As rumors swirl around the possibility of Kamala Harris or Kristen Gillibrand eyeing the prospect of becoming the first female president, truly, any woman interested in running for office would be wise to turn her attention to ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Had Hillary Clinton paid attention to the Brazilian general election of 2014 and the political coup of 2016 that removed Rousseff from the presidency, she could have perhaps predicted, if not prevented, her loss in the November election.

Black anti-racism activists — many of whom are women — never put all their faith in female leadership. Eighty-eight percent of blacks may have voted for Clinton, while across the majority black and indigenous regions of Brazil such as Bahia and Pernambuco, votes for Rousseff reached 80% in the 2014 elections but…

The overwhelming black support for these women shouldn’t obscure the fact that they both faced a tremendous amount of criticism from feminist and anti-racism/anti-genocide activists.

Both women lacked what Kimberlé Crenshaw calls “the urgency of intersectionality,” or the willingness to look seriously at the multiple dimensions of our experiences with marginalization, oppression, and violence.

Representing the then ruling Workers’ Party, Rousseff was elected in 2010 as the first woman president of Brazil. She added to the small roster of women in Latin America who have won general presidential elections: Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Argentina), Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Mireya Morosco (Panama), Rosalia Arteaga (Ecuador), Violeta Chamorro (Nicaragua).

As an anthropologist, I have centered my research and scholarship over the past almost 20 years on black women-led social movements in Brazil and recently served on the Latin American Studies Association delegation to investigate the impeachment of President Rousseff. Some might balk at the idea of a comparison between Rousseff and Clinton, or between Brazil and the United States. Blacks comprise 52% of the Brazilian population while US blacks constitute a racial minority at 12%. Yet, from W.E.B DuBois to Angela Gilliam to Melissa Nobles, other African-American scholars have been making the connection between Brazil and the United States, especially to advance a hemispheric understanding of gendered racism and anti-racism politics.

One of the most significant victories of the Workers’ Party’s social democratic project in Brazil over the past 13 years has been reducing poverty levels through programs such as the Bolsa Família (cash grants to female heads of household) and the Minha Casa Minha Vida (a large-scale public housing project).

Rousseff herself acknowledged publicly that “the face of poverty is black and a woman.”

Where she lost black women supporters, especially during the impeachment process when she needed it most, was with the government’s nonexistent efforts to eliminate the state-sanctioned anti-black genocide taking place in Brazil. Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum has been very critical of Rousseff turning a blind eye to the indigenous “ethnocide” taking place in the Amazonian region, specifically the “monstrous” construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on indigenous territories, mass displacements, murders of environmental and land rights activists, infant malnutrition, and cultural extermination.

The recent Amnesty International report on human rights in Brazil confirms what black men and women have consistently expressed is the most urgent problem they are facing today. According to the report, “young people and black men, mainly those living in favelas and other marginalized communities, were disproportionately targeted with violence by law enforcement officials.” Moreover, the Chamber of Deputies recently approved a constitutional amendment to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to be prosecuted as adults, the country has the fifth highest rate of female homicides, and transsexuals are murdered at a stunning rate.

The main critique of both Rousseff and Clinton is that these issues of femicide and genocide were not central in their political understanding and practice of democracy and inclusive citizenship.

Black grassroots activists, such as those fighting against militarized police violence, will need to run for office if only to broaden the political discussion on equality in this country. As Shirley Chisholm stated, “in the end, anti-black anti-female and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism.”

Black Brazilian activist Lélia Gonzalez warned leftist politicians in 1991, “the democratic attitude cannot not deny the racial question, diluting it to a ‘class struggle’.”

President Rousseff has more recently taught the future female president of the United States that it doesn’t matter if she decides to wear pantsuits or to sport an executive bob, speak loudly or in a soft voice, she will have to make anti-racism a central component of the social justice agenda if she wants to be elected and stay in office.

Clinton lost the election precisely because of her perceived power and privilege that women leaders like Rousseff worked hard to dismantle. With an inadequate racial justice agenda in the social democratic project, Rousseff could not mobilize mass support to keep the Workers’ Party in the presidency. Being a woman attentive to class disparities is not enough, and the first woman president of the United States has to articulate a political project that sufficiently grapples with the intersectional nature of inequality. Issues such as state-sanctioned violence and mass incarceration as well as pay equity and public education – profoundly shaped by race, gender, class, and sexuality – will need urgent attention in terms of ideological and public policy work.


Keisha-Khan Y. Perry, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University where she teaches and writes about race, gender, and black politics in the Americas. She is the author of “Black Women against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil,” and is a Public Voices Fellow.


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