The color of politics in Brazil

The leading candidate for the governorship of Bahia says that he’s mestizo – mixed-race – drawing attention to the phenomenon of Brazilian politicians changing their race to get elected

Antonio Carlos Magalhães, a candidate for Governor in the state of Bahia, during a campaign stop
Antonio Carlos Magalhães, a candidate for Governor in the state of Bahia, during a campaign stopPrensa Antonio Carlos Magalhães (Cortesía)

Six years ago, when Brazilian politician Antonio Carlos Magalhães – popularly known as ACM Neto – marked the race “mestizo” on an official form that all candidates must fill out before an election, nobody paid any attention. Now, however, as he aspires to be elected as Governor of Bahia – the state with the highest Black population in Brazil – he has, once again, chosen “mestizo” from the available options. And this has caused an uproar.

What began as a local controversy has turned into national news, dominating social media. It reflects the extent to which social sensitivity about skin color has changed in recent years.

All Brazilian citizens or residents must declare to the authorities whether they are Black, mestizo, white, Asian, or Indigenous. There are no guidelines: each person defines themselves as he or she wishes. And, in a country as mixed as Brazil, this creates strange situations. Over time and without the need to give explanations, any citizen can change their race.

This racial declaration has been mandatory for politicians since the municipal elections of 2016. Thanks to this rule, we now know that hundreds of federal deputies who aspire to re-election in the October 2 general elections have declared that they are of a different color than four years ago: 42 parliamentarians who were white have become Black, and 29 who were Black have become white.

Brazil will soon hold general elections to elect the president – with Jair Bolsonaro and Lula da Silva as the favorites – the Chamber of Deputies, the regional parliaments and a third of the Senate. If candidates do not win in the first round, there will be a second round held on October 30.

ACM Neto has also recently added the word “Jr.” to his initials, because he belongs to one of the deep-rooted family clans of Brazilian politicians. His family also owns one of the main television stations in Bahia.

As Neto is comfortably leading the race for Governor of Bahia – the state that was the main point of entry for slaves forcibly brought from Africa to Brazil – the opposition was quick to criticize him on the racial question. He has been defiant, defending himself in a local TV interview, showing up at the studio with a striking tan:

“I consider myself a mestizo. You can put me next to a white person: there’s a big difference. Black, no, I would never say that I am Black,” he replied to the journalist. His new look was compared to older, whiter photos of himself on social media, leading to a torrent of jokes and memes. Scrutiny has only increased: his vice-gubernatorial candidate – who has also declared herself a mestiza in the past – had to think better of it. She changed her declaration to “white.”

The controversy has been growing, with the effect being felt in the polls. ACM Neto has dropped six points in the past month, while his main adversary, Jerónimo Rodrígues, of the Workers’ Party (PT), has risen by 15 points, according to the pollster Datafolha. In any case, the right-wing ally of incumbent President Bolsonaro is still leading the race in Bahia. But it is no longer clear if he can win in the first round.

Beyond the opportunism of some politicians, or even students who want to take advantage of socio-racial quotas implemented a decade ago in public universities, there is a greater racial consciousness in Brazilian society, where mestizos and Blacks account for 56% of the population. The number of Brazilians who are proud of their color continues to grow.

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