The racial / ethnic composition of Brazilians is quite different from the racial / ethnic make up of people in the United States, and unique in the world in many respects. How is the government dealing with ethnic and racial relations within their very large and culturally diverse country? This paper will review the literature on the dynamics (and history) of this multi-ethnic, multi-racial South American nation. And in addition some aspects of ethnicity and racial data in Brazil will be compared and contrasted with those data in the United States.
Racism is Learned, Justified, and Reinforced
According to author Benjamin P. Bowser, racism is "…a historic and cultural belief (in one race's inferiority and in another's superiority) that has been used by national elites" in order to continue a kind of "social stratification" that leans in their favor (Bowser, 1995, p. 285). Racism has been "very useful" in "obscuring economic class interests by keeping opposing racial identities more important than class differenced," Bowser writes (285). Moreover, racism provides a context "and explanation" as to why "race under specific conditions and circumstances triggers the human capacity to hate, fear other people," and treat other people with contempt (Bowser, 286).
In Brazil, even though racism is a crime, "punishable by imprisonment," it is not sufficient to "change behaviors," Rosana Heringer explains (Heringer, 1995, p. 205), and moreover it's not an easy task to arrest someone for racism in Brazil. The scientific research into racism used the U.S. pattern of relations between races "as a standard for comparison and contrast in their understanding of race in other societies, especially in Brazil," Heringer continues (209). In the U.S. racism was a "segregationist, conflictive, violent" pattern (known as Jim Crow); and in this milieu, the rules of race were based on "biological reasoning that defined race" (Heringer, 209). However, in Brazil, the type of racism (as opposed to U.S. segregation Jim Crow-style) was based on economic differences, on "egalitarian laws," on an "etiquette of distancing," and on "an ambiguous but very complex system of identification based mainly upon color nuances" (Heringer, 209).
Racist theories imported from Europe helped shape attitudes in Brazil, the author continues. White blood was believed to possess a kind of purification power, Heringer explains; white blood was believed to be capable of "exterminating black blood… [and hence] Whitening was the response of a wounded national pride" in Brazil, and whitening was a way to "rationalize the feelings of racial and cultural inferiority" that was brought on by 19th century racism (219).
Speaking of color differentiation in "blood," in Brazil the way they take the population census is not so much by "race" or "ethnic origin" as it is by color ("skin color… hair color and texture and eye color") (Piza, et al., 1999, p. 37). Some researchers have been able to document "social strategies that mask racism (through faulty or nonexistent data collection on color in the censuses) while proclaiming Brazil's apparent racial tolerance evidenced by miscegenation process)," Piza explains (38).
Comparisons -- U.S. And Brazil -- in Racial Dynamics
Author G. Reginald Daniel covers a wide swath of social and cultural viewpoints in his analysis of race in the U.S. And racial issues in Brazil. Skin color is part of the puzzle of how things work in the U.S. And in Brazil, the author explains. On page 206 Daniel notes that for African-American women they are often subjected to "double oppression" in relation to both African-American men and men of European ethnicity; and darker skinned African-American men have a "double oppression" problem of their own. For African-American women whose skin is very dark, theirs is a "triple oppression" that, Daniel explains (206) is based on "gender, race, and color" (Daniel, 2007, 206). There is still another step into social stratification for darker-skinned African-American women, and that is a situation of "quadruple oppression" -- they live in a low-income ("less privileged") community; and of course that involves race, class, gender and color (206).
In Brazil (Goldani, 1999, p. 182) black women are economically and socially oppressed -- in ways similar to American black women -- because they have higher mortality rates, they "suffer greater matrimonial instability, receive less education," and they earn lower salaries as well. Similar to American women who are black, the Brazilian black woman has of late become the head of the household in increasingly large numbers (twenty percent of Brazilian women head the household, up from 10% thirty years ago) (Goldani, 182).
The comparisons between black Brazilian and black American women having been pointed out, it is also a fact in the U.S. that since Americans in great majorities have repudiated "white supremacist ideology" and have gone through the Civil Rights Movement, many doors have been opened to the black working class through affirmative action and "by expanding opportunities for educational achievement," Daniel explains (206). As a result, up to 30% of African-Americans have "achieved upper-and-middle class status" (206).
Meantime education in Brazil is quite different. To wit, the average Brazilian goes to public secondary school although Daniel (286) asserts that they are "overcrowded, underfunded, and significantly inferior to private schools." In Brazil's private schools students are "overwhelmingly white," middle class and wealthy. The universities that are run by Brazil's government (among "the most prestigious in Latin America) are "the training ground for the corporate and political elite… [and] the bastion of the white and affluent" (Daniel, 286). Fewer than one student in five in the universities is "African Brazilian" in part because getting into college is "highly competitive" and also because passing the "vestibular" (college entrance exam) is a very difficult task for Brazilian minorities that went through the public secondary schools.
"Students who attend private school "have an unfair advantage because they are better prepared to score well," Daniel continues. Although there are tutorials offered to "poor and African Brazilian students," the fact is that of the 1.4 million students admitted to universities each year in Brazil, "only 3% have typically identified as African Brazilian and only 18% have from public schools (286). Affirmative action programs -- which have helped African-Americans enjoy opportunities that otherwise wouldn't be available -- in Brazil have "effectively doubled (and in some cases tripled) the enrollment of black and multiracial students in elite professional schools" (that specialize in medicine, law and engineering), Daniel explains on page 286. That is not to say that affirmative action has instituted a transformational change, because only 5% (or 243 students) of the entering class at Rio de Janeiro State University's entering class of 4,970 black and multiracial students "were admitted solely to meet racial quotas," Daniel asserts (286-87).
The downside of affirmative action is that by 2003, Brazil's affirmative action programs, much like those in the United States, provoked a backlash from white students who worked hard and prepared themselves for college admission, only to be rejected despite scoring higher in the entrance exam" (Daniel, 288). Some Brazilian critics deplore affirmative action simply because it was "…imported from the United States -- where racial definitions and relations are quite different -- and therefore will exacerbate rather than ameliorate the situation in Brazil" (Daniel, 288). Daniel explained in his 2007 publication that a "Racial Equality Statute" was before Congress in Brazil, and was stirring up resistance in the Brazilian Senate.
An update with reference to that racial equality legislation (Gasnier, 2010) shows that the measure was indeed passed in June, 2010, and the law should help "end the inequality suffered by black people in Brazil… 45% of the population." This is an example of at least one way Brazil is coming to terms with racial and ethnic relations within their boundaries; legislation that paves the way for fairness vis-a-vis racial minorities and education is a positive development. Moreover, as Daniel explains (291), the affirmative action debate in Brazil has "forced the nation to acknowledge the existence of racism, discrimination, and social exclusion."
Indeed, one hundred and twenty-two years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the government -- by passing the Racial Equality Statute -- "hopes to redress the wrongs inflicted on the descendants of African slaves who first reached Brazil in the 16th Century (Gasnier, p. 1). The article in the Guardian also explains that black people in Brazil "account for two-thirds of those living below the poverty line and four-fifths of those earning the minimum wage" in Brazil (Gasnier, p. 2). The one disappointing part of the new legislation is that it "does not endorse any of the affirmative action policies" that were launched during the debate -- in particular it did not endorse a system of "quotas" that make it somewhat easier for Brazilian blacks to get into colleges and universities, to get jobs, and get into politics (Gasnier, p. 1). Americans of color can relate to the lack of "quotas" in their affirmative action programs; in fact "quota" is an extremely vile and despised buzzword in conservative political circles in the U.S.