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Rethinking Race in Brazil*

  • Howard Winant (a1)


Introduction: the Repudiation of the Centenário

13 May 1988 was the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil. In honour of that date, various official celebrations and commemorations of the centenário, organised by the Brazilian government, church groups and cultural organisations, took place throughout the country, even including a speech by President José Sarney.

This celebration of the emancipation was not, however, universal. Many Afro—Brazilian groups staged actions and marches, issued denunciations and organised cultural events repudiating the ‘farce of abolition’. These were unprecedented efforts to draw national and international attention to the extensive racial inequality and discrimination which Brazilian blacks – by far the largest concentration of people of African descent in any country in the western hemisphere – continue to confront. Particular interventions had such titles as ‘100 Years of Lies’, ‘One Hundred Years Without Abolition’, ‘March for the Real Liberation of the Race’, ‘Symbolic Burial of the 13th of May’, ‘March in Protest of the Farce of Abolition’, and ‘Discommemoration (Descomemoraçāo) of the Centenary of Abolition’.1 The repudiation of the centenário suggests that Brazilian racial dynamics, traditionally quiescent, are emerging with the rest of society from the extended twilight of military dictatorship. Racial conflict and mobilisation, long almost entirely absent from the Brazilian scene, are reappearing. New racial patterns and processes – political, cultural, economic, social and psychological – are emerging, while racial inequalities of course continue as well. How much do we know about race in contemporary Brazil? How effectively does the extensive literature explain the present situation?



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1 Maggie, Yvonne (ed.), Catálogo: Centenário da Aboliçāo (Rio de Janeiro, 1989).

2 Relevant examples here include Pierson, Donald, Negroes in Brazil: A Study of Race Contact in Bahia (Carbondale, IL, 1967 [1942]); Tannenbaum, Frank, Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas (New York, 1947); Freyre, Gilberto, New World in the Tropics: The Culture of Modern Brazil (New York, 1959). For reasons of space this article focuses on contemporary issues of race. I do not discuss the origins or history of racial dynamics or ideas in Brazil. For good sources on these topics see Skidmore, Thomas E., Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (New York, 1974); Viotti da Costa, Emilia, Da Monarquia a República: Momentos Decisivos (Sāo Paulo, 1977); Da Senzala a Colónia (Sāo Paulo, 2nd edn. 1982); and The Brazilian Empire: Myths and Histories (Chicago, 1985), esp. pp. 234246.

3 de Azevedo, Thales, Bastide, Roger, Fernandes, Florestan, Harris, Marvin and Wagley, Charles, among others, were associated with the UNESCO project. Wagley, Charles (ed.), Race and Class in Rural Brazil (New York, 1972), is a convenient collection of papers from the rural phase of this research. The work of Bastide and Fernandes is the chief product of its urban phase. The importance of these studies for Brazilian social science, and more indirectly for racial dynamics themselves, cannot be overestimated.

4 Key works in this monumental series of studies include: de Azevedo, Thales, Cultura e Situaçāo Racial no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, 1966); Bastide, Roger, ‘A Imprensa Negra do Estado de Sāo Paulo’, in his Estudos Afro-Brasileiros (Sāo Paulo, 1973), and The African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilisations (Baltimore, 1978); Fernandes, Florestan, A Integraçāo do Negro na Sociedade de Closes, 2 vols. (Sāo Paulo, 3rd edn., 1978); Bastide, Roger and Fernandes, Florestan, Brancos e Negros em Sāo Paulo (Sāo Paulo, 1959); Harris, Marvin, Patterns of Race in the Americas (New York, 1964).

5 Freyre, Gilberto, O Mundo Que o Portugues Criou (Rio de Janeiro, 1940); Skidmore, , Black Into White.

6 Fernandes, , A Integraçāo do Negro, vol. 2, p. 460.

7 Azevedo, , Cultura e Situaçāo Racial, pp. 3043. Azevedo presents the process of transition as a shift from racially identified status or prestige groups to classes. Formerly, whites were identified as a superior status group and blacks, conversely, as an inferior group. Race served as an indicator of status, but the deeper, more ‘objective’ category of class is a matter of economics, not of colour or prestige. Thus race becomes less salient as class formation proceeds:

From this structure of two levels social classes are beginning to emerge, which may be identified from an economic point of view by property differences, income levels, consumption patterns, levels of education and rules of behaviour, and even by their incipient self-consciousness. The system of classes is organised in part by the older status groups and is still very much shaped by the old order. Its three elements are an upper class or elite, a middle class, and a lower class or the poor (ibid., p. 34; original emphasis).

This view thus combines class reductionism (what is ultimately important about race is how it fits people into the economic system) with an implicit optimism about its transcendence in and by an emerging class system.

