This Friday was Zumbi day in Brazil, a celebration of black consciousness and of Zumbi dos Palmares, the slave who organized blacks against Portuguese oppression in 17th century Pernambuco.

Brazil received more African slaves than any other nation and it was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888. Race, and racism, remains a touchy subject here.

Many Brazilians believe they live in a racial democracy and that the country’s widespread inequalities are social and economic rather than racial. They believe that blacks are worse off than whites not because of their skin colour but because they tend to be poorer and less well-educated. Racism is downplayed here because it is not institutionalised, as it was in say the US or South Africa.

But dozens of studies have undermined those theories. A report entitled ‘Gender and Ethnic Wage Gaps in Latin America’ published last month by the Inter American Development Bank was clear: “In countries like Brazil where non-minorities are as poorly educated as minorities, the gap cannot be explained by education.”

My colleague Sara Lana Miller and I wrote more extensively about this report in this Christian Science Monitor story.

Brazilian studies have gone even further. The union-linked Departamento Intersindical de Estatística e Estudos Socioeconômicos (Dieese) last week said that while the inequalities between blacks and whites in the workplace (one area that is easiest to quantify) are closing slowly, white workers work on average between one and two hours less each week than black workers and they are more likely to get paid benefits.

Blacks in Belo Horizonte (the study was city specific) earn an average of 5.03 reais an hour, while whites earn 8.80 reais an hour. In Salvador, Brazil’s blackest city, blacks earn less than half what whites do. In São Paulo, only 5 % of black workers hold management positions, compared to 17.4 % of whites. Related stories can be found here in Portuguese on the government’s news agency as well as on the Dieese web site.

The studies all confirm that inequality is alive and well in Brazil. The gap between blacks and whites is closing, but it is closing slowly. Too slowly. Affirmative action programs are needed and are in effect in some universities. But they are timid and the government has failed to take a more pro-active position. More about this in later posts.