Welcome Back: How JAPER Becomes Real for the People in Brazil and the US

Representatives of Brazil and the United States, two countries that struggle with deeply rooted and continually pervasive structural racism, announced in May the restart of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Action Plan to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Discrimination and Promote Equality (JAPER). 

This agreement, consolidated as a result of an important articulation with the Black movements from both countries, is an important step forward in the struggle for multi-racial democracy that both U.S. President Joe Biden and Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have prioritized since assuming office.  

What’s more, the lead negotiators, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Brazil’s Minister of Racial Equality Anielle Franco, are Black, demonstrating that inclusion at the highest political levels delivers outcomes for marginalized people. Prior to her leadership at the Ministry, Franco co-founded Instituto Marielle Franco, a non-profit organization created by the family of the Brazilian politician and human rights activist after her killing in March 2018 (where one of us now serves as executive director). 

However, inking a deal is not enough. The process of development of the plan of work and indicators of this agreement and similar efforts must continue to include the leadership of impacted communities and civil society, not only to secure effective civic engagement but also to allow accountability practices and a diligent monitoring of the advancements of its actions. Further, implementation of this deal cannot be relegated only to ministries or departments focused on equality; the entire government needs to assume ownership to begin the process of unwinding centuries of institutionalized anti-Black violence.  

What Is JAPER?

Brazil and the United States first agreed to JAPER in March 2008. This initiative was the first ever bilateral agreement to specifically target racism. The agreement catalyzed collaboration between policy experts in both countries, civil society, and the private sector to address the widespread societal disparities and unequal access that Black Americans and Black Brazilians face on a daily basis. 

 During the first years of JAPER, the United States and Brazil formed an alliance between U.S. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Brazilian universities. The goal was to establish an HBCU network, which would facilitate exchange and education programs for Black students from both countries to learn more about the history of racism and human rights. 

To foster more equitable access to healthcare, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) participated in reciprocal exchanges, including hosting Brazilian officials from the Ministry of Health and for site visits in Atlanta, Chicago, and other American cities to share how U.S. policies and programs address racial disparities in health. 

JAPER’s success paved the way for the United States to sign a similar agreement with Colombia in 2011. Further, those involved in implementation in Brazil and Colombia forged their own bilateral connections to synergize advancement of racial justice, including new partnerships emerging from a more than $900,000 State Department grant program for civil society. Unfortunately, U.S. President Donald Trump, who held office 2017 to 2021, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who held office from 2019 to 2022, did not prioritize implementing the initiatives, so current administrations have sought political reaffirmation to restore focused implementation.

Why We Still Need JAPER

Since the launch of JAPER, some progress has been made in addressing the omnipresent structural racism in both the United States and Brazil. But, of course, racial discrimination and inequity persist, especially in the criminal legal systems. In the United States, for example, Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white Americans. 

In Brazil, not only is the murder rate for Black people three times higher than for non-Black people, but socioeconomic disparities, climate change, and lack of political representation are challenges that profoundly affect Black populations (particularly women).

As JAPER is reactivated, this initiative must restart its important work in bringing Black students together and reprioritizing the improvement of access to healthcare for Black Americans and Black Brazilians. It must also transcend these priorities to leverage this initiative for increased financing for Black-owned businesses and to structure socio-economic policies aimed at overcoming racial disparities and expanding political inclusion, as well as taking a closer look at the disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic on Black communities in both countries. 

This is also a key moment for both the United States and Brazil to not only commit enough to the budget to make plans at federal level come true, but also have proper coordination of JAPER implementation at the state and local levels. While many state and local leaders in both countries have challenging records in the implementation of policies that have disproportionately impacted Black communities—be it forced evictions for mega-events related projects or policing policies that maintain systems of state-perpetrated violence, illuminated in the murders of Breonna Taylor and countless others in the United States—articulation at the subnational level should be a priority, as this is where actions that have the most immediate effect on peoples’ lives can be more readily undertaken. 

A yet-to-be-tested example is the recently launched Anti-Racist Cities Network, led by Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes (who has a spotty record himself). Should this network prove to be more than an exercise in reputational diplomacy for municipal leaders, by offering mechanisms for political accountability and intentional engagement with affected communities and civil society in the design and implementation of any anti-racist policies, it could become an effective vehicle to materialize the spirit of JAPER beyond the borders of the two countries.

The Future for Impacted Communities

 For JAPER to succeed, members of both the U.S. and Brazilian Congresses must embrace JAPER while increasing funding for implementation. Leaders in the U.S. Senate have consistently demanded more investment in JAPER and other agreements that should be appropriated. 

What’s more, the Biden administration could empower Desirée Cormier Smith, the U.S. State Department’s first Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice, to reinvigorate the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan for Racial and Ethnic Equality, as well as identify other countries where similar bilateral agreements can be launched. 

The Lula administration also needs to continue to create more space for the racial justice agenda in foreign policy strategies and to empower the leadership of Franco, as Minister of Racial Equality, in cooperation agreements to tackle racism and racial discrimination with countries like Portugal and Spain, acknowledging the key role these countries played in the enslavement process in Latin America. 

The legacy of discrimination endured by Black communities in the United States and Brazil will only be remedied if their respective governments truly consult with local communities, advocacy groups, and human rights defenders.    

Those leaders will be the ones who vocally push for these political commitments to be tailored to the true needs of Black communities and fully implemented by the State, becoming real to the people.

IMAGE: (L) People protest against the killing of 24-year-old Congolese refugee Moise Kabagambe at the site of his death in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on February 5, 2022 (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images); (R) Protesters attend a rally for Black teen Ralph Yarl in front of U.S. District Court on April 18, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Chase Castor/Getty Images)

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