RIO DE JANEIRO -- Aleixo Joaquim da Silva was working in this city's famed seaside Copacabana neighborhood, far from the slum where he lives, when he was reminded that racism is alive and well.
While refurbishing the service elevator of a high-rise apartment building, da Silva had to ride the elevator reserved for residents to fetch supplies. A white woman entered and, taken aback, ordered him out.
" 'I'm not riding with a black!' she told me. 'The place of blacks is in the service elevator!'" da Silva recalled.
Although black Brazilians have long endured such insults, many are deciding that they have had enough. The 50-year-old reported the woman to state authorities and had her convicted for breaking laws prohibiting discrimination.
It was a small victory for da Silva, but he's part of a growing movement in this country of 190 million people -- it has the world's second-largest black population, behind Nigeria's -- to turn back centuries of pervasive and largely unchallenged racism.
From university classrooms to television airwaves, black Brazilians are fighting for what they say is long-denied space in a society that has kept them on the margins.
They are pushing for two affirmative-action bills in Brazil's Congress that would open up college enrollment and government payrolls to more Brazilians of African descent. Already, many state universities have implemented their own affirmative-action programs.
In 2005, black entertainer José de Paula Neto launched the country's first television station aimed at black audiences, TV da Gente. Meanwhile, hundreds of communities founded more than a century ago by escaped slaves and known as quilombos are winning recognition and federal protections.
And Brazilians are finally discussing race after decades of telling themselves and the rest of the world that the country was free from racism, said Sen. Paulo Paim, author of one of the pending affirmative-action bills.
"The Brazilian elite says this is not a racist country, but if you look at whatever social indicator, you'll see exclusion is endemic," he said. "We want to open up to more Brazilians the legitimate spaces they deserve."
Da Silva said outrage over his treatment in the elevator pushed him to fight back.
"I couldn't let it go, especially since it was done in such a flagrant manner," he said. "It just hurt too much. It hurt my soul. We can't go backward. We can't stay quiet anymore."
The changes mark a dramatic shift in a country that claims more than 90 million people of African descent but looks almost completely white on its TV screens and in its halls of power.
Starting in the 16th century, Portuguese slave traders sent about 5.5 million Africans to Brazil, with more than 3.3 million surviving the journey, according to historians. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the last country in the Americas to do so.
That African legacy is clear in census numbers. About half of Brazilians identified themselves in a 2005 survey as black or pardo, meaning a mix of races but predominantly white and black. Another half identified themselves as white, and less than 1 percent were Asian or indigenous.
Despite their numbers, black Brazilians have long been poorer, less educated, less healthy and less powerful than white Brazilians.
And although Brazilians regularly eat foods and use words that originated in Africa, their history books talk almost exclusively about the deeds of white heroes, said Emanoel Araujo, a renowned black sculptor and the curator of the Afro Brasil Museum in Sao Paulo.
"We need to redo the history of this country," Araujo said, "and work around the premise and the perspective of the African not only as a slave but as the one who changed Brazilian society, the one who constructed Brazilian society, who constructed the wealth of Brazil."
That day of acknowledgment is still far off, and Brazil, a country with one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor in the world, is sharply divided between its whites and non-whites.
Census figures show that pardos and blacks earned about half of what white Brazilians made last year, with the gap actually widening among more educated Brazilians. In comparison, African-Americans (U.S. blacks) earned 62 percent of white American wages in 2004., and more schooling helped blacks approach white incomes.
The U.N. Human Development Index, which measures countries based on health, income and other factors, paints an even worse picture. If measured separately, Brazilian whites would be ranked 44th in the world, on par with oil-rich Kuwait, while its blacks and pardos would be ranked 105th, about the same level as El Salvador.
"I have never seen any evidence that suggests anything other than there's widespread racism in Brazil," said UCLA sociology professor Edward Telles, who studies race in Brazil. "Racial and social inequality are strongly linked."
Jailson de Souza e Silva, who runs a Rio de Janeiro anti-violence advocacy group, said the split is stark in his city's violence-torn slums, where blacks make up the majority of residents. Two-thirds of the country's homicide victims in 2004 were black.
"The objective here is not to preserve life, and hundreds of black men are dying every year," de Souza e Silva said. "Meanwhile, in the rich, white parts of the city, every single death is big news. Our lives clearly don't have equal value."
Da Silva's slum has been paralyzed in recent years by gang-related violence, and its middle-class neighbors have erected gated checkpoints around the slum to stop the killing from spilling into their streets.
"It's another sign of the inequality here," da Silva said while gesturing to the rutted dirt road running by his house. "The government doesn't bother to pave the streets here. We're just totally forgotten."
