The “Americanization” of Racial Identity in Brazil: Recent Experiments with Affirmative Action in a “Racial Democracy”

The “Americanization” of Racial Identity in Brazil: Recent Experiments with Affirmative Action in a “Racial Democracy”

Journal of International Policy Solutions
Volume 5 (Spring 2006)
pages 5-25

Ana Pagano

In 2001, the Brazilian Ministry of Agrarian Development surprised the international community by implementing an affirmative action program. The program, which was the first of its kind to exist in Brazil, mandated an internal hiring quota of twenty percent black (negro) employees. The Ministries of Justice and Foreign Relations followed suit shortly thereafter by implementing similar hiring quotas. Several public universities, beginning with the state university system of Rio de Janeiro, subsequently adopted admissions quotas for black students. Affirmative action became a national priority in 2002 when President Fernando Henrique Cardoso created a program to research how more government agencies could implement percentage goals for blacks, women, and people of low socioeconomic status.

As 2005 drew to a close, the Brazilian Senate approved the most comprehensive piece of affirmative action legislation to date: the Statute of Racial Equality (Estatuto da Igualdade Racial). The Statute calls for increased racial quotas in the public service sector and the media, in addition to a vast array of non-quota based measures intended to counteract structural racism. In a few short years, affirmative action has become a common, though controversial, feature in many public universities and governmental organizations throughout Brazil. Much of its controversy stems from the perception that affirmative action imposes foreign racial distinctions and represents a mode of dealing with racial inequality that is usually associated with the United States.

International civil society played a crucial role in Brazil’s transition from supposed “racial democracy,” a moniker which implies the absence of racism, to a nation with affirmative action. As Telles observes, “the transnationalization of human rights provided new opportunities for social movements generally… the [Brazilian] black movement, often in cooperation with other human rights organizations… established ties with black movement organizations throughout Latin America, the United States, and South Africa.” The black movement formed strategic partnerships with these international organizations to exert pressure on the Brazilian government to introduce affirmative action. Working in tandem, they pushed for measures to bolster the relatively low representation of black Brazilians in higher education, the media, and privileged sectors of employment.

In this paper, I examine the contributions of three major actors to the production of affirmative action discourse and practice in Brazil: civil society, including the black movement and labor organizations; the state, and in particular former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso; and international organizations such as the United Nations and various philanthropic organizations. I show that a combination of circumstances involving the three actors created a political environment amenable to affirmative action in a nation popularly identified with harmonious race relations. In order to understand why affirmative action is such a polemical issue in Brazil, it is important to examine the ideological bases for its racial politics. To that end, I will first discuss Brazilian ideologies of race. Next, I will review the trajectory of events that led to the implementation of affirmative action quotas. Finally, I will analyze the contributions of civil society, the Brazilian government, and international organizations to the arrival of affirmative action in Brazil…

…Traditionally, Brazilians have rejected a bipolar (black-white) model of race, preferring instead a multipolar model with a spectrum of terms to describe skin color and physical features rather than supposed genetic makeup. Their preference for phenotypic description, rather than a system of racial classification based on ancestry, reflects the widespread belief that many Brazilians embody a racial mixture. This belief is evident in figures from the Brazilian Census of 2000: nearly 40% of Brazilians identified themselves as brown (pardo), meaning racially mixed. The other Census categories are branco (white), preto (black), indígena (indigenous), and amarelo (yellow/Asian).

In contrast to the U.S., many Brazilians have traditionally conceptualized racial identity as flexible and situational rather than fixed. The ethos of whitening (branqueamento) is one important way in which racial identity has been constructed as malleable in Brazil. “Whitening” refers both to a pseudoscientific theory and to a social practice. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prominent scientists and intellectuals believed that the Brazilian population would grow progressively whiter over time as a result of miscegenation and the mass influx of European immigrants following the abolition of slavery. Although this belief was subsequently debunked, the ethos of whitening has continued to influence racialization practices in Brazil. In this sense, “whitening” refers to many Brazilians’ tendency to identify with the lightest racial category permitted by their skin color. Socioeconomic class plays an important role in social whitening. There is a popular saying in Brazil that “money whitens” (o dinheiro embranquece), meaning that higher socioeconomic status may allow an individual to be perceived as embodying a lighter race category than someone of similar appearance but lower socioeconomic status. Brazilians’ relatively flexible patterns of racialization are often contrasted with the U.S. practice of “hypodescent,” or the tendency to assign mixed-race individuals in the United States to the more socially subordinated racial group they embody, e.g., ““black”” instead of ““white.””…

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