A Mega-City's New Black Mayor Puts Spotlight on Racism in Brazil

Meeting the challenges of one of the world's mega-cities, especially in the developing world, is no easy task, and the modest and down-to-earth Celso Pitta would be about the last to claim he has a formula for success.

But the new mayor of the world's third-largest city and Sao Paulo's first elected black leader does have a few ideas.

Mr. Pitta, three months into his tenure governing more than 10 million residents, faces many problems: unemployment, high crime, decrepit housing, education. In an effort to respond to them, he has singled out the theme of personal responsibility - for himself as leader and for each of the city's citizens.

And, although he downplays the race issue in a manner that aggravates some of Sao Paulo's black activists, Pitta's surprise election in October has helped thrust Brazilian race relations center stage.

"Since I was a child, I was taught that you can overcome any situation that seems to be against you if you are competent, able, and aware of what you are seeking," says the lanky, elegantly attired politician. That education helped him as a black growing up in a majority white society.

Pitta's "personal responsibility" philosophy will be tested as he implements various measures designed to engage citizens in creating a more livable and orderly city. The mayor's drive for a cleaner city will include a public-education program and, for the first time, hefty fines for littering. Another program against drunk driving will introduce Breathalyzer tests to Sao Paulo streets.

A corollary of the personal-responsibility emphasis is the idea of handling problems at the local level - no easy task for a mega city whose metropolitan population reaches more than 16 million. Pitta is battling tradition to wrest control of city police away from state government to bring law enforcement under City Hall's wing.

"The idea is to bring to Sao Paulo the successful experience of New York City, where criminality was reduced 40 percent in three years," he says. "But to do that there must be a closer, community-based administration" of police.

Pitta's emphasis on responsibility is part of what annoys some of the mayor's black constituents. They say that by not explicitly acknowledging the particular needs of Sao Paulo's generally poorer and socially marginalized black population, the mayor is condoning what one Brazilian social anthropologist calls "assimilationist racism."

'Invisible' minority?

The idea is that if Brazil doesn't suffer from the racial divisions of the United States, it's because black Brazilians have learned not to challenge the white-dominated social order. In this month's Republica magazine, for example, a black journalist calls Pitta an "invisible man" who has adopted a "necessary invisibility for a Negro in a land of whites."

The Republica article and other recent press reports give an indication of how Pitta's election, whether he likes it or not, has put a new spotlight on race here. Race relations in Brazil demonstrate a mix of a degree of easy social mixing the US has never known, combined with a minority (and primarily black) "invisibility," which is reminiscent of conditions in much of the US before Rosa Parks stood firm on a bus in 1955 and declared her presence.

On Sao Paulo's central Avenida Paulista it is not uncommon to see mixed couples and mixed social groups (Pitta's wife is white). But at the same time, black Brazilians quietly occupy the lowest echelon of jobs across the country, and continue to abide by racist "acceptable behavior" codes.

Most Brazilian apartment buildings, for example, have two elevators: one service, for the generally black maids, one "social." "One day, the service elevator was out of order," recalls a Sao Paulo journalist. "[My maid] instinctively headed for the stairs, but when I told her not to be ridiculous and to come with me [in the 'social' elevator], she said, 'I don't want to cause trouble. You know it's not done.' "

Blacks who do show themselves in places where their economic level generally wouldn't allow them can be in for a rude surprise. A scandal erupted in Rio recently after the black Brazilian wife of a white Swiss man took the elevator in a five-star hotel. The woman was told by hotel staff that her kind - she was pegged as a prostitute - were not allowed upstairs. After the only black in Sao Paulo's legislative assembly was elected in 1988, he was constantly assumed to be a chauffeur or security guard.

And unlike the US, where black candidates can generally count on the black vote, Brazilian sociologists say this is not the case in their country. This absence of a race-based political identification is hailed by some as a sign of an integrated society, while condemned by some black activists as a sure sign that blacks in Brazil remain "invisible."

Focus on poor

While he rejects race-based politics, Pitta says he is implementing or continuing programs that will reach the poor and therefore the city's black population. One example is the city's public private health-care system, which he helped implement as budget director for the previous administration. Another is Sao Paulo's internationally recognized Cingapura housing program, where new housing is built on the site of slums.

"The idea is to provide new, decent housing where people already live, so you don't uproot their community," Pitta says. With about one-fifth of Sao Paulans estimated to be living in substandard housing, plans call for doubling the 10,000 apartments that have already been built under the program.

Pitta concedes that he's not as visible in the media as his predecessor - he laughs as he exhibits a recent newspaper blurb that asks "Where is Wally?" (after the "Where's Waldo" children's books) and challenges residents to locate their little-seen mayor. But he says he'd rather be known by the work that's done, than by having his face constantly on the TV screen.

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