Thousands of Brazilian candidates ‘switched’ racial identities this year

People line up to vote during Brazil's second round of municipal elections at a polling station in Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 29. (Fabio Motta/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
People line up to vote during Brazil's second round of municipal elections at a polling station in Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 29. (Fabio Motta/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Aspiring politicians in Brazil’s local elections last month sought all possible advantages. They donned costumes and produced ads with catchy jingles. Some even dropped their own name for a more recognizable moniker.

This year, thousands of candidates went so far as to “switch” racial identities, according to an analysis of election registration information. More than 42,000 Brazilian candidates running in one of Brazil’s 5,568 municipal elections in November changed their self-reported race on official election documents since the last time they ran for office, in 2016. In Brazil’s November elections, formerly White contenders identified themselves as racially mixed or Black; non-Whites, albeit in lower numbers, began to assert that they were White.

Why did so many Brazilian candidates change their race? In my research, I find politicians discard racial identities that no longer serve them in favor of identities that may help them get elected.

Race-switching has picked up in Brazilian elections

Brazil began requiring candidates to racially identify themselves in 2014. By 2016, candidates were already changing how they self-identified. Of the 6,584 candidates that ran in both the 2014 federal elections and the 2016 local elections, 27 percent changed their self-declared race. For example, Paulinho Costa identified as White in 2014 when he ran unsuccessfully for Minas Gerais’s state assembly. In 2016, when Costa sought and won a position on the Governador Valadares city council, he identified as mixed. Since then, Costa has continued to run for office. Official candidate registration forms in 2018 show he identified as White. In 2020, he again identified as mixed, according to public data on candidates.

In 2016, the leading mayoral candidates in Salvador, Bahia — a northeastern city in which 80 percent of residents are of African descent — publicly identified themselves as non-White. Other Brazilians, however, called out both candidates and their running mates as White. In fact, electoral registration data revealed the leading candidates’ running mates, both of whom declared themselves to be mixed-race, had identified as White in 2014. Community leaders and activists admonished the candidates as frauds.

Some candidates claim these changes are simply errors. Yet the consistency with which candidates provide other information on electoral registration documents suggests this is not the case. For instance, less than 1 percent of candidates who ran for elected office in both 2014 and 2016 inconsistently reported their gender.

Moreover, each candidate receives a physical printout of their completed registration document. A candidate’s signature on this document is a declaration of the accuracy of the information and their affirmation that they reviewed the form for errors.

Why politicians switch their racial identities

In 2016, I interviewed candidates who had adopted new identities, many of whom asserted race in Brazil is “different.” Unlike the United States, where laws codified racial group membership on the basis of ancestry, racial categorization in Brazil is largely a product of physical attributes like skin tone, facial features and hair type. If any of those characteristics change, an individual’s race theoretically could change as well.

One legislative aide informed me that an individual may no longer be White after a day at the beach — because the sun is strong in Brazil. Her boss, a newly elected city councilor in the city of Recife, nodded in agreement. In 2020, a candidate joked that she changed her self-declared race to White because she got a lot less sun during the covid-19 quarantine.

Despite Brazilians’ penchant for the praia (beach), electoral considerations provide a stronger explanation for why politicians change how they racially identify themselves and which racial identities they adopt.

Race matters in Brazilian elections

The research suggests voters use a candidate’s race as an information shortcut when deciding whom to support. Politicians, in turn, use racial appeals to secure support from voters.

In the 2020 elections, candidates had compelling reasons to embrace non-White identities. In a 4-3 decision, Brazil’s top electoral court ruled this year each political party must split their electoral funds as well as media access proportionately between White and non-White candidates. Benedita da Silva, the country’s first Black female member of Congress, hailed the ruling as providing non-White candidates access to resources they had long been denied. But the rule change also presented opportunistic candidates with financial incentives to embrace Blackness.

Beyond financial incentives, candidates may have chosen to embrace non-White identities because of growing racial consciousness across the country. Some candidates indicated they chose to adopt non-White identities after personal reflection — they claimed they were rescuing their roots and affirming they are not White. Yet many Brazilians are skeptical of these claims — many of which were made by candidates who are socially perceived as White.

Brazilian candidates may embrace new racial identities because voters themselves are increasingly race conscious. The death of George Floyd in the United States sent shock waves through Brazil, where nonwhites are disproportionately killed by police. Brazilians protested in the streets in solidarity with the U.S.-based Black Lives Matter movement and to demand an end to police brutality that is commonplace in Brazil. In the days preceding the November election, social media posts encouraged voters to consider race when deciding whom to vote for.

In Brazil, racial divisions are likely to remain politically salient. After the November elections, supermarket security guards beat a Black man named João Alberto Silveira Freitas to death in the city of Porto Alegre. This killing, which occurred the day before Brazil’s day of Black Consciousness, led to countrywide protests and demands for change. President Jair Bolsonaro and Vice President Hamilton Mourão, however, appear to have inflamed tensions by denying racism exists.

Andrew Janusz (@ajanusz) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida. His research focuses on race and political representation in Brazil.

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