Racial Democracy in Brazil

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Racial Democracy in Brazil

The term racial democracy refers to a certain pattern of race relations in Brazil. Specifically, it suggests that Brazilian race relations have developed in a tolerant and conflict-free manner, in contrast to the presumed hostile form of race relations that evolved in the United States. The concept of racial democracy had at one point received such widespread acceptance that it was regarded as an essential component of Brazilian national identity. Brazilians distinguished themselves as unique for having achieved a level of racial tolerance that few other societies had attained.

The origin of the term racial democracy remains unclear. António Sérgio Guimarães, a professor at the University of São Paulo, suggests that its usage goes back to the 1940s, when the Brazilian anthropologist Arthur Ramos and the French sociologist Roger Bastide employed the term to link this pattern of race relations to Brazil's postwar democracy, which began to emerge at the end of the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas (19371945). However, the concept is more generally associated with the work of Gilberto Freyre (19001987), who proposed the idea in the 1930s in a daring departure from the scientific racist thinking that had prevailed within Brazilian intellectual circles since the beginning of the twentieth century. Freyre stood the scientific racist thinking of the day on its head by arguing that Brazil's pervasive mixing of the races was not a factor in Brazil's failure to develop, but instead was testament to the achievements of a Brazilian civilization that had encouraged a pattern of tolerant race relations that was unique in the world. Freyre urged Brazilians to take pride in this, as well as in the displays of Afro-Brazilian culture that were prevalent throughout Brazil.

International factors contributed to the widespread acceptance of the notion of racial democracy, including the events surrounding the defeat of Nazism in Europe. Revelations of the racial horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime stimulated the search for situations where, contrary to the European experience, race relations seemed to have evolved in a benign way. Brazil appeared to provide such a situation of racial tolerance. This was the motivation behind a United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO) initiative in the 1950s to commission systematic studies of Brazilian race relations. However, UNESCO-sponsored research in Northern Brazil, led by anthropologist Charles Wagley, found patterns of discrimination that were attributed to the class position of Afro-Brazilians. UNESCO researchers in the South, in São Paulo specifically, led by Roger Bastide and Florestan Fernandes, unearthed systematic patterns of racial discrimination that called into question the validity of the notion of racial democracy.

While the notion of racial democracy assumed importance in both scholarly analysis and popular discussions for several decades, its credibility has since declined as the result of criticism from both black activists and from within academic circles. The activist critics emerged as early as the 1920s and 1930s when a black press developed in the City of São Paulo with the aim of calling attention to practices of racial discrimination. In addition, a protest movement known as the Black Brazilian Front (19311937) emerged and raised challenges to the ideal of a conflict-free pattern of Brazilian race relations. Subsequently, in the 1940s, Abdias Nascimento (b. 1914) founder of the Black Experimental Theatre, continued to provide organized expressions that ran contrary to the idea of racial democracy. In more recent times, the Black Unified Movement, created in 1978, has served as one of the principal activist vehicles for contesting the idea of racial democracy. In addition, a number of Black nongovernmental organizations have worked to bring to light racial issues that have been ignored in public discourse because of the widespread belief that a presumed racial democracy made such issues immaterial in the Brazilian context.

Alongside the activists' challenge to the idea of racial democracy, there has emerged a body of literature that has reinforced the findings uncovered by Bastide and Fernandes in the 1950s. Included in this literature are works by Carlos Hasenbalg, António Sérgio Guimarães, Nelson do Vale Silva, Lilia Monitz Schwarcz, and the scholars associated with the Centro de Estudos Afro-Asiáticos of the Cándido Mendes University in Rio de Janeiro. North American scholars also have made a contribution to the rethinking of the notion of racial democracy. Among them are Michael Hanchard, Kim Butler, Edward Telles, Melissa Nobles, George Reid Andrews, Anthony Marx, Robin Sheriff, and Anani Dzidzienyo (of Ghana).

One strong indication of the abandonment of the idea of racial democracy is the set of laws and policies implemented to address the issue of racial discrimination in Brazil. One of these is Brazil's antidiscrimination law of 1989, known as the Caó Law, which defines racial discrimination as a felony crime and which imposes stiff prison penalties on those found guilty of discrimination. Also, a number of public universities have implemented policies of affirmative action in student admissions on the grounds of redressing the low numbers of Afro-Brazilians in higher education.

Despite the erosion of adherence to the notion of racial democracy, it still occasions disputes about the genuine nature of Brazilian race relations. Social scientists such as Peter Fry and Livio Sansone have argued that Brazilian race relations, even acknowledging patterns of racial discrimination, still do not reach the level of hostility seen in the United States.

See also Black Press in Brazil; Movimento Negro Unificado; Nascimento, Abdias


Andrews, George Reid. "Brazilian Racial Democracy: An American Counterpoint, 19001990." Journal of Contemporary History 31, no. 3 (1996): 483507.

Bastide, Roger, and Florestan Fernandes. Brancos E Negros Em São Paulo, 3d ed. São Paulo, Brazil: Companhia Editrora Nacional, 1970.

Butler Kim D. Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paulo and Salvador. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Fry, Peter. "Politics, Nationality, and the Meanings of 'Race' in Brazil." Daedalus 129, no. 2 (2000): 83118.

Guimarães, António Sérgio Alfredo. "Democracia Racial." 2003. Available at <www.fflch.usp.br/sociologia/asag>.

Hanshard, Michael. Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Hasenbalg, Carlos. "Race and Socio-Economic Inequalities in Brazil." In Race, Power, and Class in Brazil, edited by Pierre-Michel Fontaine. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, 1985.

Marx, Anthony. Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa, and Brazil. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Nascimento, Abdias do. O Negro Revoltado. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: GRD, 1968.

Nobles, Melissa. Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Sansone, Livio. Blackness Without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Schwarcz, Lilia Moritz. O Espetáculo das Raças: Cientistas, Instituições, e a Questão Racial no Brasil. São Paulo, Brazil: Companhias das Letras, 1993.

Sheriff, Robin. Dreaming Inequality: Color, Race, and Racism In Urban Brazil. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Skidomore, Thomas. Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Telles, Edward E. Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Wagley, Charles, ed. Race and Class in Rural Brazil. Paris: UNESCO, 1952.

michael mitchell (2005)