Salvador da Bahia is a city of about 3 million citizens located in Brazil’s northeastern state Bahia. It was a major port of entry for African slaves – mainly Yoruba speakers from Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Benin – during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Today, the population of Salvador is 80% Afro-Brazilian and the city is considered to be the center of African culture in Brazil. In general, Brazilians trace their origins from four sources: Amerindians, Europeans, Africans and Asians, with currently 48% Whites, 43% Browns (multiracial), 7,5% Blacks, 1% Asians and 0,5% Amerindians.
Throughout its history, Bahia has always been one of the poorest states of Brazil and in terms of political and economic power; the numerical majority of Afro-Brazilians can be classified as the minority. Bahia has never elected a black governor and its business and political elites are mostly white.
These days, due to the economic changes and improvements in Brazil, a small black middle class has emerged in Bahia. This new Afro-Brazilian middle class has become a political player; with some clout and money. It is, however, very small, the majority of people in Bahia is black and poor.
At the same time there seems to be a rise in self-esteem and a movement to recover and preserve black culture and to change the negative image of blacks being lazy and violent. Afro leaders are combating violence on all levels, including racism. They are opening dialogues about what it means to be black in Brazil and affirmative action policies have been created for the black community in Bahia state and elsewhere in Brazil.
Much has changed this past decennium, although certainly not enough for Brazil to come close to the ideal of racial harmony that has been forcefully promoted for so long. In 2001, universities began to enact affirmative action policies for Afro-Brazilians. In 2003, a federal law was passed that requires public schools to teach African and Afro-Brazilian history. Currently, black-movement activists are pushing for affirmative action in employment because they became aware that Afro-Brazilian beneficiaries of affirmative action in universities continued to face discrimination in employment, even with a university education (source: Brazil’s New Racial Politics edited by Reiter and Mitchell, 2010)
According to Carlos Bamba, the community leader and director of “Ilê Aiyê”, a cultural association in Bahia, the Afro-Brazilian middle class can only continue to grow if the people embrace their history of being descendants of former slaves.
Afro-Brazilian heritage in Bahia is promoted for tourism, a major industry in the city. Bahia’s Afro-Brazilians have created a cultural tourism that is about their history, food, music and black consciousness including the dark side of slavery, celebrated in the dance capoeira.
In recent years the gap between the income of black and mixed race Brazilians and the higher salaries of white Brazilians has been falling but there is still a sizeable difference. Brazil remains a country of social inequality, and high unemployment and poverty is still a major problem. With the black poors living rough on the edges of some the white richest neighborhoods in Salvador.
The social and racial segregation is evident with large number of upper middle class and upper class citizens living in gated communities, which contrasts with the huge slum-like neighborhoods located on elevated areas. One of these neighborhoods is Liberdade, densely populated with, in general, low income residents. Liberdade neighborhood has the largest proportion of Afro-Brazilians of Salvador and Brazil.
Ilê Aiyê is based here. Besides a cultural association it’s also a black carnival group formed in 1974: a carnival block celebrating its African roots that cultivates and performs social work that seeks to improve the self-esteem of black people through affirmative action.
In Salvador, there seems fewer consensuses on whether Brazilian society is doing as much as it should be for those of its citizens who are of African descent, there is the lingering suspicion that the black middle class is not getting their fair share of the pie, while others claim that “the discrimination is social, it is not racial.”
This project is part of our The New Brazil group project.