Cultural Imperialism and the Transformation of Race Relations in Brazil

Cultural Imperialism and the Transformation of Race Relations in Brazil

Latin American Perspectives
Issue 178, Volume 38, Number 3 (May 2011)
pages 194-208
DOI: 10.1177/0094582X10390624

Bernadete Ramos Beserra, Professor
Federal University of Ceará

Edward E. Telles, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006. 324 pp.

G. Reginald Daniel, Race and Multiraciality in Brazil and the United States: Converging Paths? University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 365 pp.

Jeffrey D. Needell, The Party of Order: The Conservatives, the State, and Slavery in the Brazilian Monarchy, 1831–1871. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. 460 pp.

No work in the field of race and race relations in Brazil has provoked as much controversy as Bourdieu and Wacquant’s (1999) “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason.” In it the authors argued that cultural imperialism “rests on the power to universalize particularisms linked to a singular historical tradition by causing them to be misrecognized as such” (41). Although they used other examples to clarify their proposition, they focused on the debate on race and, taking the case of Brazil as an example of the “ethnocentric intrusion” of the U.S. tradition on studies of race in sharply different realities, denounced the historical U.S. solutions for the problem of racism that were being proposed and adopted by many Brazilian scholars and politicians at the time.

What made the article so important was, of course, the position of Pierre Bourdieu in the field of sociology. It was not just a Brazilian scholar, belonging to the so-called white elite, who was questioning the direction of recent studies of race and racism in Brazil but the most famous sociologist of the time. As might be expected, Bourdieu and Wacquant’s criticism created some turmoil among U.S. and Brazilian students of race relations, and it has since influenced the academic debate on the theme in both countries as well as in Europe itself, where the article was first published. The responses were diverse. Some scholars, such as French (2000) and Telles (2002), dismissed the critique altogether, arguing that Bourdieu and Wacquant were unfamiliar with recent scholarship in the area and therefore their intervention was authoritarian and inadequate. Others, such as Pinho and Figueiredo (2002), called attention to the fact that the colonized position of Brazil made it vulnerable to external influences in general, not just those coming from the United States. They exemplified their point by sketching the history of the field of social sciences in Brazil and showing that it had always been influenced by “foreign” scholarship. At the same time, they asked why these influences should be considered particularly problematic when they promoted a sort of enfranchisement of minorities. Should not minorities—in Brazil or elsewhere—borrow from the experiences of their counterparts in other parts of the globe? While most scholars agreed that Bourdieu and Wacquant’s critique overlooked important new scholarship in the field, they could not fail to consider the truth of their argument that Brazilian perceptions of race and racism had recently been transformed in the image of those of the United States. Therefore, the article also served to support those scholars who challenged the interpretations of the academic supporters of the black movement and its politics aimed at radically changing Brazilian perceptions of race and racism in order to impose solutions that made sense only in the context of U.S. racism in the 1960s.

Since the publication of this article, there has been an increasing “Americanization” of the solutions proposed for Brazil’s racial problem. The binary U.S. view of race that divides the world between whites and nonwhites has not only been adopted by the black movement and some scholars but also been promoted by the Brazilian government. Moreover, the debate, which used to be restricted to the academic sphere, has now gained the attention of the mass media and the general population.

Therefore, against the population’s general understanding of race, constructed under the hegemony of mestiçagem (mixing) policies, the Brazilian government today claims that we are no longer mestiços, as we used to believe we were, but either blacks or whites (Maggie, 2008; Theodoro, 2009). The new politics differs considerably from our fantasy of racial democracy, and, according to the new wisdom, what we have now is a racism even more insidious than U.S. racism because it is concealed and more difficult to resolve. Therefore, in spite of evident differences between the racism constructed in Brazil and in the United States (Burdick, 1998; Sheriff, 2001; Sansone, 2003; Fry, 2000), it is on a supposed need, far more mistaken than our fantasy of racial democracy, for similarity in the strategies of the black movements in the two countries that the post-Durban affirmative action policies are founded.2 These policies date back to the resurgence of the black movement in Brazil at the end of the 1970s in the context of the rise of the new social movements—political subjects whose demands were no longer connected to labor and class positions but based on other similarities and identifications, permanent or circumstantial, that are currently referred to as “identities,” such as neighborhood, ethnicity, color, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation…

…The studies of Telles and Daniel are important and complementary contributions to the field of race relations in Brazil from a U.S. perspective. They are complementary in that they ask different questions and rely on different sets of data. While Telles articulates a detailed literature review on race relations in Brazil with sophisticated statistics in order to demonstrate that racism produces increasing inequality, Daniel compares sociohistorical phenomena that produce what (following Omi and Winant, 1986) he calls distinct “racial projects”—a ternary one in Brazil and a binary one in the United States. His purpose is to understand what has led such different societies to converging paths. Although studying distinct subjects, both writers feed into the sociological tradition that considers race a determinant factor in the production of social inequality. Thus, although aware of the differences between Brazilian and U.S. societies, they apply to the study of Brazil the same framework developed to explain U.S. race relations and racism. Daniel’s study provides more opportunity to reflect on the specificities of the two cases and their approaches to social injustice based on racial discrimination.

Telles’s main aim is apparently to show that in Brazil as in the United States, race is a determinant factor in the production of social inequality. This is not exactly a new idea (see, e.g., Hasenbalg, 1979; Hasenbalg and Silva, 1988; Guimarães, 2002; Theodoro, 2009), but the particularity of his contribution resides in the fact that his arguments are largely based on statistical data. Comparing tables of income distribution and other socioeconomic markers in Brazil, the United States, and South Africa, he concludes that Brazilian society is racially structured. In Chapter 5, for instance, by way of discussing “racial inequality and development,” he states (107) that “as long as whites, browns, and blacks are unevenly distributed along the income structure, racial inequality exists.” As do other scholars, he conceives race as the irreducible constituent and determinant of social structure and relations. Yet, even if one were to accept the argument that social inequality is a by-product of racism (which is misleading), an essential question would still remain: what similarities between Brazilian and U.S. racism would justify adopting the same policies to deal with the problem?…

…Daniel’s Race and Multiraciality in Brazil and the United States: Converging Paths? agrees with Telles that race is determinant in shaping Brazilian and U.S. societies. However, his “multiracial” background pushes him to understand this situation through other sources and evidence. Also inspired by Omi and Winant’s theory of racial formation, according to which race is not an “objective reality” but exists as a social construction, Daniel aims to explain the origins and development of Brazilian and U.S. “racial projects.” What clearly broadens his perspective is the connection he establishes between Brazilian and U.S. “racial formations” and the development and worldwide consequences of the Eurocentrism that is the basis of what he calls a “dichotomous racial hierarchy.” By reconstructing the steps by which Europe created the idea of race and provided scientific support for racist ideologies, Daniel shows how different expressions of racism sprang from the same source…

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