YouTuber's Racist World Cup Joke Has Brazil Facing Its Demons

(Bloomberg) -- The world’s no stranger to social-media scandals that unleash a firestorm. Now, it’s Brazil’s turn.

When French player Kylian Mbappe ran at an impressive 23 miles an hour in a June 30 World Cup match, Brazilian YouTuber Julio Cocielo tweeted the soccer star could pull off a top “arrastao,” using the Portuguese word for a type of crime in Brazil in which groups of thieves rush their victims and snatch whatever they can before racing off.

The backlash against the social media star was immediate. Cocielo, 25, whose “Scoundrel” YouTube channel has almost 17 million subscribers, was flooded with allegations of racism. Then, followers and onlookers quickly turned on Adidas AG, Coca-Cola Co., Itau Unibanco Holding SA -- brands that currently or previously used Cocielo in their campaigns. All three companies either severed their relationships with him or vowed never to work with him again.

By now, the rest of the world is used to episodes like this -- from ABC dropping TV star Roseanne Barr for making a racial slur to YouTube suspending ads on the channel of a video star who posted a clip of a body hanging from a tree in Japan.

But in Brazil, the backlash against Cocielo marks a new era in race relations. Many residents here pride themselves as being free of racism, despite blatant inequality and segregation. While more than half of the population of 200 million identifies as black or mixed-race, they hold less than 5 percent of the C-level or board positions at Brazil’s 500 biggest companies, according to an Instituto Ethos report.

“These episodes tend to be taken more seriously outside Brazil. Here, everything passes as a joke,” said Pedro Jaime, a sociology professor at ESPM-SP who co-authored a book on black executives. “It makes it harder to face our problems.”

Cocielo saw his notoriety surge after the episode -- Google shows searches of his name mostly tied with racism and controversy -- and expressed regret over his comment, saying it was a result of ignorance.

The fact that young generations are responding at lightning speed to such episodes on social media, Jaime said, “is very positive” for Brazil.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.