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Two lives that draw the map of racism in the exemplary city of Brazil


A woman waits at a transport station in Niterói, on May 11.RICARDO MORAES / Reuters

Nutritionist Iris Motta, 46, and journalist Alessandro Conceição, 37, live in Niterói, a city 15 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro that has some of the best social and economic indicators in all of Brazil. However, both live very different realities. Towards the end of the afternoon, like dozens of people, Iris exercises near São Francisco beach. The streets in that area are spotlessly clean and there is a police car guarding the place. “Living here is great, I feel very safe,” says the woman, a white woman who lives in the Canal, a middle-class neighborhood. Some of the services even reach the Viradouro favela complex. The life of Alessandro, a black man, differs greatly from the one she leads. “If I travel through certain places I generate many suspicions. I know that the watchful eyes of the policemen turn to me ”.

The wealthy neighboring city of Rio de Janeiro prides itself on having the seventh highest Human Development Index (HDI) in the entire country. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), Niterói’s GDP per capita in 2017 was 55,000 reais ($ 10,000), while that of the entire country was just over 31,000 reais ($ 5,600). But the “smiling city”, as it is known for its quality of life, also portrays a deeply racist Brazil. This is the conclusion drawn from the Map of Inequality of the Metropolitan Region of Rio de Janeiro, published this month by the NGO Casa Fluminense. In a previous analysis, carried out by the newspaper Nexo based on data from IBGE and Brown University, Niterói appears as the Brazilian city that segregates the most by skin color.

The indices that best illustrate this reality are those of urban violence. In Niterói, 60% of all violent deaths that occurred in 2019 were committed by police from the State of Rio de Janeiro. Of the total number of police victims, 88% were black, according to data from the Public Security Institute analyzed by Casa Fluminense. The percentage is even higher than that of the whole of Brazil (75.4%), that of the metropolitan region of Rio (79%) and that of the state capital, Rio de Janeiro (81%). In absolute numbers, the police killed 125 people last year in that municipality: 110 were black.

These rates are even more alarming when one takes into account that blacks are a minority in the city: they represent 35.77% of the total population, the smallest figure in the metropolitan region, according to the 2010 IBGE census. ” I still live in the favela and I live with the homicides of neighbors, acquaintances and even relatives, ”says Alessandro. In 2007, his brother was murdered by state agents in Campo Grande, a Rio de Janeiro neighborhood. “I myself have already woken up with the police inside my house pointing at my head. It was something recurrent, “he says.

Police violence

Alessandro also remembers when, in 2011, after leaving a rehearsal for his theater group and passing through a middle-class neighborhood with his uncle, he was approached by agents. “They said: Stop! And I asked them: Why do I have to stop? They replied: “Because we want you to stop. I’m doing my job and you have to respect me, ”he remembers. He says that this state of constant vigilance means that his neighbors hardly visit the center of the city or luxurious neighborhoods like Icaraí, which has the best HDI in the entire state. “There is the idea that you should stay in your place. Going to the center means that you will be chased for having a black body. And if you go downtown, you go to Barcas Shopping, you don’t go to Plaza Shopping ”, he argues, mentioning a shopping center frequented by lower-class people and another one that the middle and upper classes usually go to. “In Icaraí, if you don’t come to work, please don’t come.”

Iris, however, does not know what it is that the police stop her. “No, nothing, nothing,” he replies, when asked about the subject. “I feel really safe. And with this security program that they have implemented, it has improved even more ”. For her, living in Niterói is synonymous with having a range of services around her and, above all, quality of life. The Casa Fluminense study corroborates this perception and shows the indices that make the city’s residents the most proud: it is the only municipality in which 100% of its 500,000 inhabitants have running water, and 97.7% have collection and treatment of wastewater, according to 2018 data from the State Environmental Institute (INEA). At the other extreme, there are nine municipalities in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro, such as Japeri, where the percentage of wastewater collected and treated by sanitation companies is 0%.

In addition, the Niterói City Council is the one that invests the most in culture in the region: in 2018, it allocated 1.55% of its budget to the sector. “We have the Museum of Modern Art, the Popular Theater … Here we see that things are in their place. Urban cleanliness, lighting, everything ”, Iris is proud. People live an average of 70 years, which also makes it the city with the highest longevity index in the metropolitan region, whose average is 66 years. Brazil’s is 65.

In the same city, however, blacks live on average 13 years less, the largest discrepancy in the metropolitan region, according to Casa Fluminense. That means that the black population lives an average of 57 years. “My grandmother died at 72, which is a lot. But she was a domestic worker and she dedicated her entire life to caring for white people, ”says Alessandro. “She took care of a white person who died at the age of 99. Maybe my grandmother could have lived much longer if she hadn’t had to take care of someone who died at 99 ”.

Vitor Mihessen, one of the coordinators of the study, maintains that, although Niterói presents good results, “when the data are analyzed by race, it is seen that this quality of life does not include the entire population.” In Brazil, the difference in life expectancy between whites and blacks is eight years; in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro it is 10 years. “The social structures determined for this population define who lives and who dies more. It is the consequence of a great lack of access to health, assistance, education … All this accumulates in life expectancy ”, he adds.

Despite its highly praised urban infrastructure, Niterói also ranks first in environmental tragedies in that region. The city recorded 188 deaths between 2010 and 2019 from landslides, storms and floods, ahead of cities such as Petrópolis (108) and Rio de Janeiro (69). Alessandro and his family were victims of Niterói’s best-known landslides, which occurred in 2010 in Morro do Bumba and other favelas in the city after a severe storm.

”Our house in the Viradouro Complex collapsed and we had to go live with relatives. I went with my grandmother and my mother, with her sister. Our family nucleus has been separated since 2010 ″, says Alessandro, for whom the tragedy is not only the result of an environmental catastrophe. He speaks of “environmental racism”, since the favelas are inhabited mainly by the black population that historically has been segregated in the urban space. “The memories are bleak, not having a roof and no earth underfoot. Seeing all your assets go downhill, ”he says. “We always have to rebuild life, always starting from scratch. That exhausts you, leaves you tense, you can never rest ”.

Despite everything, Alessandro acknowledges that some public services are well structured even for the black population living in the favelas. “Some receive more investment than others, but I consider that education is quite universal. In the health area, any community has family doctors and it works very well ”. It also recognizes the work of the City Council in the cultural sector, as well as the effort to prevent coronavirus in the periphery. “I’m not saying that these wonderful rates don’t exist, but we still see the black population dying more. Either because of the covid-19 or in police operations ”.

The Niterói City Council says that it has created the Special Coordination of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality. “The municipal body has a service for the victims of racism and racial insult, with legal advice to refer them to the competent bodies to investigate the crimes, in addition to conducting awareness campaigns on rights,” explains the local government to EL PAÍS. “The first Municipal Council for Racial Equality in the city has also been created, with representatives of the Government and civil society, to promote and control the execution of municipal public policies on racial equality.”

The city also sanctioned, on July 30, a law that determines that 20% of the seats in municipal opposition must be reserved for black candidates. And, although the majority of the police respond to the State Government, it stands out that data from the Institute of Public Security of Rio de Janeiro indicates a reduction of 90.63% in violent fatality in June of this year, compared to the same period of 2019.


elpais.com