Matters of Life and Death: Racism and the Global Struggle for Black Lives

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Sharrelle Barber, left, traveled to Brazil to research global structural racism, where she met activist and politician Marielle Franco, right.
Sharrelle Barber, left, traveled to Brazil to research global structural racism, where she met activist and politician Marielle Franco, right.

Matters of Life and Death: Racism and the Global Struggle for Black Lives

We are dying, our people are dying...

—Marielle Franco speaking to a group of Black Women at Casa Das Pretas about the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro’s poor, Black communities, March 14, 2018

September 14, 2018: Sharrelle Barber, ScD, MPH

As a social epidemiologist who examines the links between structural racism and racial health inequalities, I am particularly concerned about the lives (often truncated) and deaths (too often, violent) of Black women and men. Though my passion and commitment to this work is rooted in my identity as a Black woman born and raised in the South, the renewed urgency in explicitly examining racism cannot be divorced from the violent and unjust deaths that have punctuated my career in academia and the resulting activism sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement which began five years ago. Nor can it be separated from leaders in the public health and medical community—in particular Black women like Dr. Camara Jones, Dr. Chandra Ford, Dr. Mindy Fullilove, and Dr. Mary Bassett—who have challenged us to name racism as a cause of poor health and a fundamental driver of racial inequalities in morbidity and mortality in the United States. As Dr. Bassett adeptly reminds us, the way we “frame a problem is inextricable from how we solve it.” And as my colleague and friend Dr. Zinzi Bailey notes in a recent publication in The Lancet, “without a vision of health equity and the commitment to tackle structural racism, health inequities will persist, thwarting efforts to eliminate disparities and improve the health of all groups…”

About two years ago, I began research that applied this critical lens to Brazil, recognizing that the fight against racism and the struggle for Black Lives is a global one. Extending the scope of my research to Brazil was not far-fetched; rather, it was a logical expansion rooted in striking parallels I observed between the two contexts. Like the U.S., Brazil’s history is rooted in the vicious and violent legacy of slavery, as Portuguese colonizers imported an estimated five million west and central Africans as slaves during its nearly 300-year history in the country, 10 times the number imported by the United States. Brazil was also the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888, and according to data from the 2010 census, has the largest African-descended population outside the continent of Africa. And although mainstream narratives perpetuate the myth of  a “racial democracy” in Brazil, racism and discrimination in the country run deep and manifest in systems and structures of power and privilege that maintain the marginalized status of individuals of African descent.

My recent collaborative work examining residential segregation—one of the most visible manifestations of structural racism—and its links to chronic disease using data from the Brazilian Longitudinal Study of Adult Health (ELSA-Brasil) was my first attempt at demonstrating, empirically, how racism is embodied in Brazil. But it was on March 14, 2018 that I became keenly aware that just like the United States, racism in Brazil can be violent. And deadly.

At the suggestion of a colleague, I attended an event in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, entitled “Young Black Women Moving Power Structures” as part of the 21 Days Against Racism Campaign taking place across several cities in Brazil. My colleague encouraged me to attend the event to deepen my understanding of grassroots, anti-racist activism in Rio and to meet Marielle Franco, an encounter that would prove to be transformative.

Marielle Franco was a Black, queer, feminist human rights activist born and raised in the Maré favela, located in Rio’s North Zone. In 2016, she was voted into local office, receiving the fifth highest vote count out of 51 city councilors elected that year. Marielle was the only Black person on the Rio city council and was part of the mere 5% of Black and Indigenous women occupying seats of power in local government in Brazil. Marielle’s political platform was rooted in the longstanding legacy of Black feminist activism in Brazil and reflected an ethic that valued the lives of those who have, quite literally, been forced to the margins of Brazilian society: Blacks, women, the poor, and individuals who identify as LGBTQ+).

Marielle was also very critical of Brazil’s public security policies, which she argued served to “control and rebuke” Black and poor communities and fuel Brazil’s growing prison industrial complex. Marielle’s denouncement of state-sanctioned violence echoed the activism against Black Genocide in Brazil that spans decades and, in its contemporary form, is embodied in Vidas Negras, Brazil’s grassroots movement for Black Lives. As a sociologist with training from one of the most prestigious institutions in Brazil—Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, she brought a critical analysis to the issue and compiled empirical data to illustrate that “Racism is Not an Opinion”:

Marielle’s policy and advocacy weren’t just about the numbers.  During work early in her career with the Human Rights Commission in the Rio de Janeiro state legislature, Marielle routinely met with and advocated for the families of victims of police brutality. She understood, first-hand, the gut-wrenching reality of losing a loved one to senseless violence and was committed to using her voice and her platform to make a difference. In February 2018, her public critique of state-sanctioned violence intensified when the federal government implemented an intervention that put military forces in charge of local police in Rio. In her very vocal public denouncement of the federal intervention, she made sure the names and faces directly affected were known. In an op-ed she submitted to Jornal do Brasil on the morning of March 14, she wrote a scathing synopsis and critique of the intervention and dared to “say the names” of Black women who had been killed due to what she described as a “senseless war”: Alba Valéria Machado. Natalina da Conceição. Janaína da Silva Oliveira. Tainá dos Santos.

She went on to say that

“Black women living on the peripheries lose their children to this deadly viciousness… And the deaths have a consistent racial identity, social class, and neighborhood of dwelling”.

Furthermore, she asserted that “violence” is a direct by-product of entrenched inequalities, and cannot be solved with weapons, but with policy:

“Without a doubt, public security should no longer be pursued with weapons, but with public policy in all areas: health, education, culture, and the creation of jobs and income.”

A poster for Marielle’s March 14th Casa Das Pretas advocacy event.
A poster for Marielle’s March 14th Casa Das Pretas advocacy event.

At the gathering of young Black Women on March 14, Marielle called attention to the ongoing violence. But like the fierce and empowering leader she was, she viewed those gathered in the room as the embodiment of the power, strength, and resistance necessary to bring about radical change, asserting that it was necessary for Black Women to “occupy every place with our bodies.” Only then would Black lives, women’s lives, poor lives, and queer lives truly matter.

I left the event inspired and in awe of Marielle and the courageous Black Women I encountered at Casa Das Pretas. But less than an hour later, the life was literally sucked out of me, when I received the news that four bullets to the head in a targeted political assassination had taken her life, and the life of her driver Anderson Gomes.

To say the least, this moment changed me. It shook me to my core. But just like the senseless deaths of Sandra, Charleena, Nia, and countless other Black women, Marielle’s death ignited in me an even deeper commitment to continuing my research examining structural racism and health inequalities both domestically and abroad. For me, this means naming and challenging racism in our scientific and public discourse, using data to make the invisible visible, mobilizing data and research for action and advocacy, and ensuring that our dialogue about racism, health inequalities, and the struggle for Black Lives is, in fact, a global one . For me, this work has quite literally become a Matter of Life and Death.


Today, September 14, 2018, marks the 6-month anniversary of Marielle Franco’s assassination.

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