Joaquim Barbosa: Brazilian protesters' most inspiring ally

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support in its summer fundraiser today for as little as $1 per month!

When participants in the recent Brazilian protests were polled on who would be their choice for the country's next president, a striking pick was Joaquim Barbosa, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Brazil. A recent New York Times article notes that Barbosa has acted as one of the protesters' strongest allies: he has been the key force behind recent legal decisions to preserve affirmative action, legalize same-sex marriage and courageously pursue corrupt politicians. What is all the more remarkable is that he is the court's first and only justice of African descent.

The history of African-Brazilians is one that is rarely discussed in North America. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database tells us that between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million slaves were brought to the Americas. While 450,000 Africans were taken to the United States, 4.8 million were transported to Brazil, making the country the single largest recipient of slaves in the world. According to Henry Louis Gates' Black in Latin America (New York University Press 2011), there were obvious geographic and economic reasons for this. Brazilian ports were closer to West Africa than were those of Caribbean and English colonies. The state of Bahia in Brazil possessed soil that was well suited for sugar production, which was slave-driven, and sugar was one of the era's most important commodities. Not surprisingly, Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to legally abolish slavery, doing so in 1888. Today, over half of Brazil, 97 million Brazilians, have significant African genetic and cultural history. Despite their population, black Brazilians -- like those of similar descent in North America and the European Union -- are disproportionately poor, uneducated and unemployed. The legacy of slavery continues to deploy its nefarious sorcery not only in North America and Europe but also in South America's largest country. Against the background of so much lasting injustice, it is all the more inspiring to see one of Africa's modern descendants in Brazil rise to the most important position on the country's highest court.

The story of Chief Justice Barbosa is a rags-to-riches tale. The New York Times tells us that as a young man Barbosa worked as a janitor in a courtroom. He eventually pursued a law degree at the University of Brasília and later a doctorate of law at Pantheon-Assas University in Paris. He is now one of the most popular figures in his country: one of this year's most favoured Carnival masks was his likeness. A question for the idealistic: how did Barbosa learn to transform and transfigure the race, gender and class obstacles that he faced into opportunities for the development of knowledge, skill and a truculent conscience? Oppression does not inevitably make one a better person; it can also make people more bitter, disheartened, self-interested and furious with the world around them. How can Barbosa's talent be replicated in order to build leadership among society's various subordinated populations? Hopefully his commitment to excellence and social justice will inspire those outside Brazil as much as those inside the country.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo: Jonas Pereira/Agência Senado/flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.