Anti-Racism in Brazil

September 25, 2004

This piece was published in the September/October 2004 issue of the NACLA Report

Brazilian race relations have always played a role in the construction of ideas about race and anti-racism in the United States. Before the growth of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, observers conceived of Brazil as a veritable racial paradise: a country of racial tolerance, no Jim Crow, possible intermarriage and hardly any residential segregation. In the late 1960s with the birth of Black Power and the subsequent affirmation of ethno-racial identity politics, many black U.S. citizens downgraded Brazil, in their consideration, to a country where both elite and popular culture insisted on denying identity politics. To these identity-conscious U.S. blacks, Brazil became tantamount to a racial hell.

Brazil certainly is not a paradise for blacks, but neither is it a racial hell. Despite the relative absence of militant identity politics and racial conflict, it is a country with a system of race relations in motion. This system has introduced new racialized barriers as well as new possibilities for emancipation from racialization.

The last two decades have seen a series of new developments around black identity and the politics of inclusion in Brazil. The self-perception and expectations of society’s marginalized have changed. Influenced by the global traffic of ideas and the broader reach of media, related language and concepts have evolved. Brazilians have become more actively concerned about racial inequality and have increased their support for policies to address it.

Throughout this period of change, however, the distinctness of ethno-racial identities and social relations in Brazil has been advantageous. Due to its particular characteristics, Brazilian society has the opportunity—and apparently the will—to contest race-related inequality without recourse to the divisive and exclusionary tactics of an anti-racism grounded in a narrow and reductive ethnicity. In fact, I am more skeptical than ever about any intrinsic emancipatory possibility in political mobilization around ethnic identity and race.

Brazil is a very unjust country for the poor and especially for the black poor. Racialized inequality in Brazil is part of a larger and more complex phenomenon with roots in the past—slavery was massive, starting early and finishing very late, in 1888. Generally speaking, the darker one’s skin, the more disadvantaged one’s position in this society: the most unequal in the world.

Through the last decade, the poor in Brazil experienced little social mobility. According to the recent overview of the National Household Sample Survey, which spans from 1992 to 1999, a number of indices improved for all major demographic groups. Indices of absolute poverty, such as child mortality and illiteracy were generally reduced, but the difference in quality of life between the “haves” and the “have-nots” persisted, unaltered.[1]

This overall picture of social inequality becomes even bleaker when one takes into account the declining quality of public education—the only schooling to which most Brazilians have access—and trends in the labor market and income distribution. Formal sector employment has decreased, and the salary gap between higher- and lower-paid work has increased.[2] In terms of average individual income, the distance between the richest and the poorest sectors is still very great.

When this overview is interpreted in terms of color groups—using the official typology, which divides the population into five categories—it is evident that the groups officially defined as brown and, even more so, those defined as black are faring much worse than the group defined as white.[3] Although living conditions for all Brazilians generally improved over the last decade, illiteracy, income and unskilled work remains very unevenly distributed among the three main color groups—white, brown and black. In a pattern that reflects the almost unchanging social distance between the elite and the poor, the distance between color groups endures, and color and income remain closely related.[4]

While to some extent inequalities have been static, the perception of inequality among the lower strata of society has changed. These strata are now slightly less poor, and also better informed about what happens in other social spheres and, to an extent, in the rest of the world. During the 1990s, the influence of media on Brazilian society increased, especially among lower classes. Not only has the number of households with color TV grown, telephone access (often cellular), satellite antennas, cable TV, and readership of weekly and daily newspapers have all expanded significantly. As a result, the expectations of different strata in terms of quality of life—understood as a combination of civil rights and access to the rituals of mass consumption—are growing closer, but the opportunity structure lags behind and fails to satisfy these rising expectations. This has produced fertile soil for the re-evaluation of traditional social identities, survival strategies and political commitments.

Thus far, however, this has not led to the development of polarized ethno-racial relations as we know them in other countries, such as the United States. Certain widely shared popular understandings of inequality, race and national identity appear to play an important role in tempering race relations and race politics in Brazil. Even so, over the last few years and more forcefully since the inception of the Workers’ Party (PT) government under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002, the country has developed a new awareness of its racial inequality, as well as a new anti-racism impetus and an enthusiasm for redistributive and reparatory measures.[5] In fact, state and society are eager to face these old problems in new ways and are doing so vigorously and generously. The debate is fairly open and the positions are often candid, with little self-censorship.

