Journalism from the center of the world

Social movements protest the murder of Moïse Kabagambe, 24, a Congolese immigrant who worked in Rio de Janeiro, at a protest held on Avenida Paulista, in São Paulo, in February 2022. Photo: Lela Beltrão

Will Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva forego a chance to make a decisive stand against racism in the first year of this presidency? It seems so. Will Lula pass on the opportunity to benefit gender and race equality at a time when it is so pressing to resume the country’s path towards rights? It seems so. Lula could, straight away in his administration’s first year, ensure two black justices are appointed to the Supreme Court, preferably black women – or a black woman and an Indigenous person – which would also be a historical gesture that would also make a huge difference in the quality of the court’s decisions. Not doing so is unforgivable.

All indications – especially the president’s own – point to Lula fecklessly appointing a second white man to the country’s highest court in just one year. Yet it’s not Lula who is missing a chance, it’s Brazil, which instead of laying a new groundwork, as promised, is once again reinforcing its foundation on top of black bodies, stacking bricks on the ruins of a country with a growing number of rapes and femicides.

It’s important to remember. On Monday (Sept. 25), under pressure from society to name a woman or black appointee – preferably a black woman appointee – to replace Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber, who is retiring when she turns 75 on October 2, the president made two statements that could have come from the mouth of former president Jair Bolsonaro or from any other right-wing extremist:

“This will no longer be the criteria [referring to color and gender]. I’m really not worried, which is why I’m saying that I’m going to pick someone who can meet Brazil’s interests and expectations. Someone who can serve Brazil. Someone who respects Brazilian society. Someone who respects but does not fear the press. Someone whose decisions have been appropriate without voting for the press,” he said. He then went on to add: “You don’t need to ask this question about gender or color, I’ve already been through all of this. When the time is right, you’ll know who I’m going to appoint.”

Lula’s comment is dangerous in many different ways. To start, very little (or perhaps nothing) is more important to “fulfilling Brazil’s interests and expectations” than confronting the country’s brutal and shameful inequalities on gender and race. And this is only done by sharing power, this is only done by naming women and black appointees to strategic positions, this is only done by establishing parity for women and black people – the gender and color making up most of the population, yet that are far from holding the same representation and access as white men, who dominate positions of power and decision-making.

I recall a talk I had with a brilliant black attorney, in a café after hours of discussions at a cultural institute in São Paulo to talk about ways to expand access for black people. Afterward, he concluded that the long meeting could have been reduced to one sentence/one action: “It’s obvious that the only way to fight racism is by sharing power, placing black women and men in positions of power, in every sphere of the country.”

In August, quilombola leader Mãe Bernadete was murdered in her home by 22 gunshots, leading to reaction across the country (at left). Genivaldo Santos, a black man, was killed in May 2022 by Federal Highway Police officers, who asphyxiated him to death in their vehicle (at right). Photos: Cris Faga/NurPhoto/NurPhoto via AFP and Screen Shot

Yes, it is obvious. Nevertheless, by appointing Cristiano Zanin, a white man, to replace Ricardo Lewandowski, Lula betrayed his commitment not only to minorities, but also to every sector of Brazilian society that is committed to a more just and less unequal country. Not to mention the blatant mixing of public and private affairs by appointing his personal attorney. This second appointment would be – and still could be – a chance to get it right this time, while also respecting the ethical commitments that got him elected. There is still time for Lula to do what this historic moment demands of a democratic president.

The symbolic image comes back like a boomerang each time the government moves away from it. On January 1, Lula walked up the ramp arm-in-arm with Cacique Raoni Metuktire and accompanied by representatives of minority groups to signal that Brazil was returning to a path of respect for human rights, Brazil was building a new foundation. If Lula leaves the country with a Supreme Court that is more male and just as white as when he took office, with the symbolic image of his third term, in a victory only made possible through the support of wide swaths of society who wanted – and still want – to defeat fascism, it will become nothing more than political marketing – something unacceptable in this grave moment of significant humanitarian shortcomings Brazil is experiencing.

