The Paradoxes of Racial Politics

September 25, 2007

The first installment of this three-part series, “The Politics of Race and Globalization,” focused on racial and ethnic identities in the Americas. This second installment dovetails nicely with the first by investigating ways in which these identities are used politically—negatively and positively—both by the state and by communities seeking social change. The political application of these identities has become increasingly useful in recent decades as more communities throughout the Americas face new forms of exclusion and marginality in the context of neoliberal structural adjustment.

In this economic context, the parameters of citizenship and participation are being redefined. Argentina is a notable example. As the neoliberal model reached a crisis point, immigrants from neighboring countries were increasingly “blamed for any of the blemishes in Argentina’s neoliberal promised land,” according to Alejandro Grimson in his contribution to this Report. “Nationality became a political justification for affording differential rights, thus exacerbating the growing rift between social groups,” he adds.

As the state abdicates its responsibilities for the provision of social and economic welfare, historically excluded communities are even further disadvantaged. In response, many of these communities are organizing to channel their demands through ethnic and racial groupings.

Meanwhile, on the global level, “multiculturalism” has gained ideological currency as reflected by the increased attention and funding from international institutions to ethnically and racially centered projects and issues. Consequently, some Latin American countries have adopted multicultural juridical frameworks that grant recognition and special rights to racial and ethnic minorities through legislation and constitutional amendments. These shifting foundations of national projects have played a significant role in growing activism around ethnically and racially based strategies for inclusion and broader social change.

Culturalist notions of ethnic and racial identities have in certain ways displaced collective class-based identities as the basis for effective social organizing in some Latin American contexts. This trend is reinforced when social actors seek partnerships with international institutions and funding agencies that award efforts congruent with their own multicultural agendas, notes Shane Greene in his discussion of Peru’s racial politics. He describes how Peruvian highland indigenous organizations, which coalesced under a class-based political consciousness in the past, have begun to follow the lead of their Amazonian counterparts by affirming their indigenous identity to gain recognition and benefits from the state and international organizations.

Neatly parsing economic exclusion from racial and ethnic discrimination in Latin America, as elsewhere, is impossible; indeed, their relationship is symbiotic. Brazil, as one of the most economically polarized countries in the region, is an often-cited example of the links between poverty and racism. Despite the country’s fluid racial identities and long-prevailing notions of racial harmony, “the country is nonetheless profoundly stratified by color,” writes Mala Htun in this Report’s lead article. Her article dissects the confluence of factors that gave rise to the Brazilian government’s implementation of race-based affirmative action policies. This dramatic shift in state policy towards race also unleashed a badly needed national dialogue on racism.

As the Brazilian example shows, it is by admitting that racism infects our societies that we begin to tear down the entrenched structural and cultural foundations perpetuating its existence. Yet, as Htun concludes, “there is a tension between trying to get beyond race on the one hand and forming practical strategies to combat racism on the other.” In other words, it may be necessary to use the socially constructed concept of “race” in order to destroy it.


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