8 These arguments led Eugene Genovese to defend the admittedly conservative Gilberto Freyre (as well as Frank Tannenbaum and others) from the admittedly radical and ‘materialist’ attack of Harris. Genovese (correctly in my view) perceived in Freyre a far more complex and ‘totalizing’ view of the meaning of race in Brazil than he found in Harris, (Genovese, Eugene D., In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (New York, 1971) pp. 41–3).

9 Harris, , Patterns of Race in the Americas, p. 64.

10 Degler, Carl N., Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York, 1971).

11 de Souza, Amaury, ‘Raça e Política no Brasil Urbano’, in Revista Administraçāo de Empreses, vol. 2, no. 4 (1970); see also Bastide, , ‘A Imprensa Negra’.

12 I return to this point below in discussing racial formation theory.

13 For examples of this language, and analyses of its significance, see de Azevedo, Celia Marinho, Onda Negra, Medo Branca: O Negro no Imaginario das Elites – Século XIX (Rio de Janeiro, 1987); see also Skidmore, , Black Into White.

14 Thus, the impoverished northeast – the traditional locus of Brazilian poverty and underdevelopment, and the focus of Harris' and Azevedo's studies – is also disproportionately black, while the urbanised and industrialised southeast is disproportionately white. Costa, Manoel Augusto (ed.), O Segundo Brasil: Perspectivas Socio-Demográficas (Rio de Janeiro, 1983); Wood, Charles H. and de Carvalho, José Alberto Magno, The Demography of Inequality in Brazil (New York, 1988).

15 do Valle Silva, Nelson, ‘Updating the Cost of Not Being White in Brazil’, in Fontaine, Pierre-Michel (ed.), Race, Class, and Power in Brazil (Los Angeles, 1985), pp. 5455 idem, ‘Cor e Processo de Realizaçāo Socioeconómica’, Dados, vol. 24, no. 3 (1980).

16 ‘Campanha Censo 90’ was announced in July 1990 by a broad coalition of Afro-Brazilian organisations of various political and cultural tendencies. Its slogan was ‘Nāo deixe a sua cor passar em branco: responda com bom c/senso’ (‘Don't let your colour be passed off as white: respond with good sense’, thus punning on ‘sense/census’).

17 Even Harris (Patterns of Race in the Americas), whose research was directed quite specifically at the problem of racial categorisation, is susceptible to this criticism.

18 This tendency is not confined to Brazil or to the United States; it is global, and only recently has come under sustained scrutiny. The recognition that the meaning of race is a significant political problem implies a racial formation perspective. See below.

19 Dzidzienyo, Anani, The Position of Blacks in Brazilian Society (London, 1971), p. 5.

20 Ibid., p. 14; original emphasis.

21 My own critique of Fernandes draws on the one presented by Hasenbalg, which centres on Fernandes' treatment of racial dynamics as survivals of slavery, of a pre-modern, pre-industrial epoch. See Hasenbalg, Carlos A., Discriminaçāo e Desigualdades Raciais no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, 1979), pp. 7276.

22 This analysis has strong parallels with Pierre van den Berghe's views on Brazil; van den Berghe argues that in the early post-aboliçāo period racial dynamics were ‘paternalistic’, but later (as capitalism developed), became ‘competitive’. In other words there was a shift from a non-antagonistic pattern of racial inequality toward a more conflictual one. van den Berghe, Pierre, Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective (New York, 1967).

23 Hasenbalg, , Discriminaçāo e Desigualdades, pp. 223260.

24 Skidmore, , Black Into White, pp. 130131, 136–144.

25 This is close to Fernandas' argument, although his understanding of racism as a ‘survival’ antagonistic to full capitalist development limits his appreciation of the point. See Fernandes, Florestan, ‘The Weight of the Past’ in Franklin, J. H. (ed.), Color and Race (Boston, 1969).

26 This reversibility in the structural argument suggests a certain residual functionalism. Certainly a measure of class reductionism survives in the structuralist perspective. In Hasenbalg's study the functionalist moment may be attributable to reliance on Poulantzas. Adopting the latter's approach to class formation, Hasenbalg writes:

Race, as a socially elaborated attribute, is principally related to the subordinated aspect of the reproduction of social classes, that is, to the reproduction (formation – qualification – submission) and distribution of agents. Therefore, racial, minorities are not outside the class structure of multiracial societies in which capitalist relations of production – or any other relations of production, in fact – are dominant. Likewise, racism, as an ideological construct incorporated in and realised through a pattern of material practices of racial discrimination, is the primary determinant of the position of non-whites, in the relations of production and distribution (Hasenbalg, Discriminaçāo e Desigtialdades, p. 114).

Note how little autonomy racial dynamics are granted in this model. A series of functional requirements for the reproduction of the capitalist class structure sets the pattern of racial formation. The qualification ‘or any other relations of production’ is irrelevant, because in these other modes of production (slavery, feudalism?) racial minorities presumably will also be subordinated to class structures which are granted logical priority, as well as historical precedence, over racial dynamics. For a more recent statement of Hasenbalg's position, see Carlos Hasenbalg, untitled presentation, Estudos Afro-Asiaticos 12 (Rio de Janeiro, August 1986), pp. 27–30.

