Published on: Thu Dec 13, 2012
Author: Tom Gatehouse
Source: LAB

Brazil's mainly white eliteBrazil today is one of the most multicultural and multiracial countries in the Americas. At its time of independence in 1822 it was already home to Indian, African and Portuguese cultures, and to this basic mix were added millions of immigrants from countries all over the world, from Germany to Japan, from Spain to Syria. Brazilians argue that this history means that modern Brazil has been founded upon the notion of tolerance towards the ethnic and cultural other. They argue that the long history of racial mixing in Brazil  means that in many cases it can be hard to determine ethnic origin with any certainty. What therefore takes precedent over ambiguous racial categories is Brazilian identity. In such a culture, it is asserted, it is rare to find evidence of racism.

This is not a new argument by any means. The portrayal of Brazil as a harmonious melting pot of different races and cultures dates back at least to independence. Faced with a vast black slave population as well as a large range of Indian communities scattered the length and breadth of the nation, early Brazilian intellectuals and statesmen found themselves obliged to defend the indigenous element in national culture, and assert a national identity based upon racial mixing. The popular novel O Guarani, for example, by the 19th century writer and statesman José de Alencar, tells the story of a love affair between the noble Indian Peri and Cecília, the beautiful daughter of a Portuguese nobleman. It is this romantic communion between Indian and Portuguese which is suggested as the origin of the Brazilian nation. However, while works such as O Guarani eulogized inter-racial marriage in theory, in practice, Brazilian elites were extremely concerned about the ethnic composition of the populace, particularly following the abolition of slavery in 1888. The imperative to safeguard or increase the white proportion of the population also coincided with a period of rapid economic growth, based primarily upon the São Paulo coffee industry. As such, the Brazilian state facilitated mass European immigration in the late 19th century, with most of the immigrants during this period coming to São Paulo to work on the coffee plantations. Still, romantic ideas regarding multi-racialism endured, emerging again in the 1940s under the guise of ‘racial democracy,’ a term commonly attributed to the polymath Gilberto Freyre, though it may in fact have been coined by Arthur Ramos in 1943. Whatever the origin, it is a concept which became influential amongst Brazilian intellectuals during this period, denoting a society characterised by racial mixing, tolerance of other races and cultures and the absence of any impediments to social mobility based upon ethnicity. This take on race relations endured for decades, under both democratic and dictatorial regimes. Since the return of democracy to Brazil in the 1980s, it has been increasingly contested, but nonetheless it remains highly influential.

See video, by Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University.

These ideas have been successful to some extent. It is true that sexual relations between Portuguese colonists and Indian women were common, resulting in a legacy of racial mixing which continues to this day. Moreover, despite a long history of slavery, it also has no history of legal segregation, as in countries such as the United States and South Africa. However, in the Brazil of today the doctrine of racial democracy has long outgrown its use, and now constitutes the principal  obstacle to greater racial equality. The perception that Brazil is an example of racial harmony is so strong that it precludes any serious discussion about race.

Vista of Multicultural BrazilAs the political scientist Alexandre Ciconello writes: "the greatest obstacle for the anti-racist movement is the ideology of racial democracy. There are many who criticise those who defend the rights of the black population, accusing them of importing racial problems (from the U.S. and South Africa) that do not exist in the melting pot of Brazilian society."


Essentially, the endurance of racial democracy allows mainstream society to deny that a problem exists, despite a consistent and growing body of statistical evidence which suggests that non-white Brazilians remain at a considerable disadvantage.

            That discrimination continues to exist in Brazil is unsurprising. During the colonial period Brazil had the largest slave economy in the world. Estimates suggest that as many as 4.8 million Africans – nearly half of all those who were trafficked across the Atlantic from the 16th to the 19th centuries – ended up in Brazil. This compares with the 400,000 who were sent to North America, for example. African slave labour was the motor that drove some of Brazil’s greatest export booms: sugar in the 17th century; gold and diamonds in the 18th century; and the early stages of the coffee expansion in the 19th century. Slave labour involving indigenous Brazilians was also used extensively, especially during the Amazonian rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Brazil was, moreover, the last nation in the Western world to formally abolish slavery. The institution therefore profoundly shaped Brazil’s economy, society, demographics and culture. Some of the things most famously symbolic of Brazilian culture, such as feijoada, capoeira, and samba, are all legacies of the slave trade. While it is impossible for Brazilian society to deny its history of slavery, the doctrine of racial democracy does permit it to turn a blind eye to the consequences.

While all formal barriers to equality disappeared with the abolition of slavery, in practice preferential treatment tended to be given to whites, in areas such as the labour market, land distribution, housing and access to public services. For the century between the abolition of slavery and the new Federal Constitution of 1988, little or nothing was done to integrate the former slaves into the national economy and public life. While the situation has been improving in recent decades, the effects of this de facto segregation are still very present in contemporary Brazil. ‘One hundred years after the abolition of slavery, the former slaves haven't yet received the appropriate attention from the central government,’ says Fernando Haddad, São Paulo’s new mayor-elect. Of course, conditions for non-white Brazilians are not the same today as they were one hundred years ago; however, the improvements that have been achieved are the result of wider growth in prosperity and quality of life across all of society. Racial inequality remains a constant, with non-white Brazilians still being left behind.