GAP IN NORTHEAST
The divisions are felt even in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador, where more than three-quarters of the population is black and where African-based culture and religion are the mainstream.
Ivete Sacramento, who became the country's first black president of a major university in 1998, said she is saddened every day when she looks out the balcony of her upper-middle-class apartment at the sprawling slum that sits just a few dozen yards away.
Except for her family and two other households, every resident in her 64-unit apartment tower is white. In the nearby slum, the racial equation is inverted, and white faces are rare. ‘‘No one has any idea that blacks can be anything more than maids," said Sacramento, 54.
‘‘The place of blacks in Brazil is still the place of slaves."
Alberto Borges, a 31-yearold aspiring boxer from the slum, said that just being from his neighborhood is a strike against him.
"If you live in one of these houses, the people outside will call you preto," Borges said, using a word for black Brazilians that many consider derogatory. "If you try to find a job and tell them where you come from, they won't call back."
Despite the disparities, debate about race is rare in Brazil., and problems are more felt than spoken about.
Black Brazilians have never launched a civil-rights movement like that in the United States nor developed national black leaders in the mold of Martin Luther King Jr. or South Africa's Nelson Mandela.
Also non-existent are black civic groups with the power of U.S. institutions such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or financial networks that could spur black entrepreneurship.
Those who do speak out about racial disparities, such as TV da Gente, are accused -- even by some prominent blacks -- of fomenting racial divisions or of outright racism.
‘‘Every time we try to put together a project like this, we're criticized by the government and everyone else who says there is no racism in Brazil," said Hasani Damazio, TV da Gente's director of international programs. "It's clear that race is treated very differently here than in the U.S."
A key difference is that Brazil never imposed legal racial segregation like the United States and South Africa, which meant that black Brazilians didn't have an institutional injustice to rally around.
Black leaders also blame what they describe as decades of self-censorship about race spurred by the "racial democracy'' vision of their country, which long defined Brazilian self-identity.
Preached in the early 20th century by sociologist Gilberto Freyre, the vision depicted a Brazil that was freeing itself of racism and even of the concept of race through pervasive mixing of the races.
Opponents of the pending affirmative-action bills have echoed key points of Freyre's argument, especially those about miscegenation. Census statistics show that about 30 percent of Brazilian households in 2000 were headed by couples from different racial backgrounds -- six times the U.S. ratio.
Ali Kamel, executive director of news for the country's biggest television network, Globo, said Brazilians don't think in terms of white and black, and argued that poverty affects all Brazilians. He blamed a collapse in public education and not racism for social disparities.
"Our big problem in Brazil is poverty, not racial discrimination," Kamel said. "The racism here is at a degree infinitesimally less than in other countries."
Opposition to the affirmative-action bills also has come from some black leaders such as José Carlos Miranda, coordinator of Brazil's Black Socialist Movement, who fear that racebased policies could aggravate racism.
"The worst thing we could do is pass laws that deepen divisions that already exist," Miranda said. "What wounds us the most is class, and the only way to fight racism is to promote more equality."
Other black activists, however, argue that race is the dividing factor and that racial mixing didn't eliminate discrimination against nonwhites.
"The problem of Brazil always was this issue of thinking the mulatto and the pardo are outside of the prejudice issue," Araujo said. ‘‘Yet, when you want to hit the soul of someone, you call him black."
More Brazilians are coming around to Araujo's view, polls show, and the timeworn idea of a multi-hued racial democracy is losing its sway, even as the race debate heats up.
In its place has risen the begrudging admittance of a racially segregated country. A 2003 poll showed that more than 90 percent of Brazilians said racism existed here.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former leftist activist and union leader, is credited with helping to spur the changes in attitudes.
Soon after taking office in 2003, he made race a key issue and appointed Brazil's first black Supreme Court justice, Joaquim Barbosa. Lula da Silva also created a special secretariat for racial equality and launched initiatives such as requiring that Afro-Brazilian history be taught in all primary schools.
Many black leaders are skeptical that the latest changes will have any lasting impact. They point out that although the country's 1988 constitution criminalized racism, few people have served jail time for breaking the law. The woman who insulted da Silva in the elevator was sentenced to community service but has appealed the ruling.
"Things have gotten worse," said Antônio Carlos dos Santos, president of Ilê Aiyê, a community group in Salvador known for both its African-influenced Carnaval parades and its consciousness-raising social projects.
"Sure, we have people who are more conscious about the situation, but this is a land that's stepping backward," he said. "We are almost 80 percent of this state, but we're still controlled by the white minority."
It's a cynicism shared by ordinary Brazilians such as da Silva, who live every day with the country's crushing inequalities. But in his case, and for many black Brazilians, cynicism is giving way to action.