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Race and “Corruption” in Brazil

If evil is the privation or perversion of a good, the real evil in the old-new Brazilian meaning of “corruption” is the dereliction of the divine goodness in the human neighbor and the nonfeasance neglect of God’s living presence amid the oppressed.

“I am a black woman, a mother, and a daughter of the Maré favela

A young mother, feminist, and black activist who began working out of necessity at 11, Marielle Franco grew up in a poor community of Rio de Janeiro and only attended a university because of the assistance of a community-led school and a full scholarship. After graduation, she gained popularity for her groundbreaking activism against police and military violence on poor Afro-Brazilians, especially women.

Last February, Marielle had been appointed the chair of the Committee for the Monitoring of Human Rights during the military intervention in Rio, but on the night of March 14, 2018, the fifth most voted member of Rio’s City Council was brutally executed because of whom she is. “More than a friend, Marielle was a symbol of our biggest conquests. A woman like us, black, from the favela, who had a lot of strength to face the institutional challenges of the politics that always kept us distant” (Daiane Mendes). Marielle’s assassination adds to a list of 24 other community leaders murdered in the last 4 years and prompted a series of new protests against the Brazilian state’s racially selective violence. What actual changes can their sentiment of indignation provoke? 

The Word of the Year

In a research that resembles the Oxford dictionary’s word of the year, Brazilians elected indignação (resentment, anger) the word of the year in 2016. In 2017, 11,000 Brazilians elected corrupção (corruption) the word of the year and since then no other word has appeared more often in Brazilian headlines.

Although the words indignation and corruption can produce multifarious meanings according to historical period, culture, and discursive practices, they simultaneously inhabit the Christian moral lexicon and an assortment of Latin American political histories. Since colonization, Brazilians continuously make sense of their public predicaments through recourses to Christian images and the current discursive use of the word corruption characterizes the polarized debate about the abrupt interruption of Brazil’s ephemeral democracy. A theological interpretation of the transition from the popular moral sentiment of indignation to “corruption” hints that the Brazilian corruption-talk articulates both old and new ideas of race and citizenship through a Christian language.

From Indignation to Corruption

In 2013, Brazilians denounced the disproportionate allocation of public resources in infrastructure for the World Cup (2014) and the Olympic Games (2016) in detriment of basic public services. Over a million people from all social segments protested against increases in bus fares and the first indicators of an economic recession, which triggered the formulation of a convoluted agenda that demanded better health care and education, but also addressed the crisis of democratic representation and institutional corruption.

In 2014, an investigation entitled “Carwash” uncovered a sprawling kickback scheme in which a construction cartel manipulated bids for the state-run oil company, Petrobrás, in exchange of bribes for lawmakers and bureaucrats. Even though members of all major political parties are involved in the scandal, the investigation strengthened the popular disapproval of ex-president Dilma and the PT (Worker’s Party). Henceforth, the “Carwash” gained enormous reputation amid the middle class, who became numerically predominant in public demonstrations.

Between 2003 and 2014, the PT of Lula and Dilma had executed a project of social inclusion through consumerism. Although enmeshed in distrustful alliances and increasingly disengaged from important social movements, the PT dodged the free-market orthodoxy with a national agreement that generated basic economic agency for the most socially and racially marginalized. The addition of 40 million new consumers to a thriving neoliberal economy satisfied the expectations of the market, minimized unemployment, eclipsed malnutrition, and eliminated international debts.

Together, consumer inclusion plus affirmative action enlarged Brazil’s middle class from 15% to roughly one-third of the population and people like Marielle Franco finally attained a better material condition. The project of consumer inclusion only works if the economically and racially oppressed hope they will, in the future, partake of the same economic and cultural opportunities enjoyed by the middle class, who has always self-perceived itself as well-educated European-Brazilians. Thus, economic inclusion required affirmative action, such as university placement-quotas for Afro-Brazilians (federal law 12.711), the incorporation of Afro-Brazilian history in high school curricula (federal law 10.369), and an allowance for 14 million families living in extreme poverty, 75% of whom self-identify as colored.

When the painful problem of racial inequality finally made public debate through the voices of astute leaders such as Marielle, the middle class interpreted the moderate socio-economic ascension of poor and darker citizens as a threat to the privileges it has enjoyed since slavery. In Brazil, middle class membership entails sharing a given worldview and the enjoyment of its correspondent lifestyle. If Afro-Brazilians can earn diplomas and pursue better careers today, who will perform the menial, low-payment jobs that serve and distinguish the middle class since slavery?

Fearing the loss of privileges, the middle class expanded its rage or indignation against the PT and its inclusive policies to also encompass the beneficiaries of social programs. Through circadian head-news about state corruption, the economic crisis, the spectacle of “Carwash” juridical trials, and the loss of privileges, the Brazilian elite—who de facto exercise sovereignty and control the media—transfigured popular indignation into an anti-corruption sentiment that targets the oppressed. Espousers of the anti-corruption ideology may be materializing indirectly the elite’s ambition to again rule Brazil without having to negotiate its interests with elected politicians. Since the “legal coup d’état” of 2016, skyrocketing violence and a continuous slew of scandals offer the middle class and conservative evangelicals an opportunity to advocate the return of law and order, including the legalization of torture and capital punishment, the extermination of entire Indigenous communities, and the mandatory study of religion in public schools.

