Religious Racism: An Overlooked Form of Anti-Black Prejudice

Danielle Boaz

Last August, DECRADI (a specialized police force in Rio de Janeiro that handles crimes of religious and racial intolerance) announced that since the beginning of 2019, Evangelized drug traffickers had threatened, invaded, deprecated or completely destroyed at least 200 hundred Afro-Brazilian religious temples (“terreiros”). In one March 2019 incident, for example, traffickers jumped over the fence surrounding a terreiro in the city of Nova Iguaçu, destroyed the Afro-Brazilian shrines inside, evicted the owners, and used the space as their own headquarters.  Later, in July 2019, traffickers invaded a terreiro belonging to an 84-year-old mãe de santo (Candomblé priestess) in the city of Duque de Caixas and held the elderly religious leader at gunpoint while they forced her to destroy her own shrines. Before the traffickers left, they set the remnants of the temple on fire.

These and other 2019 attacks are parts of a larger wave of intolerance against Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda that has been escalating since the start of the 21st century. Through a human rights hotline known as “Dial 100,” Brazil’s federal government documented at least 660 acts of intolerance against these faiths between 2011 and 2018. Although officially comprising less than 1% of the population of Brazil, devotees of Afro-Brazilian religions average over 50% of all known victims of religious intolerance in this report and, in recent years, have often comprised nearly two-thirds of all known victims.

Expand the legend in the upper right corner to sort by date and learn more about each incident. Source: www.religiousracism.org/brazil

Adherents of Afro-Brazilian religions often describe the rampant discrimination they experience as “religious racism.” I argue the use of this terminology to describe intolerance against Afro-Brazilian religions highlights a component of anti-black discrimination that is severely understudied and often overlooked. In this essay, I will discuss how intolerance against Afro-Brazilian and other African-based religions is best understood as a form of racism.

The history of discrimination against African faiths was also fueled by the ability of religious leaders to mobilize enslaved persons in rebellions.

First, prejudice against African-based religions is deeply connected to slavery. For centuries, Europeans attempted to justify their subjugation and enslavement of African peoples by arguing that they were introducing enslaved Africans to Christianity. To support the idea that slavery was saving Africans from “paganism,” Europeans depicted African religions as primitive and evil. Ironically, this argument continues to resurface in the 21st century. In 2018, Florida State Representative Kimberly Daniels publicly stated that she was grateful for slavery because without it, she “might be somewhere in Africa worshiping a tree.”

The history of discrimination against African faiths was also fueled by the ability of religious leaders to mobilize enslaved persons in rebellions. When Pat Robertson famously blamed the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed hundreds of thousands of people on their ancestors making a “pact with the devil,” he was referring to a Vodou ceremony that allegedly preceded the slave rebellion that freed the colony from French rule. While scholars debate whether this ceremony actually occurred, it is without question that African priests encouraged and led various acts of resistance and rebellion against slavery throughout the Americas.

Unwilling to admit that Africans were rising up against the brutal conditions of slavery itself, plantation owners and other colonists often argued that enslaved persons were tricked or coerced into rebelling by “devil worshipers” and “witch-doctors.” Across the Americas, they passed laws prohibiting African religious practices. Thus, it was to protect and justify slavery that discrimination against these religions began. It is due to prejudices from this era that African-derived religions like Vodou, Santeria and Candomblé remain stereotyped as “devil worship,” though these religions have no notion of an ultimate evil that is analogous to the Christian devil and their ceremonies often focus on community, balance, and healing.

Racism also explains the lack of knowledge or concern for the rights of devotees of African-derived religions in the present day. Despite many sensational incidents over the last few years, including the stoning of an 11-year-old Candomblé devotee in 2015, these stories rarely make international news. Although people across the globe grieved when part of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire and donated millions to its restoration, most people likely never even heard about the two Afro-Brazilian terreiros scorched by arsonists in the Federal District on Sept 12, 2015, or the more than 30 temples that intolerant persons destroyed in Rio de Janeiro in September of 2017.

