Racial Discrimination and Miscegenation

By Telles, Edward | UN Chronicle, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Racial Discrimination and Miscegenation


Telles, Edward, UN Chronicle


In 1888, Brazil, with a mostly black and mixed race or mulatto population, was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. During more than 300 years of slavery in the Americas, it was the largest importer of African slaves, bringing in seven times as many African slaves to the country, compared to the United States.

Another important difference was the extent of miscegenation or race mixture, resulting largely from a high sex ratio among its colonial settlers. In contrast to a family-based colonization in North America, Brazil's Portuguese settlers were primarily male. As a result, they often sought out African, indigenous and mulatto females as mates, and thus miscegenation or race mixture was common. Today, Brazilians often pride themselves on their history of miscegenation and continue to have rates of intermarriage that are far greater than those of the United States.

Miscegenation and intermarriage suggest fluid race relations and, unlike the United States or South Africa, there were no racially-specific laws or policies, such as on segregation or apartheid, throughout the twentieth century. For these reasons, Brazilians thought of their country as a "racial democracy" from as early as the 1930s until recent years. They believed that racism and racial discrimination were minimal or non-existent in Brazilian society in contrast to the other multiracial societies in the world. A relatively narrow view of discrimination previously recognized only explicit manifestations of racism or race-based laws as discriminatory, thus only countries like South Africa and the United States were seen as truly racist. Moreover, there was little formal discussion of race in Brazilian society, while other societies were thought to be obsessed with race and racial difference.

At the time of the abolition, Brazil's population was mostly black or mixed race until the 1930s, when Brazil encouraged and received a large number of European immigrants as it sought to find new sources of labour. In the context of the scientific racism of the time, which deemed a non-white population as problematic to its future development, Brazilian officials explicitly encouraged European immigration while blocking Chinese and African immigrants. The growing population of European origin was also expected to mix with the non-white, further "whitening" the Brazilian population.

The 2000 Census reveals that about 40 per cent of the national population is considered brown or mixed race, while 5 per cent are black and 54 per cent are white; less than 1 per cent are considered Asian or indigenous. These statistics are largely based on self-identity, and race or colour in Brazil is generally determined by appearance. Many persons classified as white, for example, may have African or indigenous ancestry, but their appearance defines their classification and treatment in society. Of course, there is ambiguity in classification for individuals who straddle the colour boundaries.

Today, most Brazilians of all colours acknowledge that there is racial prejudice and discrimination in the country. Based on the statistical analysis of censuses, surveys and other evidence, we know that racial inequality is high and that racial discrimination in the labour market and other spheres of Brazilian society is common. Non-whites are major victims of human rights abuses, including widespread police violence. On average, black and brown (mulatto or mixed race) Brazilians earn half of the income of the white population. Most notably, the middle class and the elite are almost entirely white, so that Brazil's well-known melting pot only exists among the working class and the poor. Non-white Brazilians were rarely found in the country's top universities, until affirmative action began in 2001.

Most discrimination in Brazil is subtle and includes slights, aggressions and numerous other informal practices, while consciously egregious and overt racism directed at particular individuals, especially in the form of racial insults, is more commonly recognized as racist. …

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