Policies and laws promoting equity and equality of any type are under severe attack now in Brazil.
“Bolsonaro’s political ascendance has been very troubling.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Kia Caldwell.Caldwell is Professor of African, African American, and Diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her book is Health Equity in Brazil: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Policy.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Kia Caldwell:Health Equity in Brazil examines the development of health policies for women and Afro-Brazilians since the 1990s. Many of these policies, especially those designed to address racial health disparities, began to gain visibility and be implemented in the early 2000s. Because of this, they are still relatively new and extremely vulnerable in Brazil’s current political climate. Many of the gains that were made with regard to race-conscious public policies, such as affirmative action, are currently under attack and are also quickly being reversed. Since 2016, when President Dilma Rousseff was impeached, there has been an extreme rightward shift in Brazil, which led to the imprisonment of former President Lula and the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president in October 2018. Bolsonaro’s political ascendance has been very troubling, given that he openly expressed fascist, racist, sexist and homophobic beliefs during his presidential campaign. His beliefs were also quickly translated into policy and practice when he took office last month.
“Many of the gains that were made with regard to race-conscious public policies, such as affirmative action, are currently under attack and are also quickly being reversed.”
Protections for quilombo (Afro-Brazilian maroons), indigenous, and LGBTQ communities have been weakened. In addition, the federal government has instituted new mechanisms to monitor non-governmental organizations, which have been instrumental in Brazil’s democratization process since the 1980s. All of these troubling recent developments highlight the ways in which policies and laws promoting equity and equality of any type are under severe attack now in Brazil. Political repression and assassinations of political activists and leftist politicians, such as Marielle Franco, are also on the rise. In this increasingly authoritarian political context, Black activists are in greater danger. There are also growing concerns about the safety of Black Brazilians more generally, given the high rates of police violence that existed prior to Bolsonaro’s election and the fact that they are now being given official sanction by those in power.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope that readers who are activists and community organizers will gain a greater understanding of the challenges Black Brazilians and Black women, in particular, have faced in their efforts to call attention to and address racial and gender health disparities in Brazil. Although Brazil might not be on many people’s radars in terms of thinking about Black people or racial health disparities, it is an important place for U.S.-based activists to engage with. Brazil has the second largest African-descendant population in the world and over half of the country’s population of 200 million self-identifies as having African ancestry. Given these demographics, Brazil is a place that U.S.-based activists and community organizers, as well as those in other areas of the diaspora, should be attuned to. There are also many similarities in the health issues and illnesses that affect Black communities across the diaspora, which is something my book highlights.
“Brazil is an important place for U.S.-based activists to engage with.”
Maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS are two health issues that I examine. I look at how they impact Black Brazilian women, as well as how Black women have mobilized in response to them. Maternal mortality is an important point of connection with the U.S. given recent discussions of the disproportionately high rates of maternal death among African-American women across all social classes. By reading my book, I hope that activists and community organizers will be able to see what makes Brazil unique, as well as similar to the U.S., when it comes to addressing illnesses and health issues that affect Black communities in greater numbers. I think this can be an important starting point for encouraging more transnational discussions, research and activism related to health.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope that readers will begin to think beyond the United States when they imagine what a Black person or Black community is. As I mentioned earlier, Black Brazilian communities are often not on many African-Americans’ radars. In my interactions with the students I teach, the majority are not aware that there was slavery in Brazil or that the country has such as large Black population. By looking at health policy and Black women’s health activism, I hope to highlight how Black communities have engaged with issues that are familiar to many of us in the U.S. At the same time, their struggles have been different because of Brazil’s longstanding denial that racism exists, especially through use of the myth of racial democracy. Like much of my work, Health Equity in Brazil highlights the activist and intellectual work of Black Brazilian women. I think this is another important way to un-learn our U.S.-centered perspective on all things “Black” and begin to engage with the experiences and contributions of Black feminists from the Global South. The emphasis on activist’s efforts to shape policy also highlights the work Black women have been doing for decades in Brazil. This important work has made Brazil’s black women’s movement the strongest in the Americas.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Most of my scholarship has been inspired by Black women, both in Brazil and in the U.S. The late Fátima Oliveira, a Black feminist physician, scholar and activist, inspired much of my research on Black women’s activism and health issues. I have also been inspired by Black Brazilian feminists such as Lélia Gonzalez, Sueli Carneiro, Edna Roland, and Jurema Werneck. In addition to being activists, all of these women have made important intellectual contributions to Black feminist thought through their writings, although they did not work in the academy. In terms of the U.S., I have drawn from the work of bell hooks, Angela Davis, Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Angela Gilliam in my own conceptualizations of black feminism. Dr. Gilliam recently passed away and was a pioneering U.S.-based Black feminist anthropologist of Brazil. Her work paved the way for me and the current generation of Black feminist anthropologists who are making important and pathbreaking contributions to scholarship on race and gender in Brazil.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
When my book was published in 2017, I was gratified that I had been able to capture an important period of political mobilization, especially given that the political landscape seemed to be quickly changing. Black Brazilian activists, particularly Black women, have been imagining new worlds for decades (if not centuries) and the book attempts to capture some of their imaginings and resistance to unjust policies and institutional structures. I think one of the main lessons of the book is that activism does not always produce immediate results, but that it can plant seeds that produce results in the future. At the same time, however, the book shows that the efficacy of activism can be facilitated or hindered by the overall political structure and who is in power. For example, during President Lula’s two terms in office (2003-2010), there was much greater openness to social movements, which generated progressive policy change. Lula was a leftist of a non-elite background who had been a union organizer and had close ties to Black activists in his political party, the PT (Worker’s Party). Brazil has now swung to the opposite extreme in terms of its leadership, which poses new and dangerous challenges for Black activists. Given the current political context, activists are looking for new ways to resist regressive policies and imagine new worlds.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]