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Brazil's president faces increasing pressure to nominate a Black female justice

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

In Brazil, there is mounting pressure on President Lula da Silva to nominate a Black female justice to the Supreme Court. Women make up over half the population, and over half the country's population is Black, but it has never had a Black woman on the Supreme Court. Campaigners are now hoping that may change, as Julia Carneiro reports from Rio.

JULIA CARNEIRO, BYLINE: A Black mother and daughter are talking about the future. The mother tells her little girl, you know you can be a Supreme Court justice when you grow up, right? The little girl scratches her head. Like who, mom?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Portuguese).

CARNEIRO: This campaign film is part of a movement putting pressure on President Lula da Silva to nominate Brazil's first-ever Black female justice. Former minister Rosa Weber has just retired, leaving a seat vacant. In its 132 years of history, the court has only ever had three female justices, all white, and three Black people, all men. Currently, it's made up of nine men and one woman, all white.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARNEIRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

CARNEIRO: "I will choose someone in tune with Brazil's interests and expectations who can serve the country and respect society," says President Lula. He says gender and race will not be his criteria. Lula's three preferred candidates are all white men, including the current favorite, Justice Minister Flavio Dino.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Portuguese).

CARNEIRO: Over half of Brazil's population is Black or mixed race, but the higher you go in society, the whiter the faces. In the country's courts, only 15% of judges are Black.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Portuguese).

CARNEIRO: "Supreme Court, we want to see Black women in power," demand these legislators from Brazil's Socialism and Liberty Party. Twenty-five MPs from Lula's coalition signed a letter reinforcing the call. Slavery was abolished in Brazil 135 years ago, they wrote, and today's Supreme Court must reflect society and address this historical gap.

TAINAH PEREIRA: President Lula has been very vocal about racial equality. Beginning from the top is the best option now.

CARNEIRO: Tainah Pereira is political coordinator of Black Women Decide, one of the organizations behind the campaign. Almost 50,000 people have signed its petition calling for Lula to appoint a Black, female justice. And what if it doesn't work?

PEREIRA: I think we lose a historic opportunity of really advancing the debate on justice in Brazil.

CARNEIRO: Lula already had one opportunity to correct the balance earlier this year when another justice retired. Instead, he named his former defense lawyer, Cristiano Zanin, a blow to those who believed Lula's progressive stance would shift the court's balance.

ANA CLAUDIA FARRANHA: (Speaking Portuguese).

CARNEIRO: "He wants to name someone he trusts but doesn't see the strategic opportunity to tackle racial inequality," says Ana Claudia Farranha, a law professor at the University of Brasilia. Campaigners argue that many debates in the Supreme Court have a disproportionate impact on poor, Black Brazilians, like those related to incarceration, drug policies and abortion rights.

FARRANHA: (Speaking Portuguese).

CARNEIRO: "Even if it's a single Black vote," Miss Farranha says, "it can mobilize society and bring new perspectives to national debates."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Portuguese).

CARNEIRO: President Lula is expected to announce his choice in the coming weeks. For many, the hope is that all little girls of color daydreaming about the future could still have a role model to look up to. For NPR News, I'm Julia Carneiro in Rio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julia Carneiro