Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Race in Brazil

Gregory Rodriguez:

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, this South American nation received more African slaves than any country in the Americas. But the shortage of white women, and a less rigid view of racial differences, led Portuguese settlers to mix more readily with nonwhite women than did their English counterparts in North America. The result was the creation of a large, racially mixed population. And unlike the Anglo Americans in the United States, who generally saw society in stark, bipolar racial terms and chose to deny the mixture that did occur, the Portuguese learned to view race on a continuum — white and black with many shades in between.

This doesn't mean that there was no racism. Indeed, the array of terms used in Brazil to describe different shades of skin color speaks to the existence of a long-standing racial hierarchy in which whites were deemed to be on top and unmixed blacks on the bottom. But despite that, the recognition of gradations of mixture made the idea of race more fluid than it is in the U.S., where social convention has held that anyone with one drop of "African blood" is black. In Brazil, degrees of whiteness — and social acceptance — could be achieved through selective mating.

Indeed, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Brazil's immigration policy was largely based on an effort to "whiten" the population by adding more European immigrants to the mix. In 1912, Brazilian scientist João Batista de Lacerda predicted that by 2012, the ongoing process of mixture would produce a Brazilian population that was 80% white, 3% mixed race and 17% Indian.

In the 1930s, Brazil shifted direction slightly. It didn't so much reject the practice of "whitening" as superimpose a companion national ideology that boasted of the benefits of racial and cultural mixture. Thanks largely to the work of Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, Brazilians came to view widespread mixture as a sign of their cultural superiority and their society's lack of racism.

Both at home and abroad, Brazil came to be seen a model of racial tolerance. In 1942, prominent African American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier argued that Brazil could teach the U.S. a thing or two about race relations.

But by the 1960s, a small but savvy Brazilian "black movement," inspired in part by the U.S. civil rights movement, began to challenge the national consensus on race. For the next generation, activists called for more research on racial inequality in Brazil, and though they were ultimately incapable of creating an effective mass movement, they successfully influenced the debate. By 2001, their controversial demand for affirmative action in public universities became a reality.

For the last five years, a growing number of universities have adopted and experimented with different types of affirmative action quotas designed primarily to aid blacks and the poor. On the one hand, the fractious debate over affirmative action has helped convince more Brazilians that their history of racial mixture did not erase color-based discrimination. On the other, the establishment of a quota system is obliging a society that has always had a fluid notion of race to begin to standardize, collapse and solidify racial categories in order to determine who exactly should benefit from this race-based entitlement.

As it happens, Batista de Lacerda's prediction that "blacks" would "disappear" wasn't that far off. What he did not foresee, however, was the persistence of the large intermediate category between black and white. According to the 2000 census, 53% of Brazilians consider themselves white, 39% pardo — a broad, generic mixed-race category — less than 1% indigenous and Asian and only 6% black.

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