Brazil: Can black people drive luxury cars?

Towards the end of August the simmering debate about racism and prejudice in Brazilian society was stirred up by a case that has provoked outrage throughout the country. Januário Alves de Santana, a black man in his late thirties, was beaten by a couple of security guards as he waited for his wife and children in the car park of one of the largest international retailers in Brazil. He was accused of trying to steal his own car [pt]. The attackers clearly thought that because he was black he wouldn't be able to afford a Ford EcoSport (a model of car considered upmarket in Brazil).

Picture by Juarez Silva Jr.

Picture by Juarez Silva Jr.

Rachel Glickhouse, from Adventures of a Gringa, describes the course of events of August 7th in detail, as told by Januário. She blogs in English:

Standing outside of the car, he noticed more suspicious men approaching him. Then one–who was actually a security guard–approached him and took out a gun. He attacked Januário without identifying himself, and Januário didn't know if it was a mugger or a cop. While they struggled, passersby called for help, and Januário thought he was saved. Several security guards from Carrefour approached, and he explained that it was a misunderstanding–he was not in fact trying to steal the motorcycle nearby. The security guards grabbed him and took him inside to a small room to “work out” what had happened. “So,” they said, “you stole an EcoSport and were trying to take a motorcycle, too?”

The five security guards then proceeded to beat Januário senseless, in what the original report called “a torture session,” hitting, punching, headbutting, and pistol-whipping him, knocking out his teeth and leaving him bleeding heavily. Januário says he tried to explain that the car was his, and that his baby daughter was inside while his family was shopping. His attackers ignored him. “Shut up, n*****. If you don't shut up, I'll break every bone in your body,” one of them yelled. They laughed when he insisted it was his car. The beating lasted around twenty minutes, before the police arrived.

And she adds that “the torture wasn't over yet”, even after the arrival of the police:

One of the military policemen, by the name of Pina, didn't buy Januário's “story.” “You look like you've been in jail a couple of times. Come on, fess up, it's ok,” the police officer said. Another police officer didn't believe he was a security guard, and started quizzing him about security rules. Finally, the police went to Januário's car and confirmed it did in fact belong to him and his wife. His family was there, shocked to see him bleeding with cracked teeth, and his daughter was still asleep in the car.

The police left without offering to send an ambulance or helping him. Taken to hospital by his family, Januário was treated for shock and lacerations. He has since lost 8 kilos, has been suffering from insomnia and has not been able to return to work. Last Thursday, he underwent an operation to correct a bone fracture in his skull. The family has logged a complaint with the local police, but according to the police version, his beating was a result of “a disturbance” and “a fight between a few shoppers”. Carrefour has issued a statement expressing its regret at the misunderstanding and saying it will cooperate with the investigations [pt].

Meanwhile, Januário plans to take both the retail chain and the State of São Paulo to court, and to sell the car, which he is still paying off in R$789 [approximately $419] instalments, spread over a set of 72 instalments.

The case has had repercussions all over the country, with most people sympathizing with Januário, but this is not the first time that something like this has happened. As the Censurado [Censored, pt] blog points out [pt], many other acts of prejudice against black people have been committed by the security personnel of this same retail chain. The blogger ironically asks the readers:

Queria um conselho dos meus leitores. Se um dia eu precisar comprar, sei lá, um shampoo no Carrefour, devo levar um amigo branco junto comigo?

I want some advice from my readers. If I happen to need to buy something, some shampoo, say, in Carrefour, should I take a white friend with me?

Maria Frô [pt] replicates the original news story by AfroPress [pt], adding a different headline that paraphrases the Brazilian bestseller “Não Somos Racistas” [We Are Not Racists] by journalist Ali Kamel. The title of her blog post is:

É, segundo Kamel, não somos racistas. Só quase assassinos.

Indeed, according to Kamel, we're not racists. We're just almost murderers.

The Pão e Rosas [pt] blog vehemently repudiated the case. It follows the same line of argument, disputing the myth that cultural melting pot Brazil is a harmonious racial democracy:

Enquanto os discursos de intelectuais, políticos burgueses e dos meios de comunicação afirmam veemente “Não somos racistas”, vem à tona um caso escandaloso de como o racismo se reproduz nas formas mais violentas e repugnantes. Todo a falácia da democracia racial cai por terra frente a casos como este – e poderíamos listar tantos outros que ganharam repercussão e depois foram esquecidos, na maioria das vezes marcados pela impunidade.

