By Eduardo Ribeiro for Open Society Foundation. In Brazil’s old colonial capital of Salvador de Bahia, February means Carnaval, a six-day Dionysian celebration often called the biggest street party in the world. But behind the merriment hides a striking example of Brazil’s endemic structural racism.
Though Salvador’s population is 80 percent black, the carnavaleros dancing down the cordoned-off avenues are mostly white, protected from the masses by largely black, rope-holding sentinels. Bleachers packed with white spectators are defended by still more black security guards. Police patrol the crowds, demonstrating radically different attitudes toward the carousers depending on the color of their skin. It’s black Brazilians’ unequal status made manifest in a week-long party—a reality all the more maddening given the Afro-Brazilian origins of both Carnaval and Salvador.
That’s why my fellow activists and I chose Carnaval season to speak out about the racism that permeates our society. Specifically, we’re setting our sights on the so-called war on drugs, which might be more accurately seen as Brazil’s war on black communities. In its official launch, the Black Initiative for a New Drug Policy took to the streets of Salvador during Carnaval with a group whose samba theme urged spectators, “Tire seu racismo do caminho que eu quero passar com a minha co” (Get your racism out of my way, I want to pass by with my color).