The myth of racial democracy and national identity in Brazil

The myth of racial democracy and national identity in Brazil

The New School, New York, New York
February 2006
195 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3239941
ISBN: 9780542943904

Leone Campos de Sousa

Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New School in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

In the 1930s and 40s, both government and academics popularized the notion that several centuries of miscegenation had rendered Brazilian society uniquely free from racial prejudice and discrimination, a society in which citizens of all ‘races’ and ethnicities lived in harmony and had equal access to societal advantages. Since the 1950s, however, social scientists and black activists have insistently denounced the Brazilian myth of racial democracy as disingenuous for occluding racial inequalities. Indeed, statistics-oriented studies have largely documented the discrepancy in levels of socioeconomic conditions between whites and nonwhites in Brazil.

More recently, scholars of race have claimed the myth of racial democracy is in truth part of a deliberate ‘racial policy’ designed by white elites and enforced by the State to subjugate blacks and perpetuate white domination. They are committed to demystify the myth of racial democracy and enhance the racial consciousness of the ‘non-white’ population, who could thus politically defeat ‘racial hegemony.’ Even the Brazilian State, which has traditionally cultivated the myth of racial democracy, now rejects the idea that ‘race is not an issue in Brazil.  The last two administrations have implemented racial quotas to increase the access of ‘racial minorities’ to public universities and jobs in the public sector.

These efforts notwithstanding, it is a fact that the large majority of blacks and mixed-race people in Brazil have not been inclined to cultivate a strong racial identity. In fact, evidence shows that most Brazilians, regardless of ‘race,’ remain convinced that their society is blessed with relatively harmonious racial relations and oppose the ‘racialization’ of society explicitly proposed by this solution. Moreover, public opinion has fiercely rejected race-based affirmative action measures.

To make sense of Brazilians’ die-hard belief in the idea of racial democracy, I reconstruct the trajectory of this concept in the light of some theories of nationalism, especially Liah Greenfeld’s. I demonstrate that this myth was crucial to Brazilian national identity, and its long-lasting significance attests to the power of nationalism in Brazil.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
    • I. Race and Nationality in Brazil
    • II. Theoretical Framework
    • III. The Relevance of The Topic and Further Research
    • IV. Methodology and Sources
    • V. Structure of The Dissertation
  • Chapter 2: Constructing An Identity: Nation-Building and Race in Brazil
    • I. Early Nationalism in Brazil
    • II. In Search of A “European” Identity
    • III. Miscegenation As “Whitening”
    • IV. The Rise of “Aggressive” Nationalism
    • V. Getúlio Vargas and The Triumph Of Brazilian Nationalism
    • VI. Gilberto Freyre And The Myth of Racial Democracy
    • VII. Conclusion
  • Chapter 3: Deconstructing The Myth of Racial Democracy
    • I. From Fact to Myth
    • II. Challenging The Myth of Racial Democracy
    • III. The Myth Survives
    • IV. Conclusion
  • Chapter 4: The Myth of racial Democracy As National Identity: Three Alternative Explanations
    • I. Race And Nationality By Thomas Skidmore
    • II. Anthony Marx’s Making Race And Nation
    • III. Race Vs. Nation: Hanchard’s Orpheus and Power
    • IV. Conclusion
  • Chapter 5: The Myth Persists: Brazilians reaction to Affirmative Action Policies
    • I. The Increasing Influence of The Black Movement
    • II. The Controversy About Affirmative Action Policies in Brazil
    • III. Conclusion
  • Chapter 6: Conclusion
    • I. Theories Of Nationalism And The Myth Of Racial Democracy
    • II. Alternative Explanations: A Critique
    • III. Globalization Then And Now: The Case of Brazil
  • Bibliography