Today around 50% of the population identify themselves as ethnically non-white. Yet more than 70% of Brazilians living below the poverty line are either black or of mixed race. Non-white Brazilians earn a wage on average slightly less than half that of whites. They are also more likely to be unemployed, and to retire later, if at all. Homicide rates of non-white Brazilians are almost double those for whites nationally (31.8 per 100,000 as compared to 18.4), and in some regions more than three times more. Non-white Brazilians are also likely to receive inferior treatment in the public health system, and their life expectancy is six years below that for the white population (67.03 years compared to 73.13). At the top of the social pyramid non-white faces are conspicuous by their almost total absence. In the legislature, blacks make up less than 10% of elected representatives, and only one of the 38 members of Dilma Rousseff  ’s cabinet is black. Likewise, in the private sector it is whites who dominate senior positions. Around 97% of executives and 83% of managers are white. And while the favelas are home to black and white Brazilians alike, in Rio’s richer neighbourhoods just 7% of residents are black. If white and non-white Brazil were separate nations, white Brazil would rank 44th in the UN World Human Development Index. Non-white Brazil would rank 105th  alongside  countries such as El Salvador, Paraguay and Bolivia.

Rio: Black Consciousness DayIn the absence of any legal impediment to racial equality, many Brazilians argue that these statistics can be explained with recourse to class rather than race. Brazil has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world, and until this situation is resolved it is a sad truth that a large number of citizens – both black and white – will remain trapped in poverty. To place excessive emphasis upon race as a contributing factor would be unjust, because it would discriminate against poor whites, who are numerous also. The solution, therefore, must be social and economic policies aimed at reducing poverty and creating a fairer distribution of wealth. This will improve the lot of millions of poor Brazilians, black and white alike. So the argument goes. However, while the poverty rate in Brazil has been halved over the last two decades, racial inequality remains fairly constant. Therefore, while universal policies aimed at reducing social inequality are a good starting point, they are insufficient when it comes to eliminating racial inequality. A related point is the argument that national statistics are skewed by the higher concentration of non-white Brazilians in the poorer states of the northeast. But even if we isolate this region, it is again whites who come out on top; likewise, in the wealthier cities of the south and southeast, it is still non-white Brazilians who tend to be at a disadvantage. The question also remains as to why a higher proportion of non-white Brazilians occupy a subordinate position within the national territory.

Another common argument asserts that the problem is not one of race but one of education. Nearly two out of three non-white students fail to complete upper secondary school (ensino médio, optional education from 15-18), compared to 42% of white students. This difference is further reflected in the demographics of Brazilian universities: just 6.6% of Brazil’s black and mixed race population attend university, the proportion for whites being nearly three times that. As a result, the professional, educated classes remain, in the vast majority, white, generation after generation. But why is this? Why does Brazil consistently fail to educate its non-white citizens to the same standard as whites? In education, as with class, there is simply no means of escaping the race question, and since re-democratization a gradual reappraisal of the issue has been occurring. In this sense the new Federal Constitution of 1988 was a significant turning point. For the first time the Brazilian state recognised the existence of racism and took measures to combat it, promising equal rights to all citizens, criminalising racial discrimination and recognising the contribution of Afro-Brazilians to national history.

In the last decade it is higher education that has become the main battleground. Brazil’s previous two presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula, both supported the introduction of quotas for non-white and poorer students in public universities, though they moved cautiously on the issue. Dilma has been bolder, passing a law in November 2012 reserving 50% of the available spaces in public universities both for students coming from the public school system and, crucially, for non-white students. ‘This law will help to settle a historic debt of Brazil with our poorest young people,’ she affirmed. There has, however, been considerable opposition. The universities have largely opposed the legislation, alleging insufficient resources. The quotas have also been attacked viciously in the national press, with the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo dismissing the legislation as ‘demagogic,’ and the influential news magazine Veja even comparing the introduction of quotas to the racial policies of the Nazis and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Given their dominance by the elites, it is unsurprising that the universities have opposed the quotas. However, if Brazil really aspires to reduce both social and racial inequality, it will recognise the need to widen access to higher education and will find the means of doing so. To throw the law out entirely on the grounds of insufficient resources seems like a smokescreen for a latent unwillingness to confront an unjust status quo. As for Veja’s rather crass invocation of Nazism, the argument is essentially that the quotas will promote a culture of divisive racial politics, thereby separating the great Brazilian racial rainbow into its component parts. The problem with this argument is that the statistics prove again and again that the racial unity of Brazilian society only really exists on the discursive level. Brazil’s racial rainbow is, just like a real rainbow, an illusion.

This is not to belittle it: the doctrine of racial democracy has been an asset in many ways. As Ciconello writes, it ‘incorporated the presence of the black contribution within the national formation.’ To this extent it was a success. ‘However,’ he continues, ‘it naturalized the subordinate position that black citizens occupy in society, and served to conceal power relations between black and white populations.’ Today, racial democracy is a dangerous illusion which permits the persistence of serious and pervasive racial inequality, whilst rendering attempts to address it controversial or even taboo. For Brazil to become a truly prosperous, egalitarian and democratic society, it is essential that this myth be dispelled. As a genuinely multicultural society, albeit a very unequal one, Brazil should be able to take the measures necessary to improve the condition of its non-white citizens, without the creation of a new, more racially conflicted culture. Only then will Brazil finally rid itself of its blind spot.

  1. Herman K:
    Jan 20, 2015 at 03:11 AM

    A very good article, and convincing too.

    Agree that acceptance and open discussion of the racial divide is paramount. Denying it, and pretending to be selfish-happy, isn't helpful

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