Brazilians see themselves in mixed-race Obama

SAO PAULO Tue Jun 10, 2008 1:50pm EDT

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during a Chicago 2016 Olympics rally in Chicago June 6, 2008. REUTERS/John Gress

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during a Chicago 2016 Olympics rally in Chicago June 6, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/John Gress

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SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Barack Obama's campaign for the U.S. presidency has generated huge interest in Brazil, a country whose African heritage is a key part of its identity but where many blacks still struggle to progress in society.

Democrat contender Obama would be the United States' first African-American president should he defeat Republican John McCain in November's election.

Obama's progress has been avidly debated in Brazil, from student refectories to newspaper columns. His portrait was on the front cover of this week's Veja magazine, a leading Brazilian news weekly, along with a 10-page report.

"Obama looks like my father," singer Caetano Veloso said in an interview with Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. "He's a mulatto that's looks like someone from Santo Amaro (Veloso's hometown). I've heard he's said he looks like a Brazilian."

The interest in Obama highlights different notions of race in Brazil and the United States -- who have a shared history of slavery -- and also Brazil's own racial fault lines.

Brazil boasts of being a racial democracy. Many people have African blood, including internationally famed musicians and athletes, and African elements are ingrained in the national culture from samba to cooking.

But in reality, few Afro-Brazilians are in the top ranks of politics and business. Blacks count for many of the poor in this country of 185 million people, which has one world's biggest income disparities. Police harassment of young black men is common.

"There are few racists in Brazil but there is racism," said Andre Jenszky, a lawyer at the Sao Paulo office of a Wall Street firm. "Racism is sort of casual and everyday."

To many Brazilians, Obama, the son of a white American woman and a black Kenyan, is not quite black anyway.

Historically, segregation and the "one drop" of blood rule left little room for racial ambiguity in the United States, where one is either black or white.

In Brazil, where slavery was finally abolished only in 1888, questions of race and racism are more complex.

Many people here refer to Obama as a mulatto -- a term used to describe people of mixed ancestry. It is uncommon to call someone mulatto in post-slavery United States but the description is popular in Brazil's melting pot.

CHANGE IN IDENTITY

Obama, who often speaks about his multicultural background, is perhaps the first U.S. political figure to adhere to a similar idea of race.

"Obama symbolizes a change in the construction of black identity," John Stanfield, a professor of African-American Studies at the University of Indiana, said at a recent talk on "The Barack Obama Phenomenon" at a Sao Paulo cultural foundation.

He believes Obama may be at the forefront of a new way of thinking about race in the United States.

"There are a growing number of people identifying as something else. Very Brazilian in certain respects."

Leo Imamura, a 45-year-old consultant, said he did not consider Obama to be black.

But still, "having a black president would give the United States a different vision. Obama has a lot of charisma, and that type of charisma is lacking in international politics."

Despite the general goodwill, some are skeptical about what the election of a new U.S. president would mean for them.

Although allies, Brazil and the United States have a number of differences from trade to how to deal with leftist leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Obama has yet to spell out a detailed vision for U.S. policy in Latin America, a region that current U.S. President George W. Bush is widely viewed as having paid too little attention to.

(Reporting by Stephanie Beasley; Editing by Angus MacSwan and David Wiessler)

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