It was just a regular evening of monkey noises and racial slurs for Brazilian soccer referee Marcio Chagas. Then he left to go home.
As he entered the parking lot after overseeing the March 6 state championship game in Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil’s south, the black physical education teacher found his tormentors had vandalized his car and piled bananas on the windshield. One was inserted into the exhaust pipe.
“I felt offended, like I’d been the victim of violence,” Chagas, 37, said by telephone from his home in Porto Alegre. “It was a cowardly act because I couldn’t defend myself. The jeering is normal. This kind of action was new for me.”
Racism in soccer came to the fore over the past month when Brazilian defender Daniel Alves ate a banana thrown at him by a fan while playing for Barcelona in the Spanish league. While the incident caused an uproar back home in Brazil, the outpouring of support masked how far the World Cup host has to go to eliminate prejudice in the country with the largest black population in the world after Nigeria.
Acts of racism in soccer stadiums have tarnished the image of tolerance that the government is trying to portray, according to Jorge da Silva, a political science professor at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro.
“Brazilians are used to saying that Brazil is a racial democracy: That’s just a myth,” da Silva said. “If you go to an elegant shopping center you won’t find black people there, not even working. If you board a plane in Brazil you will not see black people working, maybe one or two, let alone as passengers.”
In a country whose most famous person is black soccer icon Pele, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is planning to use next month’s World Cup, played in 12 new and refurbished stadiums across the country, to promote the antiracism message. An advertisement currently on Brazilian television has the following tagline: “The cup of cups without racism.”
“Such a multicultural country, where all of the world’s races may be found, provides the possibility for interventions against racism and discrimination,” she said in January after meeting soccer governing body President Sepp Blatter.
Blatter said in an interview posted online by FIFA today that he will ask member associations to ratify tougher rules against racist behavior at a meeting in Sao Paulo on June 11.
In 2011 Brazil’s census showed for the first time its population was majority black and mixed race, with 51 percent declaring themselves as such.
Not a single chief executive officer of a company listed on Brazil’s main stock exchange index is black. Black workers earn about half the average 1,914 reais ($862) per month their white counterparts get, according to statistics institute IBGE.
Racism was designated a crime in Brazil in 1988. Luiza Bairros, the only black minister in Rousseff’s cabinet of 39, said the law has changed very little, with very few prosecutions, allowing people to act with impunity.
“Government institutions reproduce the same standard of invisibility of blacks that you encounter in the rest of society,” Bairros, minister for the promotion of racial equality, a post created in 2003, said in a May 15 phone interview. “You don’t see black people writing for newspapers or directing companies, so it’s more difficult to convince voters to put them into office.”
Black senior officials like Joaquim Barbosa, the outgoing chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court, remain rare, prompting quotas to be introduced. In the country’s wildly popular soap operas, screen stars are almost always white. Just 12 percent of the cast of the country’s current prime-time novela, Em Familia, is black or mixed raced.
Determining who is black isn’t easy.
European settlers, mainly from Portugal, brought almost 5 million slaves to the country between 1502 and 1867, almost half of all Africans entering the new world and 10 times the number headed to the U.S. Interracial marriage was common and an official policy of “whitening” the population by inviting Europeans to the country until the middle 20th century has meant there are a more than 100 definitions of skin color, according to a government survey.
In a case at the University of Brasilia, identical twins in 2007 applied for entry as part of a quota system the institution has introduced. Only one was deemed black.
Brazil’s racial mix used to be more visible in soccer stadiums, where low ticket prices meant even the poorest, mainly black, members of society could attend games. With the advent of new stadiums, including the dozen for the World Cup costing more than 8 billion reais, that’s being lost as prices rise. Blacks and mixed-race Brazilians made up 53 percent of the population in 2012, yet only 16 percent of the richest 1 percent, according to IBGE, the statistics institute.
During Brazil’s 3-0 win over Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup final, the overwhelming majority of fans in Rio’s 74,698-seat Maracana were white. The only black faces were among the players on the field and the cleaners in the bathrooms, said da Silva, the academic.
“The price of tickets has created an economic problem and blacks don’t have the economic level of whites in Brazilian society yet,” said Toninho Nascimento, the sports ministry’s national secretary for soccer.
On the field, black players, coaches and referees are now helping highlight the divide.
Arouca, a midfielder with Pele’s former team Santos, was called a monkey by fans as he gave a sideline interview in March. A month earlier, Tinga, a midfielder who plays for Belo Horizonte team Cruzeiro, was racially abused while playing a game in Peru.
The case made national headlines, with Brazilian newspapers expressing shock and anger at the treatment. Tinga’s response was to point to problems at home.
“In Brazil we talk about equality, but we hide our prejudice,” he said. “We pretend that everyone is equal.”
Since the incidents, Brazil’s soccer federation started a campaign against racism called “Somos Iguais,” or “We Are Equal.” Rousseff said she wants to turn the World Cup into “a global marker against racism.” A player from the Brazilian national team will read an antiracism message before the June 12 tournament opener against Croatia. In previous competitions such messages have been read out by team captains after they enter the field.
Chagas, the now-former referee from Rio Grande do Sul, is hoping the tournament may be a turning point even though it will be too late for him. The abuse he received pushed Chagas to quit officiating.
“I hope during the World Cup people will have better control to not act in an aggressive, prejudiced way,” Chagas said. “The eyes of the world will be on Brazil, and it would be a shame if something like this were to happen.”