In his first two terms, Lula carried out important actions to reduce racial and gender inequality. He created the Ministry of Women and Ministry of Racial Equality – and he has now recreated them, adding the new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, led by Sonia Guajajara, an Indigenous woman. He also chose a woman – Dilma Rousseff – as his successor. It was in the Workers’ Party administrations that the Racial Equality Statute and affirmative action in universities were consolidated. It was Lula that appointed the third black justice – Joaquim Barbosa – to the Federal Supreme Court, after sixty-six years of glaring whiteness. All of this was decisive to part of Brazilian society’s support, electing him to a third term – and it signaled a resumption in the process of listening, recognizing, and accommodating pressure from the black, feminist, human rights, and socio-environmental movements that were brutally attacked during the fascist Bolsonaro regime. Such a sharp retreat by Lula before the end of his current term’s first year has many people worried

On September 19, Lula made inequality the theme of his address at the opening of the 78th United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Yet there is no way to fight inequality without confronting issues of gender, race, and class. There is no way to do this without a larger black presence on the Supreme Court – a presence that does not currently exist, despite most of Brazil’s population being black – and without a female presence, as once Rosa Weber retires, there will be just one woman (Cármen Lúcia) to 10 men.

The Supreme Court has only ever had three women justices, all white, and three black justices, all men, which shows how patriarchal logic persists along with structural racism in Brazil. Not to mention the need, never considered, to include Indigenous and LGBTQIAPN+ people. No court in a country like Brazil is capable of rendering competent rulings if it does not represent the people on its benches. Representing identities and experiences radically improves the quality of Justice.

Lula at the swearing-in ceremony for Cristiano Zanin, his lawyer, who he named to Brazil’s Supreme Court; Rosa Weber, the Court’s latest Chief Justice will retire now that she is turning 75. PHOTO: Sergio Lima/AFP

The Supreme Court’s current makeup is unsustainable, precisely because it is just one color – white – and mostly one gender – male. If Lula is trying to keep the deputies and senators happy in the most predatory and morally conservative Congress since redemocratization, that is a shame, because fighting racism and gender inequality are his base’s principles – and principles are non-negotiable. If he does indeed believe in what he says, we’ve just found that the same man who made significant advances in his first two terms is, upon returning twelve years later, now arguing that matters of race and gender are minor. And this in a country where 83% of those who die in interactions with police are black; in a country where, over the last seven years, at least 616 mostly black children and adolescents were gunshot victims just in the Rio de Janeiro metro region alone, 48% of which occurred in police actions. And this in a country were estimates point to 822,000 people being raped each year, over 80% of whom are women.

From day one, SUMAÚMA has advocated for the things expressed in our manifesto: democracy must be for all, regardless of gender – or it isn’t. We only understand and are able to confront the climate collapse if we confront matters of gender, race, class, and species – they determine the destruction of the Amazon and other biomes, the corrosion of life on our planet-home.

Each extreme event shows us the gender, color, and social class of those most affected, of those who have lost homes, territories or lives. Our reporting from the Amazon and its peoples clearly shows the gender of those resisting nature’s destruction most strongly, the color of the people dying to defend life on the front line. This understanding determines our journalism – as made explicit in the reports and stories in this newsletter.

The way Lula puts it, there’s only one right answer: “color and gender are no longer criteria [for selection into senior positions].” But they are imperative. To argue the opposite, we don’t need Lula – we have Bolsonaro and the January 8 rioters who tried to overthrow the government.

Fact check: Clara Glock and Plínio Lopes
Spell check (Portuguese): Valquiria Della Pozza
Translation into Spanish: Julieta Sueldo Boedo
English translation: Sarah J. Johnson
Photography editing: Lela Beltrão
Page setup: Érica Saboya

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