The first big step to confront racial segregation in the United States was taken by a black woman. On December 1, 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. Just 60 years ago, legislation in Montgomery, Alabama, in the United States, required blacks to give preference to whites on local public transportation. Parks' arrest sparked a year-long bus boycott until the law was repealed. Her attitude paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement, in favor of freedom and justice, which had Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the top leaders.
Racial repression takes place, even today, through justice. It is a way of institutionalizing racism. The machine for incarcerating and killing blacks is the so-called “war on drugs”. One of the main American leaders in the fight for drug policy reform and in the fight against racism is activist and lawyer Deborah Peterson Small, 60, a graduate in Law and Public Policy from Harvard University. She was director of legal affairs for the New York Civil Liberties Union, focusing on the rights of the poor and prisoners, and later directed the area of public policy and community articulation at Drug Policy Alliance. He got to know the innards of the system that holds 2,2 million people, the largest prison population in the world, and understood the mechanism that turns blacks into suspects.
With this background, Deborah founded, ten years ago, the organization Break the Chains, whose mission is to sensitize leaders and the black community to the perverse effects of the war on drugs. In Brazil, the logic is the same: super-incarceration, with the help of drug policies, keeps 515.482 people in prisons across the country. Of these, 57% are black and more than half are young (Infopen, 2014). A quarter of the crimes refer to narcotics. The Brazilian police are also one of the most lethal in the world. According to a survey by the Brazilian Public Security Forum, in 2015 police forces killed the equivalent of eight people a day. Impunity is repeated in Brazil and the United States, where 97% of cases of police violence did not result in convictions, according to the website. Mapping Police Violence, with data from 2015.
Brasirows – How do police lethality and the war on drugs contribute to violence against the black population?
Deborah Small – In 2001, I went to South Africa for the World Conference against Racism in Durban. There I realized the international dimensions of the problem. I saw that the war on drugs was devastating the poor and black people, with high levels of police lethality. I also understood that the conditions of the black population in the world are very similar: relationships guided by racism, colonization and economic exploitation. Regarding drug policies, we have huge amounts of money and police focused on fighting drug trafficking, which is a “consensual crime”. Drug negotiations are made by parties who agree. One person wants something and the other provides it. The purpose of this policy is to turn these parties into criminals, allowing the police to act with violence to the point of death.
Brazil is currently experiencing political instability. If Michel Temer's government continues, what do you think will happen with affirmative policies aimed at the black population?
They will get worse. This is very clear. The fact that Temer has assembled a ministerial team without blacks or women, that he has made cuts in many social programs started in the previous government, that police repression is increasing and the number of deaths is increasing, points to this. I was shocked to learn that police lethality is the second leading cause of death in Brazil. The numbers in the United States don't even come close to what's happening here. There is no outcry from Brazilian society for this (According to the Public Safety Forum, police killed 2014 people in 3.009, the equivalent of one homicide every three hours. The average number of police deaths in the United States per year is about 360).
Why are people in Brazil not sensitive to the deaths of young black people?
In part because blacks in Brazil have been forced to believe that their young people are the enemies, the traffickers, and therefore deserve what is happening. What is most problematic is not the way non-black Brazilians feel about police lethality against young black people. But how the Brazilian black population feels about it. There are so many black communities that have been convinced to think of their own young people as “the danger”… So the only way they can protect themselves is by letting the police enter the communities and kill them. It's what's happening. The “peacemaker” police are targeted only at black communities. Who are they “pacifying”? Black youth. In these communities, the fact that people feel ok with it is strange to me.
“Brazil will never be a first-class country as long as it considers it natural to treat blacks as second-class citizens”
How to approach racism and police violence with black children?
The sad thing about living in a racist country is that its black children don't get to be themselves for long. My grandson is now 4 and a half years old. He doesn't know he's black. He still doesn't know what that means. He knows his color is brown. For him, it's just what he is, just like other kids are of other colors. Skin color, at this point in life, has no meaning. He doesn't see limitations, he doesn't have conversations about it with other kids. The sad thing is that at some point in the near future this will change. He's going to notice the things I've noticed: that people react to him being black and how that shows up in different public spaces. As soon as he gets a little older, your father and I will have to talk to him about violence. He will have to learn that certain attitudes of people will be taken by the fact that they think he is a thief. He will have to live with the assumption that wherever he goes, suspicions of crime and chaos will follow him. And that it has nothing to do with who he is, or how he acts, or what he wears. People will not pay attention to these details.
How is this expressed?
I live in the Bay Area, California, a supposedly liberal place. But I keep watching white people hold on tight to their bags when they pass me on the street. It's unconscious. They don't even realize they do it because they live within a reality in which blackness is linked to criminality. In this situation, the black population is unwittingly responsible. As soon as they see a black person, they react automatically, they go into self-protection mode. It doesn't matter how you look, how old you are. Because this is a programmed response. That's what racism does: you react to the very presence of black people. For example, if I go to an ATM and there's a white person using the machine before me, I'll count the distance I need to keep from them so they don't feel threatened by me. I've noticed that white people don't do that. We blacks spend our lives constantly doing this kind of calibration.