Only a few months prior to the next presidential elections, the non-elected president Temer authorized, with popular endorsement, a military intervention which aims at surveilling vulnerable and predominantly Afro-Brazilian communities in Rio. Because Marielle Franco publically denounced and opposed the daily routine of police and military violence in Rio’s Afro-communities, she needed to be permanently silenced.

Still, enthusiasts of the anti-corruption crusade argue the “Carwash” juridical and investigative procedures observe the constitution, reinforce the rule of law, and are actually “cleansing” the country. Massive propaganda invites individuals to incarnate the national bastion of morality and to support Brazil’s return to a USA-backed military dictatorship. Because most of these people self-identify as White and middle class, while the communities they target are predominantly poor people of color, the anti-corruption ideology operates within a racial laceration.

Inasmuch as it is implacable in its propaganda but selective in its application, the anti-corruption ideology collects popular encouragement for the state to persecute and punish a specific “type” of citizen. By encouraging the violation of dark and poor people’s human rights, it advances the invention of a national enemy as a second-class citizen. So, political polarization, social fragmentation, and state racial violence currently divide the country between individuals who believe themselves to be morally superior and those who they view as “corrupt.”

Regardless of whether Lula and Dilma themselves participated in political scandals, they always represented a demand for social and racial equality, which role made them the scapegoats the aristocracy sought. By means of disqualifying the principle of equality as an end in itself, the elite and the middle class utilize race and class typologies to project the moral and political charges posed against two elected ex-presidents onto those who benefited from their programs. How will the Brazilian elite appropriate and transform the popular sentiment of indignation that the assassination of Marielle Franco evokes?  

Race, Idolatry, and the Imago Dei

As with all racial formations, the Brazilian anti-corruption ideology is also fundamentally incoherent. Slavery shaped societies in which racial categories are deeply interconnected to class and where selective political typologies of corruption rest on the sham conditioning of people’s moral beings to the historical accidents of racism and marginalization. As says Dwight Hopkins, “…it is as if God has fashioned these sectors of the population for an enormity of suffering and perpetual second-class status” (160). But racial myths and the myriad forms of violence they perpetrate are the actual elementary modes of human corruption that the Brazilian middle class has always avoided discussing.

Thus, the anti-corruption incongruence reflects a grounding principle of slavery: racial typologies can determine individuals’ moral characters. The sophisticated and disingenuous narrative that sustains the Brazilian favorite tale of self-righteousness and moral superiority resembles the narrative invented by the first Christians who arrived at the Americas. Similarly, proposes Willie Jennings, they also perceived themselves as agents of a necessary moral change and makers of creaturely contingency (60). In fact, historically dominant versions of human moral nature have frequently participated in the formation of social self-understandings and have generated exclusion.

Scholasticism, for example, conditioned community membership to the possession of the rational capacity to follow the law, and in Brazil’s plantation society, the “virtues” of self-sacrifice, industriousness, and unreserved obedience to the slave-master defined the paradigm of a virtuous life (201-203). The belief that Black Africans needed salvation emerged from their being categorized as “a race born to serve, with no natural aptitude for governing…” (8). As in the plantation, the Afro-Brazilian citizens who oppose the current law and order regime are also being portrayed as immoral—when not as criminals—thus in need of rectification, which reminds us that morally sanctioned forms of racial exclusions can also contaminate the meanings of Christian moral categories (16).

Historical constructs of race reveal that the new is never entirely new, nor the old entirely supplanted. Thomas C. Holt proposes that while race attempts to fix subjects in time and space, the given social formation of a particular moment articulates its meaning (22). Today, the ambiguous meaning that race conveys when articulated as corruption-talk is to re-present, with counterfeit Christian garments, the Brazilian myth of a racial democracy: the invented need for a national-moral redemption that ought to amend “second-class” citizens exclusively purposefully neglects the country’s pressing demand for racial justice.

Idolatry results from attitudes of self-deification, self-exaltation, or self-righteousness that dismiss the divine as the ultimate source of goodness in the world. Undeniably, many public institutions throughout the liberal world suffer from endemic corruption, but the mission to inscribe an a priori condition of “corruption” exclusively onto the beneficiaries of social improvement as such reveals an untainted form of self-righteousness. Specifically, it reveals the pretense that one’s set of actions, worldview, and institutional affiliations hold either greater or lesser virtue solely on the basis of one’s class and race.

Throughout time, the myopias of race warped the meanings and applications of Christian moral notions in Brazil, allowing room for the deification of race and the upsurge of false prophecies, such as racial democracy. The oldest Brazilian public form of idolatry emerged in the plantation society and thereafter it articulates an ontological notion of corruption that only applies to the racially marginalized. Correspondingly, this self-righteous still proclaims today that all humans can mix democratically, but their moral characters will ever differ in value according to race. Thus, race camouflaged as anti-corruption ideology evokes the idea that dark and poor neighbor-citizens are not created equal and in the image of God.

While the imago Dei tells us that God’s being and nature inhabits all of us, the anti-corruption ideology ignores that all humans are equally worthy and enabled to thrive in society as virtuous people. In the City of God, the righteous encounters her or his neighbor as God’s special creation, someone, as Marielle Franco, who is capable of being just, prudent, courageous, harmonious, hopeful, faithful, and loving. If evil is the privation or perversion of a good, the real evil in the old-new Brazilian meaning of “corruption” is the dereliction of the divine goodness in the human neighbor and the nonfeasance neglect of God’s living presence amid the oppressed.

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