This new openness has also resulted in an explosion in the use of terms such as “ethnic groups,” “ethnicity” and “race” that now, more than ever, circulate freely in academic circles, mass media and the world of activism. In 1990, the term “ethnicity” was almost unheard of in Brazil, outside the academy. The lack of familiarity with the term was so pronounced that in an interview program with a Bahian educational TV channel, I was asked to explain, in thirty seconds, what ethnicity was and “what can be done about it.”

Today, in Brazil as elsewhere, ethnicity has become a familiar term. It pervades journalistic accounts on a variety of topics, such as exotic cuisine and far-away holidays. The newspaper Folha de São Paulo even reports regularly on “ethnic fashion” shows. Ethnicity has become essential to advertising beauty products. Shampoo for kinky hair is now simply called xampú étnico (ethnic shampoo). “Ethnic” has come to replace the terms “exotic,” “quaint,” “non-white” or, simply, “rare and different.” These trends in the way popular culture is coming to terms with ethnic and racial diversity are part of a larger, epochal change in the definition of social identities and citizenship.

Amid all this change, the attitude of Lula’s PT government has been one of general acceptance of affirmative action. In some areas of social policy the federal government has even been quite innovative. The new Minister of Education, Tarso Genro, is now insisting that the federal government should pioneer affirmative action, including several systems of quotas for increasing the enrollment of black and of poor young Brazilians to its best—and free—public universities.

The public debate sparked by this new federal promotion of affirmative action for black, brown and indigenous Brazilians revealed that most Brazilians favor governmental support for reverting social and racial inequality. The main difference of opinion is on what should be the key marker for beneficiaries of these measures: class/income or color/race. The Federal University of Bahia has managed to link class and color. Only poor black students, who have been educated in ill-equipped public schools, will benefit from the recently approved quota system for fostering their entrance into the university.

Unlike the situation in the United States, these measures and policies have not divided blacks from whites. They enjoy widespread acceptance among lower classes, regardless of color, but meet strong opposition from the overwhelmingly white elite.[6] The fracture seems much stronger in terms of class than color group. In fact, the popularity of these measures increases substantively when, in identifying the intended beneficiaries, color is coupled with income and social position more generally. It is as though most Brazilians know that their society is unjust, even in racial terms, but refuse an (overtly) race-based remedy as a means to redress social injustice. Very few support ethnic polarization; most favor measures to reduce poverty over special political consideration for blacks.[7] Racialized groups do not choose to base anti-racism on a platform of a rigidly defined ethno-racial identity.

This leads to a key question challenging the study of race relations in Brazil: Why is it that in so many other countries race and ethnicity combined with the issue of cultural integration have sparked riots, movements and wars, yet in Brazil they have failed to mobilize the same degree of collective emotion and action? Why is it that, even though Brazil has a history of racism against blacks, índios (indigenous peoples) and immigrants (mostly those of non-European origin), the narrative of ethnic mixture, supported by the reality of miscegenation, has proven more powerful?

Although ethnic allegiances seem to play a less central role in social life in Brazil than in other regions of the Black Atlantic, this does not imply that there are no ethnic feelings or, even less so, that race does not figure prominently in daily life. Moreover, in Brazil as in many other settings, race and ethnicity are intertwined. Race exists and is acted out thanks to a set of ethnic symbols, while ethnic identification is often racialized, acquiring phenotypic connotations.

The last two decades have also seen a series of new developments to do with black identity and culture in Brazil. At least in the metropolitan region of Salvador, a small but growing number of Afro-Brazilians call themselves negros, a politically assertive term. The black movement continues to grow slowly within the overall process of democratization and renovation of Brazilian political life, at times managing to place the issue of racial discrimination on the agenda of unions, political parties and churches. Even the media has begun to display greater sensitivity to black issues. Today, more than ever before, to self-identify as black is to take part in both Brazilian sociopolitical dynamics and international events of the Black Atlantic.

And black culture, obviously, is not static. The center of its inspiration is as much the opposition to racism—in most cases through the inversion of symbols rather than direct opposition—as it is the articulation of black pride. From this pride, which is sought foremost within “black space,” blacks seek to relate to non-blacks from a position of strength. In the last two decades, symbols and artifacts associated with black culture have become more visible—the colors of axé, the drums of Olodum, Rastafarian hairstyles, clothing inspired by African styles and the roda of the capoeira martial arts dance form, to cite only the most salient examples. Besides testifying to the growth of interest in Africa and the Black Atlantic, these have come to determine, much more than in the past, the public image of Bahia and Brazilianness in general abroad.[8]

Indeed, race and ethnic symbols have always been relatively omnipresent in Brazil: in daily language, street life, carnival, advertising and so forth. Yet there are no conspicuous signs of racial tension or hatred, as we know of them in other places. Apparently, expressions of racial and ethnic identification need not always result in ethnic politics or overt ethnic conflict and an explicitly racist discourse.