What is it like to be black and live in areas of concentration of whites in your country?
It's difficult. You will need to get used to the fact that being detained by the police is a part of your life. Because that's the way society was structured. This has less to do with crime and violence and more to do with the way our countries deal with subjugation. It is like this: we no longer have slavery, but we continue to treat people like slaves, we continue to persecute, seize, chain, restrict their movements, exploit their labor forces.
Did you feel that in Brazil too?
Absolutely. All the time. Here in Brazil this behavior is even more pronounced. It is a country that is not used to seeing black people frequenting spaces such as hotels and restaurants, for example. They look at you as if asking: what are you doing here? I find it curious to some extent. Because it's the opposite of what Brazilians say about themselves. And it's sad too. With all that Brazil is doing, with the Olympic Games, it will never be a first-class country as long as it considers it natural to treat blacks as second-class citizens. Because the world is full of black people. They will not tolerate this, they will not visit Brazil and they will tell everyone not to come.
“It is a form of self-genocide. A group of blacks killing another group of blacks. Because they have convinced themselves that they are enemies.”
It's an extremely cruel situation...
It's cruel but it's in the space of denial. It works like addiction: people commit racism because they have to. They probably think it's not a good behavior, but they don't have the ability to not do it because their whole identity is associated with that behavior.
About identity, in the United States, just one drop of black blood is enough for a person to be considered black. In Brazil, identity is given through self-declaration of color. How is this reflected?
In the United States the distinction is between blacks and whites. In Brazil it is between blacks and non-blacks. That is, people can choose who they are within the black spectrum. Do you want to be brown? Do you want to be brunettes? You have several categories. All related to being black. It's a challenge because it's not necessarily how you perceive yourself in society. I saw this a lot in Salvador. You see a lot of people who don't identify as black, but are treated as black by society. That's why I find the black empowerment movement in Bahia so interesting. If I were a ruler, I would work for this energy to reach the police, which could happen one day.
What would happen if this movement reached the police?
What you have here is very interesting: a form of self-genocide. A group of blacks killing another group of blacks. Because they have convinced themselves that they are enemies. They're all black. Society doesn't give a damn about either side. It doesn't care about black police officers who are killed or drug dealers killed by the police. It may be that the cops eventually realize this and begin to show solidarity, a racial solidarity. It would be an incredible development.
How does the war on drugs operate in this context?
It's a smokescreen. They know it's not about drugs. The police know better than anyone that there are drugs in many places where the police are not sent. To what extent does the Brazilian government and society expect police officers to continue risking their lives and being killed in the name of a war that no one believes they can win? At some point, they will realize that they are being exploited too. People only recognize violence when it happens to them. If that happens, society will become more violent. But the violence is already present.
The police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 has not been convicted. What does that mean?
I think Brazilians should be concerned (because they don't react). What led to Michael Brown's death was a series of events: the police have been working in this community for years. People have been constantly approached and assaulted. Always the same group of people has been targeted by the police. When the officer ordered Michael Brown off the street and he said “no”, it was an act against all this behavior. He killed Brown and left his body lying on the sidewalk for four hours without covering or anything. You just shot someone and you don't call for medical help. These are signs of disrespect. The population reacted. This is why “Black Lives Matter” (referring to the movement Black Lives Matter, which emerged in 2013 with the acquittal of the police officer who killed black teenager Trayvon Martin). Police officers who kill blacks remain unpunished.
What is the limit to this suffering?
We have a high tolerance for suffering because we have been conditioned. But we are not unbreakable. When people get to the point where they realize that the limit has been reached, things usually don't end very well. In this country (Brazil), there is a lot of young black blood being spilled. The fact that it causes little commotion means that you don't care about this youth, or the neighborhood they come from, or your community. We are not saying that black lives matter more than other lives. We're saying that black lives matter as much as any life.
What is the role of white people in confronting racism?
There is this myth that racism only hurts black people. But it attacks white people too, directly and indirectly. Racism gives a false sense of who they are. It makes them believe they are smarter than they are, more powerful than they are, that they deserve more than they really do. I'm not saying they don't have these characteristics. But the element of racism confers a false perception of oneself. Because you're comparing yourself to people you've never had to compete with. For example, at the university there is always that conversation that many whites have with black students that “you must feel lucky to have had the opportunity to be here”. And I always said, “No, I don't feel lucky. Because many of you wouldn't be here if your parents had to compete with mine. Some of us are better. And you would not have the privileges that you have.” What's hard about racism is that these people don't discuss the injustices and privileges they've always had. that's why you (in Brazil) They fight because 10% of vacancies were allocated to blacks in universities, even though the black population is 50% Brazilians. Seriously? They should be grateful rather than contesting black people's access to higher education. It's so absurd. That's the problem with racism. Looks like the quotas are a favor. And that black people should be grateful. Brazilians are obsessed with treating black people as objects of music and dance, but not intellectually.
