A Global Look at Racial Equity: Brazil

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

Welcome to the third post in an ongoing series, A GLOBAL LOOK AT RACIAL EQUITY. This series — adapted from our featured insight GLOBAL DIMENSIONS OF RACE AND ETHNICITY — takes an in-depth look at social justice and equity issues on a country-by-country basis, with insight from Aperian Global’s experts.

Our third entry focuses on Brazil.

Brazil: A Multiracial Mix

One of Brazil’s most striking demographic characteristics is its large mixed race population, similar to the population of nations in the Caribbean such as Cuba or the Dominican Republic. The country’s official census includes a multiracial category (pardo, or “brown”) that comprises 43% of the population. Brazil’s other citizens also include not only whites (48%) and blacks (7.6%), but also people of Asian ancestry (1%) such as the descendants of Japanese immigrants, and its indigenous population (0.4%). The country’s racial and ethnic diversity differs substantially by region as well — the southern third of the country, home to major cities such as Sao Paulo, Curitiba, and Porto Alegre, is predominantly white due to patterns of European immigration and settlement, while the majority population elsewhere is multiracial.

Brazilians today still face stark socioeconomic differences with deep historical roots. The country was slow to abolish slavery, only ending it in 1888 after 350 years, and the influence of this institution remains.19 Across Brazil’s diverse population, there is a wide gap between rich and poor that is reflected in income, employment, upward mobility, access to health care, and incarceration rates.

Brazil ranks as one of the world’s five countries with the largest wealth gap, with a relatively high unemployment rate and one-fifth of its population living in poverty, including the residents of its massive urban shanty-towns known as favelas.

Brazil’s struggling educational system contributes to ongoing inequality; it is rated in the bottom ten of seventy countries in science, math, and reading, and a third of citizens over the age of 25 have not completed elementary school.21 Brazil’s government has long championed the cause of a “racial democracy,” contrasting this favorably with discriminatory practices of other countries such as the U.S. or South Africa that enforced segregation and forbid racial intermarriage.

However, its elite and middle class are primarily white, and darker skin color among its citizens is closely linked with social disparities: “The widespread acceptance of multiracial identities in Brazil coexists with steep racial inequality.” A distinctively Brazilian conundrum is that policy solutions such as affirmative action quickly collide with multiracial identities; residents reportedly use more than 136 categories of skin colors to identify themselves, making binary classifications problematic.

Some universities have resorted to phenotypes, or physical characteristics, to determine who should be eligible for preferential treatment, regardless of ancestry. Brazil’s anti-racism laws have not been effective in preventing more subtle forms of racial slights and workplace discrimination against either black or multiracial employees, and employers seeking to provide equal opportunities for all must overcome these informal barriers along with more systemic ones.

Practical Implications

Foreign companies in Brazil need to consider socioeconomic differences across its mixed race spectrum. Organizations will be particularly welcomed if they can provide jobs in areas with high unemployment, education and training for workers in need of supplementary skillbuilding, and other benefits such as quality health care — all while contributing to local community development.


Ford has refocused its Brazilian manufacturing operations in the northeastern state of Bahia, which has a relatively higher percentage of mixed race and black residents. Its plant in the city of Camaçari employs thousands of local residents while also enabling the company to better cope with difficult economic times in Brazil that have led it to cut back its operations nationwide.


McCoy, Terrence. “They Lost the Civil War and Fled to Brazil. Their Descendants Refuse to Take Down the Confederate Flag,” Washington Post, July 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/brazil-confederate-flag-civil-war-americana-santa-barbara/2020/07/11/1e8a7c84-bec4-11ea-b4f6-cb39cd8940fb_story.html

Suneson, Grant, and Samuel Stebbins. “These 15 Countries Have the Widest Gaps Between Rich and Poor,” USA Today, May 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/05/28/countries-with-the-widest-gaps-between-rich-and-poor/39510157/

“A Silver Lining in Brazil’s Struggling Education System,” The Wilson Center, June 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/silver-lining-brazils-struggling-education-system

De Oliveira, Cleuci. “Brazil’s New Problem With Blackness,” Foreign Policy, April 2015, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/05/brazils-new-problem-with-blackness-affirmative-action/

Telles, Edward. “Racial Discrimination and Miscegenation: The Experience in Brazil,” UN.org, July 2020, https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/racial-discrimination-and-miscegenation-experience-brazil

Rochabrun, Marcelo, Alberto Alerigi, and Ben Klayman. “Ford to close oldest Brazil plant, exit South American truck biz,” Reuters Business News, February 19, 2019; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ford-motor-southamerica-heavytruck/ford-to-close-oldest-brazil-plant-exit-south-america-truckbiz-idUSKCN1Q82EB