaning and getting rid of anyone who stood in its way. President Jair Bolsonaro always declares his wish for the population to be armed. During his government, the law on the sale and right to bear arms became more flexible. In 2016, 2,390 weapons were imported; in 2019, this increased to 37,589[7]. In 2019, there was also an 18% increase in ammunition sales. The weapons industry sold 46.1% more to weapon stores in the first five months of 2020. Policies such as these boost the practices of a society which allows violence as long as it is levied against the usual “suspects”.

These narratives are also found in Parliament, with attempts and some victories in making legislation on public security more flexible, backed by the “bullet bench”, a parliamentary movement made up of former police and former military which defend the civil right to bear arms and the crackdown of the State on criminals.

We are living the exacerbation of “necropolitics”[8], a concept developed by black philosopher and historian from Cameroon, Achille Mbembe[9], who questions the limits of State sovereignty. According to Mbembe, the State chooses who should live and who should die: “being sovereign means exercising control on mortality and defining life as the implementation and manifestation of power”. According to Achille Mbembe, the humanity of the other person is negated, enabling all sorts of violence, aggressions or even death. In the last years, necropolitics became the electoral flagship not only of parliamentarians and lesser people with a minor role in politics, but a flagstone of speeches and policies which are not less utopian than other initiatives.

The antiracist fight and its new formats

We live in a time where material conditions of life are being completely transformed. Work is a good example – the uberisation of life is building new types of economic activities. At the same time, a social malaise has exacerbated, based on the idea that we have lost control of our bodies and wishes. The social and political conquests of the last years in Brazil and the world have placed a part of the population “out of the closet”, reinforced by the ongoing antiracist movements, the LGTBQI+ movement, and the women’s movement, to quote the most representative. Part of society is revolting daily against its place of subalternity and obedience. This material and symbolical decomposing world is where the antiracist movement goes from strength to strength. There is a reshuffling of social powers, both on the left and on the right, which means that the near future is one of permanent conflict and revendication.

It is important to highlight that the anti-racist fight is not new, but it always takes on new formats and actors based on the material tools at its disposal. In this case, activists use today’s technological tools, i.e. social media. These movements are fragmented, have multiple leaders, bring new faces to the table and, therefore, they are also a product of these fragmented social dynamics which were caused by neoliberalism. It is not a coincidence that Black Lives Matter (BLM) was created by three black women: Alicia GarzaPatrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. The activists met at the Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity and one of them wrote on Facebook, “Our lives matter, life is black” and this is the origin behind the BLM slogan. The movement grew and organised thousands of marches even outside the United States. Movements like this confront institutions and the State: they want immediate change.

Another necessary element during the marches against police brutality in the United States is that of the white population. These are normally famous white people: celebrities, activists, politicians and authorities who after George Floyd’s murder donated money, invited guests to their social media channels or participated in the Black Lives Matter marches which took place over the last few weeks, attracting thousands of people. White police participated in various antiracist marches – an odd sight to see for many. In Brazil, white celebrities and football players with millions of social media followers also invited activists and black intellectuals to their channels to debate racism in Brazil. Famous black authors, such as Djamila Ribeiro, increased their book sales on race, which proves the public’s interest on the topic.

The anti-racist fight will demand a price, be it symbolical and material, of these people. If racism, after all, is constituent of the system we all build our lives upon, it will also have mechanisms to reject people who rise against their predetermined role, be they black or white. Understanding that one’s position is not a result of meritocracy but a result of the phenomenon called whiteness[10] - whiteness enables access to a series of symbolic and material privileges and is a phenomenon that is growing in our times, finding a raft of new followers. Indeed, we can claim that supporting political projects that make life and citizenship more fragile, which ignore the rights of those that in this historic moment continue to be pushed away from this place of power is also tantamount to being a racist. The fight against racism cannot be the task of only black people. Overcoming it, delegitimising it, is everyone’s task.

The fight against racism is a common duty

Movements against violence, be it in the USA or in Brazil, reinforce that regulating society by means of violence to maintain subaltern people in their place simply cannot be accepted. It has to be resisted. This is what the rise of movements points to: the marches of mothers who lost their children to police brutality, the demonstrations in the communities, the collectives of young journalists, the growing and strengthened movement of black women, to quote the most emblematic here in Brazil. But antiracist resistance is not only found in organised movements. It can also be found in those spaces that pool black roots and identity: the terreiros (meeting places) and African religion centres, the “quilombola” communities, the cultural heritage of the dead and of the Brazilian suburbs.

