We live in the age of digital transformation and democratization of information. Technological advance is reshaping relations, and the modernization of telecommunications infrastructure has brought knowledge to one’s fingertips. Access to information from many different sources is a significant achievement of civilization. However, it is important to recognize that there is a significant difference between information and knowledge. While information is limited to facts or events, knowledge is the result of study on a given topic and makes it possible to construct arguments based on observations of a scientific nature.

This brief introduction may seem disconnected from the title of the text, but when we deal with a subject as sensitive as racism, it is important to point out that mere information is not enough for us to understand its complex effects on society.

We do not intend to exhaust in a short text the analysis of such an important issue. Our goal is to provoke the desire for knowledge and open the eyes of our interlocutor to the rich universe of studies on racism and racial theories. The concepts and ideas that will be briefly explored are the product of a series of debates on the work "Racismo Estrutural" (Structural Racism), by the jurist and philosopher Silvio Almeida.


What is race?

According to Silvio Almeida, the concept of race appears in the context of expansion of European colonialism, as an instrument for the classification of individuals, and is the basis of justification for the "submission and destruction of populations in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.” The emergence of positivism, at the beginning of the 19th century, redefines the concept, as man becomes the object of analysis from the scientific perspective, gaining strength from scientific racism, a theory according to which physical/biological characteristics and place of birth are factors capable of explaining a supposed difference between races.

Already in the 20th century, the emergence of anthropology as a field of study helps us to understand that the concept of race is used as a political instrument for legitimization and naturalization or normalization of social inequalities.[2]

Is there a difference between prejudice, racism, and discrimination?

The understanding of any matter, regardless of area, is closely linked to understanding the meaning of each concept. Understanding the meaning given to terms is the first step towards quality study. As Silvio Almeida teaches us, although closely related, the concepts of racism, discrimination, and prejudice have different meanings:

Prejudice: means judging individuals belonging to a certain racial group based on preconceived concepts.

Racial discrimination: the power relationship is a central component of racial discrimination, which consists of the "granting of differential treatment to members of racially identified groups." Discrimination can occur directly or indirectly. Direct discrimination occurs when racial status generates an ostensive practice against a particular group, as has occurred in countries that have adopted explicit policies of segregationism.[3] In addressing indirect discrimination, the author turns to Adilson Moreira, a black jurist and intellectual who is a reference in anti-discrimination law that explains to us that this form of discrimination is "marked by the absence of explicit intentionality to discriminate against persons.”[4]

Racism: Racism is a process through which politics, economics, and everyday relationships replicate situations that create "conditions of subordination and privilege" among different racial groups.[5]

The philosopher and jurist whose thoughts inspire this text values rigor in the treatment of the different concepts. For him, racism can be analyzed from three different perspectives (individualistic, institutional, and structural), all of which are extremely relevant, but deserve different analyses since they have different consequences.

When analyzed from an individualistic perspective, racism is irrational or abnormal behavior directly linked to the behavior of individuals and fought by means of enforcement of criminal law.[6]

The greatest mistake that can be made when discussing racism is interpretation of facts exclusively in the light of the individualistic perspective. When we reduce racism solely to the practice of specific behavior by people, we create a false sense of non-existence of racist practices. Because they are harshly rejected by the public and legally punished, acts of direct discrimination end up becoming one-off, a fact that generates in the subconscious the idea that racism does not exist or that practice thereof is exclusive to small irrational groups. As Grada Kilomba explains, "in racism, denial is used to maintain and legitimize violent structures of social exclusion.”[7] This is the main reason why we advocate that the subject be addressed in its entirety, that is, that it be studied also from the institutional and structural point of view.

According to Almeida, institutional racism is a product of the dynamics that govern the functioning of institutions. Thus, the way in which institutions organize and act and adopt, even if indirectly and unintentionally, certain practices contributes to an increase in disadvantages that will significantly affect socially marginalized racial groups.[8] Institutions, when they do not pay attention to the historical and social context in which they are found, reproduce a relationship of power and domination that has historically been built to subjugate black populations.

Last but not least is the concept of structural racism, which can be understood as the normalization of political, economic, and legal practices that, to a greater or lesser extent, generate social disadvantages that specifically affect racial groups at the margins of society since the period of colonial expansion.

Structural racism, therefore, is the fruit of a historical, political, and economic process of systematic reproduction of social hierarchies based on the concept of race. It is the naturalization of social violence, marked by the stigmatization of black people and the imposition of negative characteristics and subordination.