Black Brazilians understand and practice their identities following their own logic. Their forms of representation are their own, not simple replicas of those from other regions of the Black Atlantic. The experience of Brazil shows that being the object of racial discrimination does not automatically result in what has been referred to as “ethnicization” or “reactive ethnicity;” that is, a collective political action centered on the sense of belonging to an ethnic group. Brazil demonstrates that, under certain circumstances, a racialized group—one labeled and treated as a distinct race, usually by a dominant social group—can choose to counteract its marginalization in ways other than through an assertive deployment of racial identity. For example, such a group can withdraw into a class-based reaction. Or it can attempt to subvert the national myth of racial democracy, where all citizens are supposedly considered equal and treated equally regardless of color, turning it into an instrument to foster claims to equality from below. Or the group can carefully manipulate black identity, resorting to it in some but not all moments and dimensions of life.

Afro-Brazilians resort to all three strategies, but perhaps most consistently the first—withdrawal into class-based reaction. The high rate of union membership among Afro-Brazilian workers and the conspicuous number of black union leaders testifies to this preference. In popular Brazilian discourses on inequality, class seems to be granted greater explanatory power than color. Investing in class, and in class-based associations, has made a lot of sense for black Brazilians. As opposed to the ambiguity of color classification and the fuzziness of racial lines in social life, in Brazil the class line is unavoidable. Class plays itself out with status-conscious behavior, attitudes toward work, consumption trends, such as preference for a certain musical genre, and residential patterns. While racial distinctions are often denied, for different reasons, in both elite and popular culture, everyone acknowledges class distinctions.[9]

Many Brazilians retain the idea that their society is a racial democracy in which an “obsessive” emphasis on color is inherently “un-Brazilian.” In popular culture the ideal Brazilian person is cordial, festive and non-racial in his or her social behavior—though not color-blind.

Afro-Brazilians might also prefer class-centered responses to racial inequalities as a way of rejecting the status of “ethnic minority.” Most affirmative action initiatives hinge on the notion that such action concerns a group that is, feels like, or is seen as, an ethnic minority. Most Afro-Brazilians do not seek to claim a place as a minority in a society that is not theirs. Rather, most envision theirs as a society in which they are the povo—the people, or at least an important part of the mass populace. In a recent large-scale survey on descent and ethnic origin, Afro-Brazilians and índios were those who most often indicated that they were of Brazilian origin—to the dismay of those who had expected black Brazilians to indicate Africa as the region of descent.[10] Only persons of Italian, Portuguese, German, Arabic or Japanese origin self-identified as being of foreign descent. It seems that the lively popular culture of African origin in Brazil is not necessarily coupled with the use of Africa and things African as ethnic markers. Instead, the rituals of the nation that are celebrated around soccer, carnival and the performance of cordiality in daily life express the fact that Afro-Brazilians are the flesh and the soul of the nation.

In this context, black ethnicity is not expected to be a growing factor in the party politics and voting habits of Brazilian society, despite a new awareness within government of the extent of racial inequality. Can we not in this case consider the possibility of anti-racism without ethnicity? Brazil is a country where a large part of the population, possibly the majority, feels one way or another mestiço. Most Brazilians do not feel allegiance to a specifically “black” set of demands. This resistance to any strong ethnic consciousness, to notions of race delineated by sharp lines and clear borders, presents a challenge to those accustomed to understanding and addressing racial issues on such a basis. Because the emergence of a strong sense of black ethnicity in Brazil is unlikely, some other approach to defending ethno-cultural diversity and developing political action to counter racism is needed.

Perhaps we should think of an anti-racist stance that does not reify race, an anti-racist movement that does not need the support of organized ethnicity and that does not put all of its eggs in the basket of the organized black movement. A strong emphasis on black identity—with its implicitly over-coherent and anti-pluralistic instinct that implies a narrow definition of blackness—would leave out large numbers of Afro-Brazilians and alienate a good number of potential supporters among non-blacks.

The dynamics surrounding the processes of ethnic identification are always more varied than actual identity politics, which are often unable to encompass the whole variety and diversity of a given group.[11] Dynamics of black identity formation in Brazil tend toward a growing plurality of practices and racial discourses. On one hand, there is the development of a new black identity and pride in being black, and a sharper perception of racism. On the other hand—reminiscent of specifically Brazilian or Latin American elements of race relations more broadly—a consistent increase in the number of mestiços and new forms of cultural syncretism are emerging alongside the admiration for black culture by non-blacks. Brazil needs an anti-racism movement that acknowledges negritude’s variety; blackness can be experienced in many ways, in more or less individualized forms.

