The fight for racial equality in Latin America

By Rehman Khokhar, BA Chinese and Korean

A recent report by the BBC found that in the first half of 2020 more people were killed as a result of police violence in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro than in all of the United States put together. 75% of those killed were Black, many of them just teenagers. Systemic racism and police brutality are problems deeply rooted across Latin America. But when was the last time you heard about a BLM protest in Bogotá, Havana or Mexico City? Why is there such a lack of awareness surrounding racial inequality in Latin America?

Last summer our TV screens and social media feeds were filled with images of mass demonstrations and protests, and links to petitions and donation pages. From Boston to Bristol, statues came down and millions came out under the slogan of Black Lives Matter to challenge the structural racism and violence that has been targeting Black people for centuries. 

Whilst it was by no means the first time people had taken to the streets in response to police brutality against a Black person, the situation created in 2020 and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and ineptitude of right-wing governments meant that a movement birthed in the US soon spread across the world.

One of the key aims of anti-racist movements such as BLM is to educate and raise awareness of the issues related to racism. A simple search online can illustrate the disparity in information – if one were to search for news articles on Black rights movements in the UK or the US, page upon page of up-to-date pieces will appear. However, the exact same search in the Dominican Republic or Panama would return far fewer results. Perhaps the most shocking factor is that this is by no means an accident.

Since the 19th century, many countries in Latin America have promoted the ideology of mestizaje, that is, the idea that the people of Latin America are racially mixed and as such racism is not a problem in their part of the world. Brazil, for example, has prided itself on achieving a so-called ‘racial democracy’ – a utopia that has transcended racial boundaries where people of all backgrounds live in perfect harmony. This, of course, could not be further from the truth.

The truth is that Latin America is home to the world’s largest Black diaspora. Brazil alone has a Black population second only to Nigeria. Of the estimated 12 million African men, women and children who were enslaved and victims of the transatlantic slave trade, the vast majority were taken to Latin America and the Caribbean. Furthermore, some countries in Latin America were among the last to abolish the practice of slavery. Brazil, for instance, did so only in 1888. 

Following this, many countries adopted a policy of blanqueamiento or ‘whitening’ in order to ‘dilute’ the Black population. The policy included funding and subsidising immigration from European countries and birthed the idea of ‘mejorar la raza’ – the notion of seeking to ‘improve the race’ through mixing to achieve the goal of whiteness. 

The government of Cuba, for example, invested over $1 million recruiting Europeans to migrate to the island to counter the large Black population, whom they viewed as a threat. The father of Fidel Castro, a Spaniard, also arrived in Cuba during this period.

The fight for racial equality rages on in Latin America, and we outside of the continent owe it to them to be aware of their struggle, to amplify their voices and to do what we can to help. Social media can connect us to this fight much more effectively than traditional media. The work of Black Latin American activists like Dash Harris (@diasporadash and @afrolatinotravel), Alan Pelaez Lopez (@migrantscribble) and Ain’t I Latina? (@aintilatina) continues to shine a spotlight on the plight of Black Latin Americans long after the Western news cycle has moved on. 

Photo caption: A protester holds a placard at a demonstration, reading ‘Black Lives Matter, Black Trans Lives Matter’ in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Credit: Midia NINJA, Flickr)

Post Author: The SOAS Spirit

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