Racial Mixture and Affirmative Action: The Cases of Brazil and the United States

Racial Mixture and Affirmative Action: The Cases of Brazil and the United States

The American Historical Review
Volume 108, Number 5
December 2003

Thomas E. Skidmore, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Professor of History Emeritus
Brown University

For me, as a historian of Brazil, North America’s “one-drop rule” has always seemed odd. No other society in this hemisphere has defined its racial types in such absolutist terms. David Hollinger, like many American historians before him, is clearly intrigued by this apparently unique “approach to the question of ethnoracial mixture.” How can we account for it? How could such a different racial classification have arisen in North America and not in any of the many other European colonial experiments in the New World?

Hollinger cites three features that in combination allegedly made U.S. racial evolution different. The first is a regime that tolerated slavery and thereby produced a significant population of slave descent. The second is massive immigration that enriched American society. The third is survival of an Indian population, even if only in token numbers.

But Hollinger examines the influence of these three factors on racial attitudes and behavior in the United States alone. If we add one other country, Brazil, to the picture, we find something rather startling. All three of Hollinger’s conditions also obtained in Brazil. Yet they did not produce the one-drop rule. Something else must have been at work.

If I had been writing this commentary a half century ago, I would have stressed the enormous difference between the two countries in the racial status given to the offspring of mixed unions.  Throughout the United States (multi-racial societies emerged in Charleston and New Orleans, but only temporarily), the one-drop rule defined mixed bloods (even the lightest mulattos) as black. In Brazil, by contrast, racial attribution depended on how the person looked and on the particular circumstances of that person, which led to the racial fluidity for which Brazil is famous

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