Racism remains a significant obstacle to development throughout Latin America, according to a recent report from the World Bank.
Afro-descendants, the term used throughout the study for black people living in the region, are nearly three times as likely to live in poverty and have less access to both employment and education than the white or “mestizo” (mixed white and indigenous ethnicity) population in Latin America.
“The extent to which Latin America will be able to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity will therefore depend, to a very large degree, on the social inclusion of Afro-descendants.” – World Bank
Afro-descendants still face many political and practical barriers that prevent them from gaining voice and recognition.
“Afro-descendants,” states the World Bank, “face cumulative disadvantages, unequal opportunities, and lack of respect and recognition, which produce differentiated social and economic outcomes…Afro-descendants are also presented with unequal opportunities at birth, predetermining much of their life trajectories and setting glass ceilings on their individual and group development.”
Critically, they are also underrepresented in political spheres, high-ranking business roles, and other positions of authority than their lighter-skinned counterparts, something the World Bank researchers have identified as one of the largest structural barriers to advancement.
“Despite significant gains over the past decade, Afro-descendants still are overrepresented among the poor and are underrepresented in decision-making positions, both in the private and the public sector,” states the study. “The extent to which Latin America will be able to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity will therefore depend, to a very large degree, on the social inclusion of Afro-descendants.”
The statistics regarding income equality remain glaring. In a selection of six countries — Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, and Uruguay — half of the people that live in extreme poverty are Afro-descendants despite this group only accounting for 38% of the overall population.
About 41% of the estimated five million Afro-Colombians, the term widely used to refer to black people widely in the country and by the governmental National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), live in poverty, a categorization defined as living on less than $5.50 USD per day.
Among Afro-Colombians in urban centers, about 22% lives in slums, per the World Bank’s most recent figures. By contrast, just 8% of the non-Afro-descendent population resides in these areas that suffer from poverty, limited public services, poor healthcare, and few opportunities.
The situation in Brazil, where the vast majority of black Latin Americans live, is particularly unequal. In the region’s largest nation, more than half of the black population lives in poverty, according to the report, titled “Afro-Descendants in Latin America: Toward a Framework of Inclusion.”
While the poverty statistics frame the gravity of the situation most easily, racism pervades to the higher levels of society as well, writes the World Bank.
“The underrepresentation of Afro-descendant professionals in management positions is an example of exclusion that is not necessarily related to poverty, yet it limits the full development of their capacities,” states the report.
Overall, an estimated 133 million people in Latin America — about one in four — identify as Afro-descendent, according to the World Bank. Brazil accounts for 105 million of this total, giving it not just by far the largest black population in Latin America but making it the nation with the second largest Afro-descendent population in the entire world after Nigeria.
“The underrepresentation of Afro-descendant professionals in management positions is an example of exclusion that is not necessarily related to poverty, yet it limits the full development of their capacities.” – World Bank
With five million Afro-descendants, as of 2015, Colombia ranks third in the region. (Some organizations state that this figure should be twice as high.) Venezuela is second, at 17 million, with Mexico, Ecuador, and Cuba rounding out the top six, each country having between one and two million Afro-descendants.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an agency within the Organization of American States (OAS), has specifically spoken out against the hardships faced by black women across the region, both in terms of economic opportunity in their common role as head of household and overall discrimination.
In Colombia, the department of Chocó on the Pacific coast has the largest percentage of Afro-Colombians among its population and it has long been held back by negligence from the federal government, a lack of development, and widespread corruption that largely has been carried out with impunity.
“In the Americas, Afro-descendant women have suffered a triple historical discrimination, based on their gender, their ethnic and racial origin, and, for many women, their situation of poverty, “ said Margarette May Macaulay, head of IACHR.
“Challenging sexist stereotypes linked to their gender and the structural racism of which they are victims, Afro-descendant women continue to face serious obstacles to participate in the political decisions of the countries of the region.”
The NGO has called on states throughout the region to enact policies that will better safeguard the rights of this vulnerable population, increase their participation in government, and ensure they can live violence-free lives that will give them a better opportunity to make a living and provide for their families.
“Challenging sexist stereotypes linked to their gender and the structural racism of which they are victims, Afro-descendant women continue to face serious obstacles to participate in the political decisions of the countries of the region.” – Margarette May Macaulay, head of IACHR
The World Bank report echoes this sentiment. “Afro-descendant households fare, on average, worse than white ones, for example, but Afro-descendant households headed by women fare worse than those headed by men,” states the organization.
To formalize a pledge to empower more women of Afro-descendant to run for office and raise their voice in the political realm, IACHR stressed the need for all countries in the region to ratify both the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance, and the Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance “as an expression of their commitment to combat discrimination and all forms of intolerance in the hemisphere.”
While the situation for Afro-descendants across the region can be considered similar, the World Bank stresses that governments must recognize the unique aspects of each community as they work to make progress.
Efforts to promote greater inclusion and root out racism must first understand the problems at the local level, says the global financial body.
“A starting point to developing a coherent set of policies aimed at fostering the social inclusion of Afro-descendants is to acknowledge that their population is highly heterogeneous, both culturally and socioeconomically, between and within countries,” states the World Bank report.
“Therefore, no single solution will suit all situations, and, most likely, policies aimed at them will involve several sectors and levels of government, and account for overlapping disadvantages that prevent the full development of their potential in every setting, situation, and time.”