by Angelo Martins Jr

Caught in the grip of World Cup fever, it’s a strange feeling to see the colours and flag of my home country Brazil everywhere on the streets of London. Despite our love of football, the 2014 FIFA World Cup has been a controversial issue in Brazil. The anti-world cup protests, which began long before even the first kick of a ball, have focused critique on gentrification, as well as the public spending demanded by such big events, that could have been invested in housing, education and health care.

There is also another sort of protest or ‘claim to indignation’ going on in the country, which goes beyond the World Cup. This indignation comes from the mainly white Brazilian elite, composed of the upper middle-classes and the super-rich. Their voices could be heard during the opening match, when people from the VIP area of the stadium started chanting “Hey Dilma, up yours”, along with hand gestures to President Dilma Rousseff, who was in the stadium, in São Paulo.

President Dilma Rousseff and Joseph "Sepp" Blatter
President Dilma Rousseff and Joseph “Sepp” Blatter

Protests from the white elite can only be fully understood when economic growth in Brazil is placed in the context of its colonial past and contemporary class and racial divisions. The white elite in Brazil is much the same dominant group, that after our independence in 1822, maintained processes of internal racialization as a way to hold onto their privilege. Just as in the rest of Latin America, Brazil, following independence, kept its national project directly connected to the interests of other dominant white elites in Europe and the United States. As a consequence, Brazilian elites were inclined to reflect the interests of the European and the U.S bourgeoisie, even after the demise of colonialism (Quijano, 2000).

More recently, over the last decade, Brazil has been undergoing a major transformation, largely due to the economic development it has experienced. With a nominal GDP of $2.48 trillion, Brazil was ranked as the sixth largest economy in 2011, according to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment rates of this new global player reached the lowest level in history in 2013, when they were less than 4.6%.

This economic growth was accompanied by political measures aimed at reducing social inequalities. With the slogan of “A rich country is a country without poverty”, the Labour Party has created social programs in order to improve the life conditions of minorities in the country. One of these social programmes was Affirmative Actions, which in 2012 resulted in “The Law of Social Quotas”, which requires public universities to reserve half of their admission places for Brazilian public school students, who are overwhelmingly poor and black. The quota system aims to increase the number of students of African descent at universities from the current 8,700 to 56,000 in the next 10 years. Another main social program called Bolsa Família (Family Grant), gives regular benefits to poor families if they keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups. Following the arguments used by the neo-liberals in Europe, the Brazilian white elite is against Bolsa Família because the R$70,00 (around 32 US dollars) given to the families, per month, are thought to make people lazy and unwilling to work.

Despite the persistence of social inequalities, these new social policies, together with economic growth, have taken millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Another consequence has been the formation of a new lower-middle class, composed of people who now have access to goods and products that would have been previously unimaginable.

This reconfiguring of class hierarches has unleashed the anger of the white elite, threatened by what they see as the invasion of their spaces of privilege by uninvited bodies. This new middle class are what the sociologist Nirmal Puwar calls “space invaders”. They have started to frequent airports, universities and shopping centres, which used to have clear class/racial boundaries to keep them out. Of course this white elite is vehemently against the affirmative action policies, claiming that the quota system creates situations of racial division that didn’t exist before in our ‘racial democracy’. As the personal testimony of Stephanie Ribeiro shows, those black students who have benefited from the government’s affirmative action policies at elite universities can be subjected to terrible racism as part of the wider backlash against the recent moves towards greater equity.

Rolezinho” is another example of what happens when socially marginalised bodies enter into spaces from which they were previously excluded. Taking advantage of the new economic opportunities, young people from the poor peripheries of São Paulo and Rio went en masse into shopping centres to consume and have fun. Despite the economic benefit to the shops, these young people were not allowed to stay in the commercial establishments, and the state police used force to get rid of them.

size_590_site editadoAnother recent development has been the constant complaints from the elite about airports. It is claimed that the airports are now overcrowded because more poor people are able to travel within Brazil by plane and not by bus as used to be the case. Take the case of a professor from the elite Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) in Rio de Janeiro, who used social media to post a photograph of a man waiting for his flight at Santos Dumont Airport. The man was wearing shorts and a vest. The professor tagged the image with the comment “Airport or Bus station?!” The comment full of class prejudice used the signifier of dress code to show the extent to which those from the lower classes are intruding upon the privileged space of the airport. The situation intensified when other academic staff members from the same university posted comments underneath the picture, saying things such as “There is no glamour in flying anymore” since they now have to endure sitting next to people such as “Mr. Bus station”. Because of the attention the photograph attracted on social networks, this particular “Mr. Bus station” was found. He was actually a lawyer returning from his summer holidays.

This blurring of class/racial boundaries surrounds the World Cup. But it doesn’t end here. The event has also been used to try to re-establish race and class divisions through ideas about Brazil as a modern country. Before the World Cup began, the white elite and upper middle classes used the possible failure of Brazil to be ready for the tournament as a political weapon in a year of elections, playing upon what the playwright Nelson Rodrigues has called a complex of inferiority with regard to Brazil’s place in the modern world. Tumblrs and hashtags were widely used in social networks to express our supposed incapability of hosting the tournament, since we are not a modern country, populated by modern educated people. ‘Só no Brasil’ (Only in Brazil) and ‘Imagina na Copa’ (Just imagine during the World Cup) were some of the tags featuring laments by Brazilians that certain things only happen in Brazil – such as traffic jams and flight delays – and that during the World Cup things would only get worse.

