Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Black Lives Matter in Brazil Too

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Black Lives Matter in Brazil Too

Article excerpt

Black Lives Matter in Brazil Too

Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil and Israel by Michéle Lamont, Graziella Moraes Silva, Jessica S. Wellburn, Nissim Mizrachi, Hanna Herzog and Elisa Reis. 2016. Princeton University Press

When I first arrived in Brazil in the 1980s, I quickly learned that race in Brazil was not important there. The country that once had by far the largest slave population in the Americas-several times more than the United States-was considered a "racial democracy." It was an exceptional country where race mattered little or not at all, especially when compared to the United States. To prove it, a Brazilian colleague pointed me to its extensive race mixture, which he claimed I could observe in everyday interactions at nearby bars, and by the presence of a large mixed race population, presumably revealing much racial intermarriage. For analysts of Brazilian society at the time, class determined one's status in life. Since little social mobility existed in Brazil, they claimed that blacks remained poor because their recent ancestors were poor slaves.

Indeed, in 1949, UNESCO commissioned a study of Brazil's exemplary model of race relations, seen then as an antidote to segregation in the United States, apartheid in South Africa and especially the horrors of genocide in Nazi Germany. Much to UNESCO's s surprise, some Brazilian scholars, including Florestan Fernandes, showed that racial prejudice was alive and well in Brazilian society. However, he also concluded that racial prejudice was transitory as class was the deep underlying structure that gave it life. Unfortunately, that influential scholar moved on from his studies of race. For several decades until the end of the millennium, Brazilians would continue to defend their racial democracy, although a couple of social scientists had challenged its central tenets with hard data, and a small black movement denounced racial democracy as nothing more than a fig leaf covering a deep-seated and pernicious racism.

Since then, I have witnessed a profound change in the status of race in Brazil. There is now a consensus that racism is prevalent, talk about race and racism is no longer silenced, and affirmative action is now mandated at all federal universities. Social science facts have shown us that racial democracy is indefensible, except perhaps as a goal. We have learned that race matters quite a bit. For example, we know that the average income of blacks and mixed-race Brazilians is roughly half of white income. Moreover, we now know that there has been much social mobility in Brazil since at least the 1960s, but whites have improved their status much more than nonwhites over the course of the 20th century. Much of Brazil's upper-middle class, which is virtually all white, is only two or three generations away from poor immigrant ancestors.

On the other hand, Brazil's steep racial inequality coexists with porous social boundaries. Social interactions between whites and blacks, measured as interracial marriage, friendships and residential integration, are greater than in the United States. That had been the (limited) evidence for racial democracy. Yet greater is still far from the level at which race does not matter. At the same time, the United States is no longer extremely segregated as it once was, and indexes of average social interaction suggest that it is becoming more like Brazil (although racial inequality remains well below Brazil's), making the comparison a slowly moving target. Despite some differences, race and racism continue to bedevil social relations in both countries.

Michelle Lamont and her collaborators go beyond the historical and survey-based analyses, which have characterized most Brazil-United States comparisons, to examine the personal experiences of racialized minorities in confronting racism. We get to hear what Brazilians themselves have to say about race. …

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