Book Review Essay: Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil <BR><i>By France Winddance Twine

September 25, 2007

“Why are you importing a U.S. problem into our society? We are not black, or white, or Indian. We are all Latin Americans.” This discourse of silencing race is upheld by people from all segments of the political spectrum in Latin America. Nonetheless, a scholarship highlighting the significance of racial stratification in the region has been in place for 40 years. Here I review books on racism in Brazil that exemplify the current wave of racial studies in Latin America.

France Winddance Twine’s concern is explaining Brazil’s “paradox of pervasive racial inequality and the continued failure of anti-racist organizations and anti-racist policies to generate grassroots support among non-elites for anti-racist programs.” Relying on 53 interviews and her ethnographic observations in “Vasalia,” a small coffee-growing village in southeastern Brazil, Twine concludes that although race shapes the life chances of all Brazilians, they do not see race and racism as salient features of social life. The Brazilian blindness to race is recreated by ideologies, such as the idea that inequality in Brazil is class-based, that all Brazilians are racially mixed or that Afro-Brazilians are culturally inferior. Also, practices such as embranquecimento (whitening)—the erasing of blackness and the inflation of whiteness at the family level—remove race as a relevant factor in Brazil. Together they account for Afro-Brazilians’ limited strategies to deal with racial discrimination.

In Racial Revolutions, Jonathan Warren addresses a much-forgotten element in Latin American racial studies: the fate and status of Indians. More specifically, Warren analyzes the political resurgence among Indians in eastern Brazil. He labels the four Indian communities he studies as “post-traditional” because they are comprised of racially mixed people who have lost most of their indigenous language and some of their traditions yet “regard these fragments and shadows of tradition as relevant or important” and “embrace, privilege, and value them.”Central to Warren’s effort is the challenging of the “racial huckster thesis,”the idea that these Indians are just “Indian” to get benefits from the state. Warren thus shows that post-traditional Indians receive more disincentives from the state and the masses alike (violence, ostracism, ridicule, economic misery, etc.) than incentives (usually land after protracted struggles). He therefore attributes Indian resurgence to the organizational activities of the National Foundation for the Indian and the Catholic-sponsored Indigenous Missionary Council, mid 1980s democratization, and the development and circulation of alternative definitions of Indianness.

These books embody some of the advances on the literature on race in Latin America. For instance, Warren’s forceful advocacy for the need to go beyond the black-white dichotomy is a welcomed development. Furthermore, Warren takes actors’ racial subjectivities quite seriously. Hence, he has opened a new field of research by problematizing who is, or can be, an “Indian.” For her part, Twine encourages analysts to conduct more nuanced, in-depth examinations of how race matters in the daily lives of Brazilians by providing a rich example of how Brazilians talk and think about race.

The shortcomings of these studies are typical of the literature on race in Latin America. Both authors lack a theory on racial stratification in Brazil—or Latin America—to guide their observations and inform their analyses. Furthermore, on occasion both advance positions that seem mostly based on racial reality in the United States. For example, Warren’s concern with the “racial huckster thesis,” although pertinent to Brazil, is fundamentally based on the situation of Indians in this country. Twine filters the racial subjectivities of “blacks,” “pardos” (individuals of mixed African, European and indigenous descent) and “whites” through U.S. racial classifications, leading her to regard pardos as blacks rather than as an independent racial category. Furthermore, because Twine fails to accept individual racial mobility through whitening as real (albeit limited), she ends up classifying the actions and beliefs of dark Brazilians as the product of “false consciousness.” Despite these limitations, these books should be widely read because they offer new avenues for research, as well as useful information for activists and policymakers wanting to address Latin America’s racial inequities.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University. His most recent books are White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001) and Color Blind Racism or How Whites Justify Contemporary Racial Inequality (Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2002).


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