Public ignorance about the escalating violence in 2019 further proves this point. If drug trafficking gangs in Brazil had systematically invaded dozens of Christian churches, held pastors at gunpoint while ordering them to overturn their own pews or pulpits, torn the crosses off their necks, and then torched the buildings, the entire world would know about it. If these traffickers had threatened 200 synagogues in Rio de Janeiro, restricting the function of some and forcing the closure of others, global communities would be raising concerns about the genocide of Jewish people in Brazil. But the targets of these attacks are African religions and, like many things derived from the African continent, most people know and care little about them.

Racism also explains the lack of knowledge or concern for the rights of devotees of African-derived religions in the present day.

“Religious racism” is also a salient framework for understanding these attacks because even adherents of Afro-Brazilian traditions who haven’t experienced the trauma of having their places of worship invaded by armed gunmen or burned by arsonists have endured forms of religious intolerance that bear the hallmarks of classic racism. Devotees of Afro-Brazilian religions have been barred from entering public buses, kicked out of public-school classrooms, and cursed in supermarkets. Intolerant persons have scrawled graffiti on the walls of Afro-Brazilian temples, telling devotees that their kind is not wanted in the community and that they should take their “devil worship” elsewhere.  Vandals have defaced famous Afro-Brazilian statues in Pelourinho and Dique do Tororó in Salvador, seemingly trying to erase any public record of the role that black Brazilians and their religions have played in building the nation. Prejudiced persons have sent threatening letters to Afro-Brazilian religious leaders, forecasting the death of their worshipers and arguing that blacks should still be slaves.  One Candomblé devotee in the state of Santa Catarina even found a poster on a pole outside his apartment that featured a hooded KKK figure and said: “Black, communist, anti-fascist and macumbeiro (sorcerer), we are watching you.” 

Finally, the classification of this rising intolerance against Afro-Brazilian faiths as a type of racism helps explain its broader context. Just as many have argued that the election of a bi-racial president and other perceived advancements of racial minorities contributed to the recent resurgence of white nationalism in the United States, one can understand religious racism in Brazil, in part, as a backlash against recent policies creating protections for persons of African descent. For instance, in 2003, Brazil implemented some of the world’s most advanced legislation requiring the teaching of the history and culture of people of African descent at every level of education. In 2010, Afro-Brazilians (people who self-identify as “brown” or “black”) comprised more than 50% of the national population for the first time in recent history. Two years later, in 2012, Brazil implemented quotas in higher education, creating a mandatory framework to increase the presence of racial minorities. Thus, barring Afro-Brazilian devotees from classrooms, protesting religious materials in the curriculum, destroying statues, and even evicting devotees from entire communities can be understood, in part, as a push-back against the increased presence of black people and black culture in the population and institutions of the nation.

For all of the above reasons, when we think about human rights and the struggles that people of African descent have yet to overcome, we must not only seek to break down economic, social, structural, and other recognized elements of racism. We must also seek to eradicate the deeply ingrained religious biases and increasingly common acts of intolerance that permeate American societies, which Brazilians have aptly named “religious racism.”

 If you would like to learn more about religious racism in Brazil, visit www.religiousracism.org/brazil for a report and interactive maps charting 300 cases of intolerance over the last 20 years, including those mentioned above. You can also view Dr. Boaz’s recent lecture at 17th Annual Africana Studies Symposium in 2019: “Religious Racism in Brazil.”


Dr. Danielle N. Boaz is a Stuart Hall fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University and an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is also the inaugural chair of the International Commission to Combat Religious Racism.  She can be contacted at dboaz@uncc.edu.


Recommended Citation

Boaz, Danielle. “Religious Racism: An Overlooked Form of Anti-Black Prejudice.” Canopy Forum, March 5, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/03/05/religious-racism-an-overlooked-form-of-anti-black-prejudice-by-danielle-boaz/