In recent years, this centuries-long fight registered important victories, starting from the Constitution of 1988, the recognition and acknowledgment of the quilombola communities, the quota and inclusion programmes in public and private universities, quotas in public jobs, the creation of Government Departments dedicated to the promotion of racial equality, etc. Unfortunately, the current government rejects the existence of racism in the country, despite the fact the President keeps on giving racist and sexist declarations, and continues promoting the dismantling of institutions and policies focusing on racism.

What these movements point to is that a path is being laid out: we can already observe different institutions of civil society reorienting their policies, not only for a disputed external policy (which is what many of them already did) but also for an internal dialogue on this matter. We know that the decisive impulse is given by those who feel the daily consequences of racism. Therefore, care and solidarity networks have to be extended and boosted. To welcome those who arrive, direct the debate, and demand changes and stances.

This also means continuing a long history of demands to the group of left-wing political stakeholders to ensure the antiracist fight is a priority pillar – both in terms of the political narrative as well as the repositioning of black management within the places of power. It is necessary to irrigate the fields to ensure that new Marielles can flower more quickly. Because they will take on her role by demanding new policies and positions. There were two priority agendas in Marielle Franco’s work: public security and the promotion of women’s rights. Marielle was a councilwoman from Rio who was murdered by the militia, and who became Brazil’s symbol for women rights and the antiracist fight.

But life is not simple. Nothing is, to be honest. A great leader, Angela Davis – an American feminist and antiracist fighter – warns us: “in a racist society, it is not enough to not be racist. It is necessary to be antiracist". She hits the nail on the head when it comes to Brazil’s case. Heinrich Böll once said something which, to me, reflects the constituent part of the spirit of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in its activities across the globe: “meddling is the only way to stay relevant”. They push us to think of solutions outside of the individual and consumerist society we live in. We have to become allies of those who say #BlackLivesMatter or #VidasNegrasImportam.


[1] Read more here: https://www.google.com/search?q=72+tiros+jo%C3%A3o+miguel&rlz=1C1GCEA_enBR778BR778&oq=72+tiros+jo%C3%A3o+miguel&aqs=chrome..69i57.8372j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

[2] “Dangerous classes” is a concept which was developed by the Brazilian elite at the end of the 19th century to try and define the poor masses originating especially from slavery.

[3] https://g1.globo.com/monitor-da-violencia/noticia/2020/04/16/numero-de-pessoas-mortas-pela-policia-cresce-no-brasil-em-2019-assassinatos-de-policiais-caem-pela-metade.ghtml

[4] Militias gained popularity from 2008 with the creation of a Survey Parliamentary Commission which investigated the deployment of these groups in the communities of Rio de Janeiro. According to police data, today they control 278 communities in Rio. Militias are composed by police and former police, penitentiary officers, private security, and firefighters. They are active in the real estate market, drug sales, transport, the sale of gas canisters for cooking, and health. They are violent and blackmail and attack the population in these communities.

[5] Read more here: https://fogocruzado.org.br/estatisticas/. Last accessed on 10/07/2020.

[6] Read more here: https://noticias.uol.com.br/politica/ultimas-noticias/2020/01/11/witzel-diz-ao-stf-que-abate-de-criminosos-nao-fere-a-constituicao.htm?cmpid=copiaecola. Last accessed on 20/06/2020.

[7] Read more here: Olliveira, Cecília. Importadores de armas estão rindo à toa com o bolsonarismo: vendas cresceram 359% desde 2018. The Intercept Brasil. 04.12.2019. Available on: https://theintercept.com/2019/12/04/importadores-armas-bolsonarismo/. Last accessed on 20/06/2020.

[8] Read more here: https://ponte.org/o-que-e-necropolitica-e-como-se-aplica-a-seguranca-publica-no-brasil/. Last accessed on 30/03/2020.

[9] MBEMBE, Achille. Necropolítica. Revista do PPGAV/EBA/UFR, Rio de Janeiro, n. 32, pg. 32-151, 2016.

[10] Sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois may be the precursor to theorise about white racial identity in his publication “Black Reconstruction in the United States” in 1935. It was also used by one of the iconic fighters against apartheid in South Africa, Steve Bikko, and by Frantz Fannon, a psychiatrist and essayist from Martinique. Researcher Ruth Frankenberg defines: “whiteness is a structured location where the white subject sees others, and himself, from a place of power, a comfortable place from where he can give to others what he does not give himself”. (Frankenberg, R. (1999b). Race, sex and Intimacy I: Mapping a discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, pp. 70-101).