Saturday, April 21, 2007

Coded Racism, Violence, and the Brazilian Media

On Tuesday, Cariocas (Rio de Janeiro residents) woke up and saw newspapers proclaiming the death of 20 "drug traffickers" ("traficantes") in the favelas while the Cariocas slept. However, seemingly innocuous headlines of the death of drug-dealers actually carries sinister meaning in Brazil.

Everytime the police kill somebody in the favelas, the media proclaims the death of "traficantes". It doesn't matter if a 10-year old boy is killed, or a 60 year old woman (and there have been incidents in the past where the police went into favelas and indiscriminitately killed the poor, including the elderly, women, and children, all on the basis of their "drug ties", which the dead of course could not refute ). And by and large, nobody asks any questions.

All of this reveals two aspects of the issues of race in Brazil. Firstly, there's the media's almost universal tendency to describe any person killed in the favelas (almost universally black/brown) as a "traficante" when they die. This simple categorization not only refuses teh individuals humanity (it was just another "traficante", a useless thug-criminal with nothing worth noting other than his or her criminality). It also creates a blanket stereotype of favelados (those who live in the favelas) as all being criminals. Their failure to appear in the media in any other story not related to "X traficantes dead in X favela" offers a gross simplification of the difficulties and societal problem that face favelados and that favelados in turn reveal about inequalities in Brazilian society.

The second issue at play here is broader than the media's characterization of the favelados. Hearing the latest story (they are almost weekly, sometimes daily) about the police in a "shootout" with the favelados, many people say the favelados had it coming, because they refuse to get real jobs and just live like leeches off the Brazilian society. This approach puts the poverty strictly on the shoulders of the favelados, as if they're lack of motivation, laziness, and/or criminality were the explanation for their plight, logically leading to the attitude of "if they really wanted to get out, they'd do better/work harder, so it's their own fault". Of course, this makes it easier for society to ignore the difficulties the poor and mostly dark-brown-to-black favelados face getting well-paying jobs, including the underpaid domestic work so many of Rio's elites hire them for. It also makes it easier to again dehumanize the favelados and justify the random murder of them. One officer is quoted as describing the 20 dead favelados as a "happy action" because "we [the police] managed to avoid something more serious." I suspect many of the favelados found the shootout plenty serious.

These attitudes, and particularly the media's constant use of the term "traficante", has a curious affect on American media. Such blanket, coded words for racist/classist attitudes leads to difficulties in reporting the story in the American media (if and when it ever gets reported - only CNN even ran the story from this week's massacre). Simply picking up a story of 20 dead traffickers from the Brazilian media can lead to the same reporting in the U.S. without any cultural criticism or parsing of what the Brazilian media means when it says "traficante." Certainly there are ways around this - CNN repeatedly uses the phrase "alleged gang members", which, for its "alleged", is already more cautious than the Brazilian media. Still, difficulties in translation of journalism remain, and can and do help internationalize the notion that favelados are little mroe than people living in abject poverty who are forced to traffick and join gangs, without asking any of the deeper social and critical questions of Brazilian society's contradictions.

Certainly, the police in Rio do kill traficantes, sometimes in drawn-out gunfights. However, without a doubt many innocent bystanders are often also victims, and the media's and society's failure to address that possibility or explain the broader issue of why the favelas even exist speaks volumes about Brazil's tendency to turn the other eye on inequality here, relying on classic racism and classism.