GILBERTO GIL, one of Brazil's biggest pop music stars, strums a few chords on a guitar in his expensive condominium overlooking the Atlantic Ocean here. These days the 45-year-old singer doesn't have much time for music, since he is bidding to become mayor of Salvador, Brazil's fourth largest city, with 1.8 million residents.
If Mr. Gil wins the November election, he would become the first black mayor of Salvador, 75 percent of whose residents are black, and Brazil's highest-ranking black officeholder. Gil's candidacy has generated nationwide attention, because it coincides with a debate over the role of blacks in Brazil, where people are preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery on May 13.
The government has declared the date a national holiday, and will mark the anniversary with speeches, concerts, and art fairs throughout the nation.
But many blacks, pointing to their lack of progress not only in politics but also in business and society, say they will not participate in the festivities.
``May 13 is a day for protest, not celebration,'' says the Rev. Antonio da Silva, a black activist priest in Sao Paulo.
The controversy may seem surprising, since Brazil is often called a racial democracy, where blacks and whites mix easily with each other. But black activists say that integration on the streets and beaches masks the control the white elite exercises over the 44 percent of Brazilians classified as black or mulatto.
Not only is Brazil without black political leaders, activists add, but it is virtually without black executives, actors, bishops, or high-ranking military officers.
``On the surface, it looks like there's no racism here because whites and blacks have traditionally mixed together,'' says Julio C'esar Tavares, a black activist in Rio de Janeiro. ``But whites have not given blacks an opportunity to move up. For example, a newspaper ad will say it wants a person with a `good appearance.' This is a code word that only whites need apply.''
Sorting out racial issues in Brazil isn't easy, because the issues aren't clear cut.
In Brazil, because miscegenation has been practiced ever since Portuguese colonizers began importing slaves from Africa more than 300 years ago, there are many shades and classifications of color.
This is the racial democracy that government officials point to when they say that racism doesn't exist in Brazil. When asked why blacks lag behind whites, they blame economics, not race.
Many blacks reject this view. ``Racism here is more subtle and sophisticated than in the US,'' says Lelia Gonz'alez, a black anthropology professor at Rio's Catholic University. ``In the US, people are identified by race, whereas in Brazil it's by color, and the blacker you are here, the more racism you face.'' If racism doesn't exist in Brazil, she asks, then why do blacks earn three times less than whites on average and why are they twice as likely to be illiterate? She adds that whites tend to hold professional jobs, while blacks are disproportionately manual laborers, maids, and unemployed.
The role of blacks in society doesn't seem to have changed much since regent Princess Isabel signed the abolition law on May 13, 1888, making Brazil the last major nation to outlaw slavery.
In a country where 1 percent of the population - the whites - has owned a majority of the land and assets, leaving millions of people without land or hope, blacks have always been second-class citizens.
Brazilian society has reinforced the superiority of whites over blacks for years.
Activist Tavares says that when he was growing up, he was taught that wealth, fame, and popularity were associated with whites, while criminals, drugs, and ugliness were linked with blacks.
``Blacks are taught to deny their own culture,'' Mr. Tavares says. ``The situation has gotten so bad that polls show blacks would rather have a white president than a black one.''
Brazil has never had a black president. There are currently no black governors, and only seven of Congress's 559 members are black.
On a recent TV panel that was discussing the race issue, an advertising executive said he would not and will not use blacks in advertisements because it would make consumers less likely to purchase the product.
``Not even blacks would buy the product, since they want to be like whites,'' said the executive, Enio Mainardi.
Federico Subervi, an assistant professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who is studying the race issue here on a Fulbright Scholarship, says blacks almost always portray servants and thieves on TV soap operas and prime shows.
``For blacks in Brazil, there aren't any role models on TV,'' he says, ``unless you count the [imported and dubbed] ``Cosby Show,'' which is the only program with a black family.''
Societal roles have become so stereotyped, says Professor Gonz'alez, salespeople who come to her door treat her as the maid. And Fr. da Silva says that when he enters an office building, he's almost always directed to the service elevator.
In his 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis of race relations in Brazil, ``Neither Black nor White,'' Stanford Prof. Carl Degler noted that the ambiguity of color in Brazil has made it much more difficult for blacks to organize here than in the US, where the years of segregation and racial discrimination have welded US blacks into an effective political force.
Brazil has never had a civil rights movement, so neither the government nor the private sector helps blacks through affirmative-action programs.
The few civil rights groups that exist in Brazil are trying to use the increased attention focused on race this year to recruit members and become a more effective agent for change. Despite a spate of new books on the race issue, however, they've had trouble overcoming the tradition that has preferred to leave the black/white issue alone.
Nevertheless, Gil, an underdog candidate in the Salvador mayoral race, is optimistic. ``We're not as far along as the US. But I think more and more people are realizing that the ruling class cannot continue to keep blacks down. We're arriving at the point where America was 20 to 30 years ago. I see change coming.''