Whilst the intelligentsia, bourgeois politicians and mass media insist that “we are not racists”, scandals like this surface and show us how racism manifests itself in many violent and repugnant ways. The complete fallacy of racial democracy collapses in cases like this, and we could list many others that caused outrage at the time but were soon forgotten, mostly remaining unpunished.

Juarez Silva Jr., from Blog do Juarez [pt], wonders if it is indeed true that discrimination against black people in Brazil is a social, not racial, problem:

quando o negro sai do seu “esteriótipo e ‘lugar’ social ” ele “paga o preço”, afinal se ele não tivesse um carro bacana, talvez nada disso tivesse acontecido não é mesmo ???? , cansado de ter problemas por sua situação social não condizer com o “esperado” pela sociedade, a vítima já pensa em vender o “carro problemático” […]
Deus me livre de por as rodas do meu vistoso Adventure no estacionamento dessa rede…, BOICOTE JÁ.

when black people don't fit a certain “stereotype” and “social place” they “pay the price” – after all, if [this guy] didn't have a fancy car, maybe nothing would have happened, right???? Tired of getting hassled because his social status doesn't fit what society “expects” of him, the victim has already considered selling the “problematic car” […]
God forbid that I should allow the wheels of my smart Adventure on this retailer's parking area… LET’S BOYCOTT IT NOW.
People demonstrate against racism in their cars in Carrefour's parking lot.

"Racist Carrefour", a demonstration against racism on car windows in Carrefour's car park. Photo by @berlitz on Twitpic

On the Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra [Geledés Black Woman Institute, pt] website, many people lamented this news and voiced their indignation in the comment box. For instance, Ayraon says:

Só no Brasil se acha que o racismo é velado. Velado nada! Só não vê quem não quer, ou seja, o povo brasileiro iludido por uma visão deturpada de si mesmo. “Somos mestiços!” diz um, “Não existe preto ou branco” diz outro na hora que esse preto inexistente diz sofrer racismo. Lá fora, quem conhece o Brasil, não consegue entender como esse país pode, por tanto tempo, esconder seu racismo doente. Aqui dentro, vivemos na insanidade coletiva: brancos acham que racismo não existe, que tá na cabeça dos pretos (que, segundo alguns pretos e brancos, não existem), negros dizem que o racismo brasileiro é “velado”; e muitos aceitam essa situação (alguns até dizendo nunca terem sofrido racismo, mesmo sendo alvo dele todo o dia). A história do bahiano me deixa triste , por que ela v ai se repetir, e se repetir, e se repetir sem que façamos nada. Ou iremos fazer algo?

It’s only in Brazil that people think racism is hidden. Bullshit! It’s only hidden for those who don't want to see it. In other words, Brazilians are deluded by a distorted perception of themselves. “We're a mixed race!” someone says, “There is neither black nor white,” someone else declares, should the unacknowledged black person say that he/she has experienced racism. Overseas, those who know what Brazil is like cannot understand how this country has managed to hide its sickly racism for so long. Over here, we live in collective insanity: white people think that there's no such a thing as racism and that it is merely imagined by black people (the same ‘blacks’ that other people say don't exist), and black people say that Brazilian racism is “covert”; Many accept this situation (and some even say they have never suffered racism, despite being the target of it on a daily basis). The story of this man from Bahia makes me sad, because it is going to repeat itself over and over without any reaction from us. Or are we going to do something about it?

To answer the blogger's question, the protests have begun. There was a demonstration on August 22nd, and according to Geledés a bigger protest against the retail chain will take place on September 5th.

Race is a very complex issue for countries that once were colonies of developed states and overshadowed by slavery; a lot of prejudice remains in modern society. Brazil is marked by the violent slavery of black Africans, which lasted for over 300 years and was, to a certain degree, the linchpin of the economic framework during the colonial era. Racism has always been linked to social relations in this country. Black people here today have inherited this social stigma and suffer from racism in many aspects of their daily life. But this is all food for thought, and material for another post.