Echoes of these discourses also flavoured international media reporting of the World Cup in the questioning of whether Brazil would be ready for the event. Headlines repeatedly brought together the words “Fear” and “world cup”. Our bodies were continually racialised and objectified as exotic, such as in the case of the Adidas World Cup merchandise. Yet all of this is taking place within a context of shifting economic power. Once again there is economic growth in Brazil, reminiscent of Brazil’s ‘economic miracle’ in the 1970’s when growth was around 10% per year. Just as in the 1970’s, our elite is worried about losing their economic and social privileges.

In a context of economic instability in Europe, in which countries are fighting to bring back the EU investments, which are now being made in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), I wonder about what lies behind the promotion of anxiety and fear surrounding the question ‘Will they be ready?’ Is it a way to keep us in our un-trustworthy, non-modern space, playing football and dancing samba?

The World Cup and the discourses around the ‘non-modern’ Brazil are an interesting case study from which to think about the continuation of colonial relations in a supposedly post-colonial order. “Christianize or I shoot you,” marked the European colonial logic of the 16th century. In the 19th Century it was a case of “Civilize or I shoot you” which continued after decolonization through the European/American logic of “Develop or I shoot you” in the 20th Century. “Neoliberalize or I shoot you” has been seen as characterising the late 20th Century (Grosfoguel, 2011). These projects of modernization and development have directly affected the way in which bodies and places were racialised in Brazil as ‘modern’ vs. ‘non-modern’ / educated (civilized) vs. non-educated (uncivilized), with the ‘modern’ U.S and western Europe as the reference points.

The critique from the white elite that Brazil is not fit or modern enough to host the World Cup is a complex one, full of contradictions and irony. On the face of it, the tournament has been a spectacular modern event. Similar to what happened in London before the Olympic Games, a process of gentrification (forced evictions) has taken place. The economic segregating logic underpinning access to the tournaments, who can buy tickets to cross the gates of the stadiums is also an entirely modern phenomenon.

Is there anything more modern than social exclusion after all?

The VIP World Cup: (TURN THE SUBTITLES ON)

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Angelo Martins Jr is a post-graduate student in Sociology in London. Angelo is currently developing his doctoral research on Brazilians living in London. He has worked on various academic projects relating to the labour market, Industrial Sociology, Mobility and Migration.Find him on Twitter: @MartinsJr_a  

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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6 thoughts on “A Cut Above the Rest: Class and race elitism and the Fifa World Cup in Brazil

  1. Only just got round to reading this. I sorely wish these sentiments were a larger part of the narrative, as media consensus would have one believe this World Cup has been one big party for the Brazilian people.

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  2. Brilliant article, & thank you for sharing.

    It’s so important that we all hear firsthand accounts of what’s going on in other parts of the world. The BBC won’t even report on a protest of 50’000 people marching on their doorstep, never-mind the complexities of institutional racism in Brazil and all it entails. Great piece.

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  3. I still do not understand how Brazil can have the second largest population of black people but they remain so powerless. Why is there no unity, no attempt at civil and human rights. They seem to accept their lot as being second class citizens and do not fight to make real change.

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    1. Marie, it is a long hard battle.Brazil is a “new” country. Our minds are so institutionalised. I know this because I was away for 10 years, and I can feel it very well. Racism is on the everyday life of people, and they are not ready to challenge it because they still don’t properly recognise it. We have media empires, who sustains these discourses, it is hard to become empowered. Specially because the consequences leads to lack of access of education. See Stephanie’s story. She got strength because she has a network. But she said, she couldn’t understand how violent that was until many months after! But things are changing now. There are lots of organised groups, specially created by feminists who are independently moving ideas, discussing, debating, producing and publishing informative articles. People are now studying this, doing MAs, PHDs, and consequently this will increase awareness, it will empower people. Stephanie’s story was published specially because of this.

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    2. Just adding to Betty’s reply, Marie, due to the the myth that we live in a racial democracy, many racial comments are made through “jokes”, and if a black person get offended by the joke and say something about it, people will say that the black person is over reacting and so on, because it was just a joke and we are not racist. Within this context, a lot of black people also want to distance themselves from their “blackness”, not recognizing themselves as black. You can see this in this Documentary: http://www.idfa.nl/industry/tags/project.aspx?id=c9ea713d-d384-48ea-a7ef-30cf74470553&tab=jvf
      Another point is, when someone bring the racial issues to the debate, sometimes is even consider by being racist against white people, as just happened to me because of this article.

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  4. Interesting that issues of race, power and privilege play out in similar ways around the world. It’s sad that societies look at racial equality from the perspective of what they fear they will lose, rather than what they will gain. We need to change the discourse around race from a focus on fear, risk and anger to growth, security and sustainability.

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