This dissertation focuses on the role of the myth of racial democracy in the formation of Brazilian national identity. It discusses why the idea that Brazil’s multiethnic population lives in racial harmony has persisted despite centuries of slavery, as well as evidence of deeply ingrained racial prejudice against blacks, Indians, and the mixed-race people. This study argues that the myth of racial democracy, elaborated by Brazilian intellectuals in the first half of the last century, draws its strength from the fact that it was able to offer an answer to society’s apprehensions and misgivings about the large colored population in Brazil. Brazilian intellectuals resented popular European theories about the existence of a link between underdevelopment and racial composition, and responded by interpreting in a positive light what had been traditionally seen as the country’s Achilles’ heel: miscegenation. Racial mixture became the very basis of the concept of racial democracy that has since been crucial in the formation of Brazilian national identity.

Race and National Identity in Brazil

Until recently, both the Brazilian population and intelligentsia conceived of their society as relatively free of racial prejudice and discrimination, a society in which citizens of all “races” and ethnicities lived in harmony with similar access to societal advantages. It was also assumed that this laudable trait of Brazilian society reflected the widespread process of mestiçagem (miscegenation) that has taken place in that country since the colonial era. Although the celebration of mestiçagem as a distinct feature of Brazil can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century, it was in the 1930s that the discourse on Brazil as a “racial democracy” was accepted as a credible depiction of social reality by the cultivated elites and incorporated into popular jargon.

The racism-free image of Brazilian society gained recognition after the publication of Casa-Grande & Senzala in 1934, written by Gilberto Freyre, a young Brazilian social scientist recently graduated from Columbia University. Freyre sought to uncover the fundamental characteristics of Brazil’s society and culture. Although the main thesis of his book refers to the role of the colonial patriarchal family as the foundation of Brazilian society, Casa-Grande & Senzala also celebrates Brazil as a “hybrid civilization”—the product of a blending of Africans, Indians, and Europeans (primarily Portuguese).

The country he describes is not a racial paradise. He recognizes the structural disadvantages that blacks and mestiços (mixed-race) faced both in slavery and in their attempts toward social mobility after freedom, topic he further developed later in Sobrados e Mucambos. Freyre claims that racial miscegenation and cultural amalgamation in Brazil has not only created a new type of society but also founded the basis of a unique variety of ethnic and social democracy. According to him, the relative tolerance and communicability between the races engendered in the casa grandes (the masters’ mansions in the colonial era made modern race relations in Brazil less antagonistic than in any other country. Even though he never used the expression “racial democracy” in his Casa-Grande & Senzala, the author did suggest that:

Perhaps nowhere else is the meeting, intercommunication, and harmonious fusion of diverse or, even antagonistic cultural traditions occurring in so liberal a way as it is in Brazil… the Brazilian regime cannot be accused of rigidity or of a lack of vertical mobility, and in a number of social directions it is one of the most democratic, flexible, and plastic regimes to be found anywhere.

Some empirical facts seemed indeed to corroborate the discourse about the virtues of racial relations in Brazil. As a multiracial country, with a long history of slavery, the country has never witnessed, as in the United States or South Africa, relevant civil rights or racial-based movements. Racial discrimination had been declared illegal since the inauguration of the Republic in 1889. Brazil’s system of racial classification employs a color system—dividing Brazilians into whites, blacks, pardos, and yellows – which is perceived as a mere objective description of reality, as opposed to categories that evoke clear-cut racial or ethnic descent such as “Afro” or “Native” Brazilians…

…By the late 1970’s, the image of Brazil as a racial democracy came under fierce attack by many scholars and black activists who have claimed that it is in reality a veiled form of racism, part of a deliberate policy created by the Brazilian “white elites,” and enforced by the State, to subjugate blacks and mixed-raced peoples. This has been especially suggested by a new generation of scholars of race influenced by American scholarship on racial relations as well as by Abdias Nascimento. As Peter Fry has noted, for these authors. Brazil no longer represents a superior alternative but rather “an archaic and obscurantist system of race relations that must give way to the ‘reality’ of clearly defined races.”…

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