Bringing Clarity to Race Relations in Brazil

Article excerpt

Bringing Clarity to Race Relations in Brazil Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil By Edward E. Telles Princeton University Press, 2006 324 pp. $19.95 paperback ISBN: 0691-12792-1

In Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil, University of California, Los Angeles sociologist Edward E. Telles brings needed clarity to the analysis of Brazilian race relations.

Telles' principal contribution to the discourse is his ability to concretely explain how it is possible for some Brazilians to view their country as an integrated "racial democracy" while other Brazilians see it as a racial hierarchy, which operates to exclude non-Whites.

Telles begins by disentangling and explaining the differences between horizontal and vertical race relations. Horizontal race relations generally refer to levels of sociability, and more specifically to miscegenation rates. Vertical race relations, however, refer primarily to indicators of economic exclusion. When Brazilian race relations are assessed along these two different tracks, it is easier to understand how Brazilians of different hues are able to hold such contradictory perspectives. Telles integrates an impressive array of empirical data to demonstrate how social inclusion can exist horizontally, while exclusion exists on the vertical scale.

For those new to the topic of Latin American race relations, Telles' approach may not appear particularly striking. Yet it is the unembellished elegance of his analysis that makes Race in Another America a useful contribution to the debate. Until now, the study of Latin American race relations has been entrenched in dueling perspectives about whether "true" racial discrimination actually exists in the region. Interestingly, proponents on either side of the debate often use the United States as the barometer for both "true" racism and racial progress.

Like the United States, Brazil is a racially diverse nation with a significant number of African descendants, stemming from the country's history of slavery. Yet Brazil's involvement in the African slave trade was even longer and more intense than that of the United States. As a result, Brazil has more African-descended citizens than any nation in the world except Nigeria. After emancipation, Brazil's racial divisions continued, but the country occasionally provided social mobility for a few light-skinned, mixed-race individuals. Yet this social mobility was directly tied to the racist nation-building concepts of "branqueamento" (whitening) and "mesticagem" (racial mixing/miscegenation).

Indeed, the social recognition of the racially mixed identity of "mulato/pardo" served largely as a buffer between White elites and the African-descended lower castes. …