Bringing Clarity to Race Relations in Brazil

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by Tanya Hernandez

Bringing Clarity to Race Relations in Brazil

Race in Another America: The
Significance of Skin Color in Brazil

By Edward E. Telles
Princeton University Press, 2006
324 pp.
$19.95 paperback
ISBN: 0-691-12792-1

In Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil, University of California, Los Angeles sociologist Edward E. Telles brings needed clarity to the analysis of Brazilian race relations.

Telles’ principal contribution to the discourse is his ability to concretely explain how it is possible for some Brazilians to view their country as an integrated “racial democracy” while other Brazilians see it as a racial hierarchy, which operates to exclude non-Whites.

Telles begins by disentangling and explaining the differences between horizontal and vertical race relations. Horizontal race relations generally refer to levels of sociability, and more specifically to miscegenation rates. Vertical race relations, however, refer primarily to indicators of economic exclusion. When Brazilian race relations are assessed along these two different tracks, it is easier to understand how Brazilians of different hues are able to hold such contradictory perspectives. Telles integrates an impressive array of empirical data to demonstrate how social inclusion can exist horizontally, while exclusion exists on the vertical scale.

For those new to the topic of Latin American race relations, Telles’ approach may not appear particularly striking. Yet it is the unembellished elegance of his analysis that makes Race in Another America a useful contribution to the debate. Until now, the study of Latin American race relations has been entrenched in dueling perspectives about whether “true” racial discrimination actually exists in the region. Interestingly, proponents on either side of the debate often use the United States as the barometer for both “true” racism and racial progress.

Like the United States, Brazil is a racially diverse nation with a significant number of African descendants, stemming from the country’s history of slavery. Yet Brazil’s involvement in the African slave trade was even longer and more intense than that of the United States. As a result, Brazil has more African-descended citizens than any nation in the world except Nigeria. After emancipation, Brazil’s racial divisions continued, but the country occasionally provided social mobility for a few light-skinned, mixed-race individuals. Yet this social mobility was directly tied to the racist nation-building concepts of “branqueamento” (whitening) and “mestiçagem” (racial mixing/miscegenation).

Indeed, the social recognition of the racially mixed identity of “mulato/pardo” served largely as a buffer between White elites and the African-descended lower castes. Social status and economic privilege were accorded based on one’s light skin color and approximation of a European phenotype. Simultaneously, the social order devalued Blackness and encouraged individuals to disassociate from their African ancestry. As a result, Brazil was able to maintain a rigid racial hierarchy that supported White supremacy, even as people of African descent approximated and sometimes even outnumbered the White elite. This is in marked contrast to the demographic pattern in the United States, where Blacks have always been a numerical minority and have thus been more vulnerable to the White majority’s discriminatory policies.

Individuals in Brazil are overtly discouraged from identifying themselves along racial lines in order to maintain the national myth of a mixed-race utopia. Consequently, individuals can harbor derogatory notions about Blackness while still maintaining seemingly cordial interactions with non-Whites in social settings. Thus, for those Brazilians who focus upon the greater level of sociability between Whites and non-Whites (Telles’ horizontal race relations concept), Brazil appears to be bias free. But Telles observes racial hierarchy even within the sociability indicators. For instance, while the level of residential segregation is moderate compared to that in the United States, darker-skinned Afro-Brazilians are more likely than Whites of the same income to live in areas of concentrated poverty. 

In addition, non-Whites earn between 40 and 44 percent of what Whites earn, and students of African descent achieve educational levels consistently inferior to those achieved by Whites from the same socioeconomic level. The cumulative effects of these educational disparities are reflected in illiteracy rates for non-Whites, which are double the rates for Whites.

Telles recommends that Brazilian social justice reformers seek not only class-based policies to address the general problems of poverty, but also race-conscious policies like affirmative action. In fact, in 2001 Brazil became one of the first Latin America countries to institute race-conscious affirmative action. 

However, the desirability for race-conscious policies is not without social and legal opposition in Brazil. This is why Race in Another America could not have come at a better time. With Telles’ demonstration of how racial inclusion and exclusion simultaneously exist in Brazil as matters of both class and stratification, Brazilians may be able to stop talking past each other and instead work together to actualize the equality they all symbolically value.

— Tanya Hernandez is professor of law and justice at Rutgers University Law School-Newark.



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