This paper presents an overview of the debate on race relations in Brazil. The main focus of this work is to examine inequality of opportunities between whites and nonwhites and how class and racial discrimination impacts outcomes for social advancement. Although many scholars, intellectuals and authors have contributed to an analysis of this debate, race relations in Brazil remains a very confounding and provocative issue. The rapid and tremendous growth that Brazil is currently experiencing has brought increased stratification between races and classes and a recurrence of the public debate on this complex issue. This paper will trace the history of this debate, the myth of racial democracy, the Afro-Brazilian militant movement and provide a brief overview of the existing quantitative research on Brazilian race relations.
Racism in Brazil:
Inequality in Educational Opportunities and Social Mobility
Luciana is a 16 year old female, Afro-Brazilian student who wants to be a medical doctor. She is pretty, highly intelligent, strongly disciplined and does exceptionally well in all of her studies. Always, she tells her friends that some day she wants to be a medical examiner and work for the city. She attends high school with classes starting in the afternoon until the early part of the evening. Also, she is not the type of young girl that has many friends because she is very serious about her education and not interested in activities that distract her from her studies. Often she can be found walking home alone or with only one or two friends from school. She is never found with a group of students wandering through the streets after school. When school ends, she returns home directly without delay.
Luciana comes from a small, closely knit nuclear family of only four people. Her mother works as a domestic and spends the entire week living at the home of her employer and only has an opportunity to visit home on the weekends. Her father is a proprietor of a small tavern and drinks heavily. Her older brother dropped out of school, doesn't have a job, skills, or an education and remains home or in the streets most of his time.
Luciana's life is very difficult. Not only does she study very hard but she must perform all the chores that her mother would otherwise perform if she were home. This means that each day she must rise at 4:00am in the morning and begin cleaning, washing and cooking for her father and brother - before she departs for school. Depending on the day, sometimes she only washes clothes. Now, this is not the sort of washing that you do with a washing machine because Luciana's family is too poor to afford an electric washing machine. So, she has to wash all their clothes, shirts, pants, and underclothing with soap and a washboard in the troth that is provided at the back of their house. On other days, she cleans the house by removing empty beer cans, cleaning cigarette ashtrays, sweeping, dusting, and mopping the floors. Every day, she is responsible for cooking breakfast before leaving for school. Some days she does not have adequate time to eat breakfast herself before leaving for school.
Luciana's family is very poor. Her mother makes the minimum wage for domestics in Brazil that is about $300USD per month while her father's income is never really consistent. It depends mostly on how many customers visit his bar a day and how much beer he is able to sell. On the average, he earns about the same as his wife but after taking out expenses to purchase more supplies perhaps a little less depending on how many customers venture into his establishment on any given day. As for her brother, he has absolutely no income to contribute to the family's welfare.
The family lives on the second floor of a three-story building. The building is in a dilapidated condition with many holes in the walls, peeling paint, broken windows, and piles of construction materials where work was started but never finished. The house they live in is located on one of the major streets of the bairro. This particular street is always busy with cars, delivery trucks, and buses passing by the front of their house. This street is mostly filled with unemployed young men standing on the corners drinking beer, loud music streaming from the bars, and older senior citizens (mostly men) sitting on chairs or steps simply watching the daily activities of the street. During the weekends, this street is known to have street parties until late in the night. Also, many times at night during the week, police blockades (known as "blitzes") are set up on the street to randomly stop and search cars for drugs, weapons and intoxicated drivers.
Chances are Luciana will never realize her dream to become a doctor as a result of several important factors: first, regardless of how well she does in her studies, the public school she attends only provides a substandard level of education that falls critically short of providing what she needs in order to pass the required examinations to enter college or the university. Secondly, the nature of her social origins, that is, coming from a poor family prevents her from attending an expensive private school where she would be able to receive the necessary education to pass college entrance examinations. Thirdly, the attitudes, beliefs and behavior of Brazilian society toward Afro-Brazilians, Morenos and the poor and its desire to convince the world that in Brazil racial discrimination and exclusionism does not exist; along with the idea that a certain type of racial democracy exists as an ideal or standard of interracial relations in Brazil. These factors contribute to making opportunities for a quality education or social advancement for the poor of Brazil virtually non-existent and many scholars belief that race relations has a direct impact. However, in order to understand the complexity of this dilemma it is necessary to sketch some important points.
