Published: June 24, 2007Achievers
Affirmative-action debate tests nation's notions of race

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Walking across the Viaduto do Chá footbridge in downtown Sao Paulo years ago, I noticed that the beggars on the street were black. I was an exchange student at a private high school, and the family that hosted me belonged to the city's Yacht Club. As we crossed the bridge, the father of a fellow student explained to me how, in contrast to the United States, there is no racial discrimination in Brazil. I wondered why the rich young members of the Yacht Club were mostly blond, blue-eyed second generation Europeans, while these urban homeless people and , as well as the rural peons living in semi-slavery on the farm I had visited, were almost all black. The response was unforgettable: "Oh, there's nothing you can do about that; it's in the blood."

This statement captures the remarkable contrast between the white Brazilian elite's conviction of its own nonracism and the stark reality of inequality in income, education, housing, healthcare, and employment.

The deeply engrained racial democracy ideology promotes the idea that biological notions of race do not exist in Brazil.

Yet stereotypes about indolence, intellectual backwardness, and criminal tendencies permeate Brazil's social imagination, which has them lurking "in the blood'' of African descendants. Social engineering to whiten the population was major public policy during the first half of the 20th century. "Cleansing the race'' was promoted as a civic duty and a social responsibility. The advantage for parents was that their lighter-skinned children would have more opportunities to climb a social ladder associating prestige with proximity to whiteness.

There is a widely held belief that this color hierarchy has nothing to do with race. The appearance criterion is said to be purely aesthetic and non-discriminatory.

I have called Brazilian racial ideology the sorcery of color because its sleight-of-hand transforms domination into democracy and launches a permanent search for what I call "virtual whiteness."

Generally, whoever can credibly identify as white will do so. But there are limits, and discrimination has driven many light-skinned Brazilians to join the ranks of an Afro-Brazilian civil and human rights movement whose political weight has grown enormously since the days of the Brazilian Black Front, the Black Experimental Theater, and other organizations in the 1930s and '40s. forties.


The history of Afro-Brazilian resistance against racism has been made largely invisible. We often hear that there is no tradition of civil rights struggle in Brazil, but calls for [changes in] public policy date back at least to 1946, when the National Conference of Brazilian Blacks presented its proposals to the Constituent Assembly. Since then, the black movement has mobilized demonstrations, organized itself in political parties and labor unions, and found its voice in rich and varied cultural expressions. It has earned enough political clout to win specialized agencies in city, state, and federal government.

The most prominent example of recent policy measures are affirmative action programs adopted at some 35 public universities, the cream of higher education, from which African Brazilians have been almost completely excluded.

These policies have unleashed a political backlash that uses tactics employed against the black movement since the 1940s. Its language is similar to neo-conservative discourse about race in the United States. Foremost among its tactics is to accuse affirmative action proponents of racism against whites. In Brazil, this argument is linked viscerally to the idea that equality policies are "introducing'' race categories in a society where supposedly they never existed. Since there is so much race mixture in Brazil, the argument goes, how can we determine who is white and who is black?

A handful of intellectuals used this argument in a recent manifesto promoted in the news media with great flourish. Indeed, media power consistently nourishes the backlash while giving sparse and slanted coverage to the realities of affirmative action.

Undeniably, whites enjoy almost exclusive hegemony in the physical and discursive space of the Brazilian academy. The tone and content of the backlash show how some consider this hegemony theirs by right, as a question of merit. Crediting themselves as the true anti-racists, they claim that the notion of blacks and whites does not exist in Brazil and that to "impose'' this idea is to revive obsolete biological categories that science has rejected. They brandish research results to show what we already know: that genetic variation is greater within racial groups than among them.


The scenario of exclusion in Brazil is based on a social construct of race that has little or nothing to do with genetics or biology. Discrimination exists; it is a social fact. Brazilian society's division into groups that hold prestige and groups that are targets of discrimination is also a social fact. As it denies benefits to some and confers privileges on others, this society has never had trouble identifying who is black and who is white. Statistical studies carried out by the most respected research institutes exhaustively demonstrate the inequalities created by this society based on a social construct of race.

By shifting their focus to the realm of science and genetics, the major media offer unmeasured support to the neo-conservative backlash in Brazil. They help discredit affirmative action policies and proponents by implicitly branding them racist, and reinforce a status quo in which the myth of non-discrimination is perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcoming racial inequality.

The outcome of the debate on affirmative action will ultimately determine whether Brazil is willing to make a real commitment to greater democracy.


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