Thus far, the organized black movement in Brazil has tended to conceive of black identity in a somewhat uniform and limited fashion. For example, the movement emphasizes the Afro-Brazilian religious system Candomblé as the cornerstone of Brazilian negritude, although only some black Brazilians are practitioners and non-black Brazilians also participate. And while Lula’s administration is not ignoring the racial question, as was typical of past governments and even of the PT just a few years ago, his government is accepting rather uncritically some of the problematic language and tenets of the organized black movement. This will not help to build a large anti-racist front. A thorough reflection on how the political system should contribute to anti-racism is still wanting.

As Brazilian society debates how best to address racial inequality more directly, and as diverse and complex forms of racial awareness continue to develop in Brazil, organizers, policymakers and others should work to leave the doors open to all the possible varieties ethnic identification can take. There must be better and more effective ways to fight racism and racial exclusion than, for lack of imagination, insisting upon the presence of sharp and immanent ethno-racial lines where they are not, in fact, experienced. Public policy to redress racial injustice has to take into account this variety in black identity formation, rather than presupposing that black identity comes only in the singular.

Due to the strong coincidence of color and exclusion in Brazil, when conceiving of social policies and public opportunities to reduce racial inequality, one can accomplish much the same whether one emphasizes race or low income. However, it will be more politically viable to devise policies aimed more generally at low-income groups. Still, these measures should be coupled with careful monitoring of how black Brazilians fare through such universal, income-based initiatives.[12] The general preference of Brazilians for a more inclusive approach to anti-racism is one upon which the country should build. The distinct qualities of Brazilian race relations offer an unusual opportunity in this regard.

Livio Sansone is associate professor of anthropology and head of the Center of Afro-Oriental Studies’ Factory of Ideas Program at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil. He is the author of Blackness Without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil (New York: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2003).


1. IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geográfia e Estatistica), Síntese de indicadores sociais 2000 (Rio de Janeiro: Editora IBGE, 2001). The improvements measured may be due in part to the rapid and massive drop in population growth.
2. The 10% of the population with better jobs enjoyed a greater proportional increase in average income than did the poorest 40% of the working population.
3. The five official racial categories of the census are: branco (white), pardo (brown), preto (black), amarelo (yellow, to indicate “Asian”) and indigena (indigenous).
4. For an excellent and up-to-date overview of the segmentation along color lines in the Brazilian labor market, see Carlos Hasenbalg, Nelson do Valle Silva and Marcia Lima, Cor e estratificação social (Rio de Janeiro: Contracapa, 1999).
5. Indication of that new awareness was already present in a number of statements by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in the first speeches of President Lula on October 28 and 29, 2002, and in the new concern of the research bureau of the Presidency (IPEA) with racial inequalities and in the language of official statistics reports. See, The prestigious IBGE report now provides the title of “racial inequalities” to the section that would have been called “color groups” in the past.
6. Edward Telles, Racismo à Brasileira: uma nova perspectiva sociológica (Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumará/Ford Foundation, 2003).
7. Carlos Hasenbalg and Nelson do Valle Silva, “Notas sobre desigualdade racial e política no Brasil,” Estudos Afro-Asiáticos 25: 141-159. 1993.
8. Maxine Margolis, Little Brazil: An Ethnography of Brazilian Immigrants in New York City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Carlos Hasenbalg and Alejandro Frigerio, Imigrantes brasileiros na Argentina: Um perfil sociodemográfico (Rio de Janeiro: IUPERI, Série Estudos 101, 1999).
9. Success in pursuing class-based claims may facilitate the realization of broader ethno-racial goals. In Salvador da Bahia opportunities for social mobility among lower-class people emerged in the 1970s due to the rapid growth of the petrochemical and oil industries. As wealth became better distributed and as access to resources such as higher education became more widespread, demands for civil rights and for recognition of ethno-racial diversity quickly followed. In other words, financial opportunity and education created conditions conducive to the assertion of black identities.
10. Simon Schwarzman, “Fora de foco: diversidade e identidades étnicas no Brasil,” Novos Estudos Cebrap 55: 83-96, 1999.
11. Antônio Flávio Pierucci, Ciladas da diferença (São Paulo: Editora 34, 1999).
12. Livio Sansone, “Racismo sem etnicidade: Políticas públicas e desigualdade racial em perspectiva comparada,” Dados 41, 4: 751-784, 1998.

Tags: Brazil, race, Afro-descendent, affirmative action, identity, ethnicity

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