The mythology of racial democracy in Brazil

Brazil has been in the news a great deal of late, especially in association with the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The most popular images involve football, carnival, samba, sunny beaches, and tanned women in bikinis. Less well known is the history of slavery and racism, which continues to have a profound impact upon Brazilian society.

Brazil has the dubious distinction of having imported the largest number of enslaved Africans—more than five million—of all countries of the Americas. The slave trade from Africa to Brazil was outlawed in 1831, but an illegal trade continued until 1851 before being outlawed for a second time. In contrast, legal slavery persisted until 1888, making Brazil the last country to abolish slavery in the western hemisphere. Today, 53 percent of the Brazilian population self-identify as black or pardo (brown, or mixed race). These terms as established by the Census refer to colour and not ancestry.

Achieving the abolition of slavery in Brazil was a long and difficult process. Abolition in 1888 was preceded by laws that, theoretically at least, freed the children of enslaved women (1871) and slaves who reached the age of sixty (1885). There was already a large free black population when slavery was abolished, and both this population and newly freed slaves received little or no assistance from the Brazilian government. There was no distribution of land or provision of education, leaving established patterns of wealth, privilege and racial hierarchy in place. In 1891, a new constitution established that only males with high incomes had the right to vote. The illiterate population, the vast majority of whom were Afro-Brazilians, remained prohibited from voting. At the same time, the government continued to encourage European immigration as a means to replace the enslaved African workforce, whose numbers had decreased following the ban of the Atlantic slave trade to Brazil. Inspired by eugenic theories, the monarchy and later the Republican government, as well as Brazilian elites, believed that the arrival of massive numbers of Europeans would lead to miscegenation and eventually ‘whiten’ the majority black Brazilian population. 

Harmonic racial relations?

A new self-definition of the Brazilian society emerged over the course of the twentieth century. Brazil would come to be understood as the result of the mixture of three groups— indigenous Brazilians, Europeans, and Africans—who had found a way of live in racial harmony. In other words, according to this vision, there was no racism in Brazil.

This mythology, which has become known as ‘racial democracy’, was undergirded by the fact that Brazil, unlike the United States, had never enshrined segregation in law. This allows for markedly different types of racialisation in Brazil than in the United States. For example, the recent case of Rachel Dolezal, in which a US white civil rights activist publicly presented herself as a black woman, would be virtually impossible in a country like Brazil. Whereas in the United States a drop of ‘black blood’ made an individual an African American, in Brazil a drop of ‘white blood’ could make someone a white person. Thus, no matter alleging African ancestry, it is unlikely that a person with blue or green eyes and very light skin could ever be identified as an Afro-Brazilian.

Moreover, in Brazil race categories became deeply connected to class. In 2005, when the soccer player Ronaldo (now retired) was invited to comment the issue of racism in soccer stadiums, he responded that he was not able to understand it: “I, who am white, suffer with such ignorance.” Rich and famous, Ronaldo can only embrace the ideology of racial democracy and see himself as a white man because his social position protects him from racial prejudice. In the United States, African American celebrities and even President Barack Obama are constant victims of racial hatred. However, explicit racism against dark-skinned individuals is a visible common feature both in Brazil and the United States.

Despite this political and popular rhetoric of racial democracy, Brazilian officials and elites continued to valorise ‘whiteness’ and ‘whitening’ as physical and cultural characteristics. In 1950, following the end of the of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the UNESCO General Conference commissioned a study on race relations in Brazil. As a result of the conference, a document signed by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and US sociologist Franklin Frazier stated that it was time to look at societies that were in great part able to override racial difference. For these scholars, Brazil was a country that had done the impossible—achieved racial harmony—and was therefore an example to be followed. Yet two years later the study commissioned by UNESCO arrived to the opposite conclusion. It demonstrated that racial and social inequalities, instead of racial democracy, prevailed in Brazil.

Although challenged by scholars and activists, the ideology of racial democracy was, and in some ways still is, very powerful in Brazil. Even Brazilian black activists believed for many years that racial democracy was an ideal that could be achieved. However, this hope ended when a military dictatorship took control of the country in 1964, suppressing civil rights and silencing the black movement.

With the gradual return of democracy in 1985, Afro-Brazilian activists began once again to mobilise around questions of racism and racial inequalities. The 1988 Constitution recognised racism as a crime in Brazil, even though few offenders were punished. In addition, the new constitution determined that the remnant quilombo communities—or runaway slave communities—had definitive ownership of their lands. In 2003, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva issued a presidential decree that expanded the definition of quilombosto include a variety of black communities in rural and urban areas who were historically excluded from land ownership following the legal abolition of slavery.

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