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New maps illustrate stark racial segregation in Brazil’s cities

(Credit: Hugo Nicolau Barbosa de Gusmão)

A new series of maps and infographics depict the geography and racial distribution of Rio de Janeiro and other cities in Brazil. The maps were developed by São Paulo geography student Hugo Nicolau Barbosa de Gusmão, who drew inspiration from similar maps of racial segregation in U.S. cities. Barbosa’s maps, which categorize racial distribution by white, black or mixed race populations, illustrate the stark racial divide that characterizes many urban areas of Brazil.

The findings do not come as much of a surprise. The maps add to an ongoing conversation in Brazil about race, inequality and criminal justice issues. According to Global Post, young black men are frequently killed in numbers disproportionate to other racial groups by police officers in Rio de Janeiro. But racial issues are seldom discussed, much less addressed, among policymakers and politicians in Brazil.

“I wanted these maps to be available because here in Brazil there’s a lot of talk about how there isn’t any racism,” Barbosa said to Global Post. “That’s wrong, and I think these maps are a good visualization of that.”

To create the maps, Barbosa pulled data from the federal statistics agency’s 2010 census, which revealed that whites in Brazil had for the first time become the minority. It showed that 48 percent of Brazilians nationwide identified as white (in Portuguese, ‘branco’), while just more than 50 percent of the country’s population identified as either black (also known as ‘preto’), or mixed race (‘pardo’).

Ivonete Carvalho, from the government’s racial equality ministry, attributed the increase in black Brazilians to a willingness to self-declare as black or Afro-Brazilian. This finding from the census was a victory for race campaigners, according to The Guardian, but came with another, harsher reality that Brazil’s white and non-white populations are still woefully divided.

In terms of racial segregation, Rio is an extreme example, but it does illustrate the divisions that exist between caucasians and other races in some of Brazil’s cities. In the map below (published on Barbosa’s blog, Desigualdades Espaciais, or ‘Spacial Inequalities’), brancos (whites) are mapped in blue, pardos (mixed race) are shown in green, while pretos (blacks) are shown in red.

map1 rio

(Credit: Hugo Nicolau Barbosa de Gusmão)

The population of black and mixed race people are distributed throughout the north and west zones of the city, with pockets of concentration in hillside favelas, typically low-income neighborhoods. These communities are frequently discriminated against by police and policymakers, as seen in the recent policy to prevent black youth from visiting the affluent, beachside neighborhoods of the south zone (note the intense concentration of blue in the bottom right corner of the map).

Taking a closer look at Rio’s south zone provides an even clearer example of one of the most segregated neighborhoods in Brazil’s major cities. Whites are a vast majority along the beaches, while black and mixed race groups are scarcely represented. Although 50 percent of Rio’s population is black or mixed-race, according to Rio on Watch, Barbosa found that the south zone is 80 percent white.

map 2 rio

(Credit: Hugo Nicolau Barbosa de Gusmão)

But racial segregation and social issues in the context of race are still seldom addressed in Brazil. In an effort to promote discussion about these important racial and social issues, activists in Brazil are fighting to draw attention to problems like police-involved killings of young black Brazilian men, according to Global Post.

“The historical relationship between the police and black communities is marked by extreme violence, criminalization and constant human rights violations,” said activist Ana Luiza Monteiro in an email interview with Latin America News Dispatch. “There is a war against the black and the poorest areas in Brazil.”

Today’s activists for racial equality acknowledge the long road ahead for social reform in Brazil, but stress that breaking the silence about the system of racism will be a critical first step toward positive change.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at