History behind the Debate
To begin with, Brazil was undertaken by adventurers and people that had been expelled to the colonies from Portugal (Holanda, 1963; General History of Brazilian Civilization, 1993). With the establishment and development of sugar cane plantations, especially in the North and Northeast regions of Brazil (Nordeste),1 the Portuguese utilized large numbers of indigenous Indian and later African slaves for labor. Due to a shortage of European females, Portuguese males often took indigenous Indian and African women as mates and sexual partners. As a result, miscegenation and intermarriage resulted in a highly mixed racial composition (Telles, 1998). A rapid decline in the indigenous Indian population, the continued importation of African slaves, and relatively extensive miscegenation eventually made the population largely nonwhite for almost two centuries. 2 By the end of the colonial period, the population of Brazil was more than 55% nonwhite.3
In the late nineteenth century, waves of European immigrants began arriving in Brazil. Large numbers of immigrants came from Portugal, Germany, and Italy. Others included Swiss, Spanish, Czech, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish immigrants. (Vincent, 2003). By encouraging European immigration and intermarriage the population of Brazil became markedly more European than during the colonial period .This is believed to be part of an attempt by the Brazilian elite to whiten the population due to fears of Brazil remaining a country with second class world status because of its large nonwhite population (Skidmore, 1992; Telles, 1998). This ideology of whitening later became known as assimilationist ideology.
When doctrines of white supremacy began to appear in the U.S. and Europe, Brazil's assimilationist ideology was challenged (Skidmore, 1974). Although Brazil supported doctrines of white superiority, it was extremely difficult to rationalize doctrines of white supremacy when the nonwhite portion of Brazil was still considerably large.4 As the notion of white supremacy began to take hold, Brazil was forced to rationalize its multiracial mix by affirming that miscegenation, especially with the influx of large numbers of European immigrants flowing into the country, was in fact moving the population from that of mostly nonwhite to a larger portion of whites. Furthermore, the 1940s census revealed that 63% of the Brazilian population was considered white and assimilationist's claimed that miscegenation had been an effective means of whitening Brazil's population (Guimarães, 2003).
By the early twentieth century, assimilationist ideology had become firmly planted in Brazil. The Brazilian elite claimed that Brazilian society had escaped race hatred, racial segregation and racial discrimination by a subtle process of miscegenation (Skidmore, 1992). In fact, Brazilian anthropologist João Baptista de Lacerda (1911) stated that he believed it would take no more than an additional century for Brazil to become completely white.5 Unfortunately, this mentality led the government of Brazil to consider race relations as a non-issue resulting in the omission of critical race data from the national census.6 For example, from 1890 until 1940 racial categories were not recorded in the census and during the 50s, 60, and 70s, it failed to include data in reference to income, education, health or housing by racial categories.7 As a result, social scientist had virtually no data to conduct quantitative analysis regarding race relations in Brazil and the scant data they did possess (e.g., marriage, fertility and morbidity data) was inadequate for analyzing the effects of racial discrimination.
The effects of assimilationist ideology began to make a direct impact on politics, literature and the social sciences in Brazil. Traces of scientific racism started to appear in the works of writers such as Vianna and Azevedo who were known as strong supporters of white superiority.8 Against this backdrop, rose a few distinguished writers who opposed assimilationist ideology. These were writers such as Bonfim, Torres, anthropologist Roquette-Pinto, and sociologist-historian-writer, Gilberto Freyre. Although Freyre emerged as probably the most famous opponent against scientific racism, unfortunately his ideas were appropriated, manipulated and used to defend assimilationist ideology.
The Myth of Racial Democracy
Nothing in the debate on Brazilian race relations seems to perplex scholars more than the myth of racial democracy. One side of the argument suggest it is the adoption of a national mixed-race or syncretistic cultural ideal, or in more profound terms, a universalistic social policy of integration while the other side argues that this concept is actually based on assimilationist ideology serving to rationalize the multiracial society of Brazil (Pierson, 1945; Azevedo, 1953; Wagley, 1952; Skidmore, 1992). The main difficulty, however, is that contemporary scholarship splits this debate into two broad interpretations: one, the ideology of a seemingly racial paradise, without barriers to people of color rising to official posts or positions of wealth and prestige within the society. The other side denounces this notion and suggests that Brazil is quickly becoming a class society and that class stratification will eventually manifest itself in racial prejudice, discrimination and exclusionary practices (Costa Pinto, 1952; Cardoso & Ianni, 1960; Fernandes, 1965; Nogueira, 1998; Guimarães, 2003). Still, contemporary scholarship is not able to provide an adequate solution to this particular difficulty.