In 1987, just as the National Congress was preparing to discuss a new Constitution after two decades of military dictatorship (1964-1985), four federal deputies met to ensure that the racial issue came to the fore and created the Black Bench.
The group formed by Paulo Paim (PT-RS), Benedita da Silva (PT-RJ), Edmilson Valentim (PC do B-RJ) and Carlos Alberto Caó Oliveira dos Santos (PDT-RJ), most in the first term, channeled demands of the black movement and guided discussions in the Constituent Assembly — from topics such as quilombola territories to the creation of a law against racism that went beyond the one in force until then and which made crime unenforceable.
“We want to proclaim our abolition, it is not hate, nor rancor, it is just a cry for freedom”, cried Benedita in the plenary of the Chamber at the time.
Among the 559 constituent congressmen —72 senators and 487 federal deputies —, the four members of the bench raised, then, a difficult issue to be faced in institutional means, in the country that had become the last to abolish slavery in the West, almost a hundred years before.
“When we fight for these flags, in fact, we denounce a failed system. The system failed the Brazilian black people. They cannot get out of their conservative state of mind to deal with the majority of the population”, says Benedita, now 79 years and federal deputy in the fifth term, third consecutive.
First elected in 1986, Benedita was known for her work with favela movements in Rio de Janeiro. At the Constituent Assembly, she was the only woman on the head table.
Caó, a journalist and persecuted by the dictatorship, left the Chamber in the previous legislature to assume a secretariat in the government of Leonel Brizola (PDT-RJ). Alternate in 1986, he returned to Parliament shortly before the start of the Constituent Assembly, occupying a vacancy after the death of another parliamentarian.
Coming from the metalworkers’ union in Canoas (RS), Paim was the only candidate for federal deputy for the Gaucho PT at that time. He remembers a call from Benedita, after being elected, and the invitation to talk when he arrived in Brasília. He and Edmilson were also newcomers to Brasília, both linked to workers’ movements.
“I always had an affirmation on the issue of my color, my race. Integration on the bench was a natural thing, because you had, in the Constituent Assembly, a thirst for democratic participation”, says Edmilson, 58, at the time one of the youngest elected representatives .
The four names on the Black Bench, however, were not the only blacks in Parliament in 1987. A survey by Thula Pires, a doctor of law from PUC-Rio, identified 11 names in Congress of black politicians elected in those years.
“It’s not that they didn’t have others. There’s a phrase that says it’s not enough to be black, you have to assume blackness. In your daily life, how do you participate in life in the country presenting yourself as a black man or a black woman?” , says Paim, 71.
He recalls positions that marked the group, such as the defense for the release of Nelson Mandela and the visit to South Africa, from where they returned with a document delivered by Winnie Mandela that would inspire the Statute of Racial Equality.
Among Brazilian parliamentarians at the time, the speech that Brazil was a racial democracy, with inequalities in social, not necessarily racial, issues was common, says Natália Neris, doctoral student in human rights at USP and author of “A Voz ea Palavra do Black Movement in the 1988 Constituent Assembly” (House of Law, 2018).
“It was seen as separatism, as something difficult to be implemented, but parliamentarians, namely Benedita, pointed out that there was no intention of separatism, but of equality. All you had to do was look at the Parliament and understand that there was indeed a type of segregation in Brazil. did they have so few black parliamentarians?” she says.
According to Neris, in the early 1970s, the Brazilian black movement entered a claiming phase, with a greater understanding of racial inequalities and understanding the State as responsible for solving them, while its cultural manifestations were repressed by the military dictatorship. At the end of the decade, in 1978, the MNU (Unified Black Movement) appeared.
With the return of multipartyism, the movement then moves closer to the progressive camp and to more leftist parties, such as PT and PDT, raising multiple demands during the Constituent Assembly, Neris points out, and with a close dialogue with parliamentarians — Lélia Gonzalez, intellectual and militant, she was an advisor to Benedita.
“We influenced, at that time, the whites, so that the whites could be with us. It was a series of demands from the black movement that we absorbed and managed to introduce into the Brazilian Constitution”, says Benedita.
The advance in the legislation on racism is considered by the remaining members of the bench —Caó died in 2018, at the age of 76 — one of the great achievements of the group. In the new Constitution, racism was included as a non-bailable and imprescriptible crime, subject to the penalty of imprisonment, and the Caó Law was approved in 1989.
“Without this bench, the discussion would take place with much more difficulty during the constituent process or in a much more impoverished way”, evaluates Natália Neris.
Even with the two mostly white Houses, after 34 years, the specialist observes that the number of projects aimed at racial issues has grown with each new legislature in Congress.
Porto Alegre, the capital where Black Consciousness Day was created 50 years ago, won a Black Bench in the City Council in the 2020 elections.
“The new Constitution only came out because of the struggle for democracy, against the dictatorship. It was written under this mantle and under it we achieved many victories. These victories were not complete because they needed to be regulated and the post-Constituent forces, conservative, if they articulated and did not allow them to be implemented as they should have been. At that time, progress was made, but they managed to stop,” says Edmilson.
Benedita, who in the years in public life since the Constituent Assembly received offenses written on toilet paper and heard racist nicknames, especially when defending the quota system, says that, without a racial focus in the discussions, Brazil will go nowhere.
”The Constituent Assembly was a meeting between Brazil and itself. If the Constitution was not the way we would like it is because the representation of other sectors was in the minority and you started to work on what was strategic and priority to trigger later, as we did , other policies like affirmative policies,” she says.
Paim, who has been in the Senate since 2003, says that, when he discusses projects linked to racial issues, he still hears: “Here comes Paim again with this issue of black people.” Looking back, he says he thinks the overall picture has changed little in terms of legislation, despite some advances.
“Democracy with racism doesn’t exist. Talking about the racial issue, for many people was a lot, because it remembers the past, and many people don’t want to talk. But you have to talk. It’s that story, when you have a wound, you have to treat it.”