The Federal Supreme Court (STF), when judging an action that discussed the crime of anti-Semitism, brought in an important analysis on the legal and constitutional interpretation of the term "racism.” Although the discussion in question was not discriminatory practices against black populations, the interpretation constructed by the STF is extremely relevant and closely connected to the concept of structural racism. According to case law released by the Court:

"The construction of a legal and constitutional definition of the term 'racism' requires a combination of historical, political, and social factors and circumstances that governed its formation and application. The crime of racism constitutes an attack on the principles on which human society is built and organized, based on the respectability and dignity of human beings and their peaceful coexistence."[9]

What can we do?

The question we all ask ourselves is: how do we combat racism? The answer is short but complex. We need to act urgently! Significant changes only happen when there is action by individuals and institutions (public and private).

Djamila Ribeiro teaches that "self-questioning - asking questions, understanding their place and doubting what seems 'natural' - is the first measure to avoid reproducing this type of violence, which privileges some and oppresses others."[10] This first measure - informing oneself about racism - is what enables one to understand the phenomenon so that it can then be combated.

Another measure is "organized resistance against growing manifestations of racist violence"[11] as Angela Davis teaches: from the knowledge of structural racism in society, all actors have a responsibility to take anti-racist actions.

Associated with this knowledge, it is necessary to reflect on the black presence in the space we occupy. Whether through art, education, politics, or culture, it is extremely fruitful to expand the range of references beyond those mostly derived from white individuals. Djamila Ribeiro points out: "it is important to keep in mind that, in order to think of solutions for a reality, we must draw from invisibility. So phrases like 'I don't see color' do not help. The problem is not the color, but its use as a justification to segregate and oppress."[12] Based on this, it is possible to outline actions that depend exclusively on engagement to promote changes. We will list some, among many, that can be adopted in everyday life:

  • Recognize that racism exists in today's society and that it does not manifest itself only through isolated acts and direct discrimination.
  • Promote debates and discussions on the problem in order to identify and correct inconsistencies.
  • Dialog in an inseparable way with respect to issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality that intersect as different forms of structural oppression.
  • Give a leading role to black intellectuals who study the subject.
  • Encourage study on combating racism and ensuring access to quality information.
  • Break the black community’s silence.
  • Foster the entry and permanence of blacks in institutions, increasing their representativeness and diversity.
  • Not tolerate racist and discriminatory practices and act to ensure that the environment within institutions is diverse and promotes opportunities for blacks.
  • Foster policies and practices that provide individuals with the tools and opportunities necessary so that, if there is equality, objective criteria for choice are applied.
  • Reducing structural inequalities in access to education will allow meritocracy in its fullness and flourishing of talent currently lost in our society.
  • Implement policies aimed at repairing a historical debt and ensuring social equality.

The above initiatives are not the only ones, but every fight has a beginning.

Vitor Barbosa, Ana Carolina das Dores, and Ivan Fernandes are members of ID.AFRO, an aliance group spontaneously created by members of Machado Meyer, within the scope of the firm's Diversity & Inclusion Committee, with the objective of promoting debates on ethnic and racial issues.

[1] Almeida, Silvio Luiz de. Racismo estrutural [“Structural racism”]. São Paulo: Sueli Carneiro; Pólen, 2019.

[2] Idem

[3] Idem

[4] Excerpt taken from the work cited by Silvio Luiz de Almeida and originally contained in MOREIRA, Adilson José. O que é discriminação? [“What is discrimination?”] Belo Horizonte: Letramento, 2017. p.102

[5] Almeida, Silvio Luiz de. Racismo estrutural [“Structural racism”]. São Paulo: Sueli Carneiro; Pólen, 2019.

[6] Idem

[7] Kilomba, Grada. “Memórias da plantação: episódios de racismo cotidiano” ["Memories from the plantation: episodes of daily racism”]. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Livros Cobogó, 2019.

[8] Almeida, Silvio Luiz de. Racismo estrutural [“Structural racism”]. São Paulo: Sueli Carneiro; Pólen, 2019.

[9] Habeas Corpus No. 82,424 – Gazette of the Judiciary – March 19, 2004. Available at http://www2.stf.jus.br/portalStfInternacional/cms/verConteudo.php?sigla=portalStfJurisprudencia_pt_br&idConteudo=185077&modo=cms

[10] Ribeiro, Djamila. “Pequeno Manual Antirracista” [“Little Anti-Racist Manual”]. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019.

[11] Davis, Angela. “Mulheres, cultura e política” ["Women, culture, and politics”]. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

[12] Ribeiro, Djamila. “Pequeno Manual Antirracista” [“Little Anti-Racist Manual”]. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019.