Has President Barack Obama managed to change that mindset in the United States?
One of the most important things Obama did was to destroy the idea of black intellectual inferiority. Facing racism is fighting privileges, against the notion of white supremacy. It's about understanding what you're going to give up to have the world you want. We will all have to give up something we care about in order to have a better world.
“Racism leads to premature death. it's not just about discrimination. we die sooner”
How do you see the growth of Donald Trump and the possibility of succeeding a black president?
I see Trump as the political equivalent of a lap dancer (nightclub dancers who receive money by insinuating themselves into the audience). In those minutes of dancing, when the audience offers the dancer money, he makes unhappy people feel good, not even important, but feel good about themselves. Even if they know that he is not interested in them, they will continue to praise him to keep that good feeling, that they can be winners, that they can be powerful, that the "world will be in order". But you can't keep that feeling forever. The dance ends. The dancer switches people.
Do you think Donald Trump has a chance of winning?
He has a great chance of winning. But Obama is more popular than Hillary or Trump. We should stop this obsession with protecting the middle class. In the XNUMXst century, it is as if there are only two types of people: those who work for money and those whose money works for them. If you work for money, it doesn't matter if you earn a lot or a little, when your source of income runs out you will be devastated. If you have enough money and the money works for you, everything in our society and the economy is set up so that you keep that money, so that it grows and you keep having money. The vast majority of us belong to the part that works for money. But the middle class doesn't see itself that way, it doesn't show solidarity.
What is your opinion of Hillary Clinton's criminal justice program? Does it address the racial issue?
It is funny. on account of Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders, she came out strong in this area of criminal justice. But she has a point: much of what is wrong with the criminal justice system right now is based on policies promoted by her husband. (Bill Clinton was President of the United States from 1993 to 2001). It's been interesting to see her talk about promoting justice reform without criticizing her husband. But I am very confident that if elected, she will do much more to move that agenda. Frankly, I think she can do more than Obama himself. Somehow she will have more freedom.
“See what is happening to the white woman who ruled Brazil. If she were a man, she would still be in the Presidency”
Because Obama could not make policies that specifically benefit the black population. He would be accused of favoritism. The fact that white presidents do nothing for the black population is perfectly acceptable. But, you know, it's not right to have a black president committed to doing something to improve black lives. So everything he did had to be characterized by having an impact on society as a whole. Still, the Obama administration's most important measure, which was health care reform, directly benefits a large part of the poor and black. It's what white people hate most and are constantly talking about ending, "Obama Care". This is the reality of American politics: part of the perception of why white people identify as white is that their lives should be better than black lives. So when he proposes policies to fill that hole, it's seen as a loss, something that would be being taken away from white people.
Black women, what they've had to fight and endure, are some of the strongest people in the world. In Brazil, they are heads of families and great intellectual leaders, such as Sueli Carneiro and Luiza Bairros. But black women remain at the base of the pyramid. Why does it happen?
Brazil is a misogynist country. See what is happening to the white woman who ran the country. If she were a man, she would still be in the Presidency. What is happening to Dilma Rousseff is a classic act of misogyny. I'm not saying it's just misogyny, but it's a big part. This country is not really about empowering women, except as a sexual object and a servant, which happens to all Brazilian women, regardless of color. When one thinks of the Brazilian woman, the image of an ass on the beach immediately comes to mind. This is the image that has been cultivated and promoted inside and outside the country. It generates a lot of misogyny, which leads to violence against women and practices aimed at diminishing the power of women. If blacks are at the base of the pyramid, then lower are black women. But I would say that those who are far below are the indigenous people, who continue to be exterminated and nobody pays attention to that. It's not even talked about. At least they talk about black people. Indigenous people are totally invisible. It's ridiculous.
The black movement in Brazil is one of the most important in the country, one of the oldest. Even with essential achievements and being such a powerful social movement, why don't we advance further?
I believe that the policies achieved so far will not even continue. Because Temer will get rid of them. Everything in Brazil that is committed to racial or social equity is threatened by this government. Let's face it: this country was built on the exploitation of physical, material and human sources.
What is racism for you?
Racism is like premature death. This sentence is from my friend Ruth Gilmore, Geography teacher (PhD professor at the City University of New York – CUNY). Racism is a series of practices and policies that one group of people do to impose on another group of people, and the result is premature death. Racism leads to premature death. It is not an exaggeration to say that what is happening in Brazil is a form of genocide. It's not just about discrimination. It's like in the United States. All these practices of American racism cause black people to die earlier. We died early.