This article was proofread by Maisie Fitzpatrick.


  • Hi Diego, really enjoyed this post. Is this the Brazilian version of the Henry Louis Gates Jr incident? If so, where is the “beer in the Rose Garden”?


    • Thank you so much Janet.

      Indeed, the case is very similar of Henry Louis’ situation in the USA, and a few bloggers in Brazil pointed that.

      I’d say such thing as the “beer summit” would never happen in Brazil. Firstly, because the man suffered so much that someone in his place wouldn’t want to see his attacker any longer. Secondly, because Carrefour won’t allow their employees to be part of that meeting and even if that happen they’ll eventually come out with some excuses and no charges for beating Januário.

      I feel sad and at the same time outraged for something like this to happen in the 21st century!!! Quite sad.

  • […] Vandaag verscheen op Global Voices en interessant artikel over deze discussie naar aanleiding van de mishandeling en marteling  van een Afro-Braziliaanse man door het beveiligingspersoneel van supermarktconcern Carrefour. Beveiligers en agenten konden namelijk niet geloven dat de dure auto waarnaast de man stond ook echt van hem was… […]

  • nice job on exposing..what some call…our our own imagination….we can only be racist by reaction but never will we be racist because we feel insecure..which is the case for all other race pounding on another. in order for one to feel good about him or herself put another down…that is the surest way to show yourself down…I will never be a racist for I am too proud of my blackness no other race can change me and only in loving my blackness then I can love and respect another..but if you hate project hatred on another simple….those security guard were without self worth until they see someone to beat on put down then the feel the high of self worth …or was it?

  • Hi Diego, I guess I didn’t literally mean a “beer summit.” I meant to ask about how this incident has been treated by government institutions. Academics and activists have pointed out the huge gulf between Brazilian laws on equality and what goes on in the day-to-day in public spaces.

    It is quite hard to believe that there is no criminal responsibility for such a heinous assault, one which was clearly racially motivated. Will the only “justice” be the protests, the blogosphere, or in civil court?

    • I know Janet :)

      Unfortunately there are still no responses from government institutions or they were so little that there was no repercussion at all. In addition, although the case was mentioned in one of the major TV news of Brazil (Jornal Nacional in Globo Network) the media seems to have forgotten the case in just a few days.

      If we google “Carrefour” and “Racismo” we’ll see that Januário was not the first person to suffer in the hands of the security guards of this retail chain. A few weeks ago a man was beaten to death (considering he just had time to go home and talk to his sister) after being charged of have stolen about R$25 ($14) in the supermarket and sent to a “room” where the guards literally took his life away.

      I have no faith in Brazilian justice when it comes to cases like this, honestly.

  • Clara

    Hi Diego, this is a nice post altough the story is absolutely ridiculous, sad and obnoxious! We live in the 21st century and yet some people do not respect others.
    Feel sorry for Januário. All those \men\ involved should be locked up and have some lessons of humanity.

  • […] Today I read an article on Global Voices Online that proves that point. Apparently, Januário Alves de Santana, a black man in his late thirties, was approached, detained and beaten by security guards as he waited for his wife and children in the parking lot of one of the largest retailers in Brazil. They thought he was trying to steal a car – one that he owned and in which his young daughter slept. But no amount of reason saved him from taunting and beating, even disbelief from the police officers who arrived on the scene. Read more here. […]

  • Lorraine Foulkes-Bancells

    I really feel for Januario. I believe Januario should also take the five security officers to court as well. I am sure many people would stand up for you.

    Sometimes I feel ashamed of being white when I hear of situations like this.

    Stand up for yourself Januario, my prayers go out to you.

    All the best


  • […] – wow, kid, milk that gossip… The US Senate, with less nepotism… Brazil’s racial problems are deep… will the lobbyists for the health care status quo – like the “Million Med […]

  • It seems that Brazil is a southern reflection of the United States. I don’t go around shouting racism but this is a blatant example that it does exist and will continue to until people recognize humanity rather than color.

  • […] who dared to return to America leaving behind in Shanghai the Chinese woman he impregnated, a black Brazilian man standing next to his Ford Ecosport SUV at a Carrefour in Brazil, or another African-American Harvard professor entering his own Massachusettes home. And these are […]

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