27 Omi, Michael and Winant, Howard, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York, 1986).

28 Only a brief statement of the racial formation framework is possible here. For a more extensive discussion, see Omi, and Winant, , Racial Formation in the United States. For more on racial projects, see Winant, Howard, ‘Postmodem Racial Politics: Difference and Inequality’, Socialist Review 90/1 (Jan.–March, 1990).

29 The Frente was the most significant Afro-Brazilian organisation of the 1920s and 1930s. It was repressed by Getúlio Vargas in 1937 after transforming itself into a political party. See Fernandes, , A Integraçāo do Negro, vol. 2, pp. 1087.

30 See Stepan, Alfred, Rethinking Military Politics: Brazil and the Southern Cone (Princeton, 1988), for a detailed account of the military's sophistication in handling the pace of the abertura.

31 Skidmore, Thomas E., ‘Race and Class in Brazil: Historical Perspectives’, in Fontaine, Pierre-Michel (ed.), Race, Class, and Power in Brazil.

32 The Movimento Negro Unificado Contra Discriminaçāo Racial (later simply Movimento Negro Unificado – MNU) was the most significant movement of the 1970s. See Gonzalez, Lelia, ‘The Unified Black Movement: A New Stage in Black Political Mobilisation’, in Fontaine, Pierre-Michel (ed.), Race, Class, and Power in Brazil; do Nascimento, Maria Ercilia, A Estratégia da Desigualdade: O Movimento Negro dos Anas 70 (unpubl. master's thesis, PUC – Sāo Paulo, 1989).

33 In no small measure due to the ideas popularised by the Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire, these primordial political experiences were in themselves acts of reinterpretation.

34 Use Scherer-Warren, and Krischke, Paulo J., Uma Revoluçāo no Cotidiano? Os Movimentos Sociais na América do Sul (Sāo Paulo, 1986); dos Santos, Theotonio, ‘Crisis y Moviementos Sociales en Brasil’, in Gutierrez, Fernando Calderōn (ed.), Los Movimientos Sociales ante la Crisis (Buenos Aires, 1985), pp. 4748; Boschi, Renato R., ‘Social Movements and the New Political Order in Brazil’, in Wirth, John et al. (eds.), State and Stability in Brazil: Continuity and Change (Boulder, 1987); Schmink, Marianne, ‘Women in Brazilian Abertura Politics’, in Signs, 7 (Autumn 1981); Cardoso, Ruth C. L., ‘Movimentos Sociais Urbanos: Balanço Crítico’, in Velazco e Cruz, Sebastiāo et al. , Sociedade e Politico no Brasil pos-64 (Sāo Paulo, 1983).

35 The following discussion relies heavily on Rufino dos Santos, Joel, O Movimento Negro e a Crise Brasileira (mimeo, Sāo Paulo, 1985); Mitchell, Michael, ‘Blacks and the Abertura Democrática’ in Fontaine, Pierre-Michel (ed.), Race, Class, and Power in Brazil; Moura, Clovis, Brasil: As Raises do Protesto Negro (Sāo Paulo, 1983); Sodre, Muniz, A Verdade Seduzida (Rio de Janeiro, 1983).

36 Such as the Palmares group, terreiros of candomblé, afoxes and blocos africanos, etc. Cultural and religious groups are entirely central in black organisational efforts in Brazil, and in recent years have more frequently linked their traditional vocations with political themes. For example, afoxes are groups of religious orientation, based in Candomblé. They dance and sing in African languages, and participate in Carnaval. Formerly outlawed, they were legalised in the late 1970s. In Salvador the afoxes have formed blocos which are not only active in Carnaval, but also serve as ‘nationalist’ organisations, performing educational tasks (racial conscientizaçāo), organising favelados and moradores groups, etc.

37 Turner, J. Michael, ‘Brown Into Black: Changing Racial Attitudes of Afro-Brazilian University Students’, in Fontaine, Pierre-Michel (ed.), Race, Class, and Power in Brazil.

38 As in the United States and many other countries, black women play a crucial role in many social movements in Brazil (Carneiro, Sueli and Santos, Thereza, Mulher Negra, Sāo Paulo, 1985). They have challenged both sexism in the black movement and racism in the women's movement. The topic of Afro-Brazilian women and feminism has generated much debate and several significant studies. The MNU included anti-sexist points in its statement of principles, for example. (See Gonzales, , ‘The Unified Black Movement’, pp. 129130) On other aspects of these issues see Elena, Lucia Oliveira, Garcia, Porcaro, Rosa Maria, and Araujo, Tereza Cristina Nascimento, ‘Repensando o Lugar da Mulher Negra’, Estudos Afro-Asiaticos, 13 (Rio de Janeiro, March 1987), idem, O Lugar do Negro na Força de Trabalho (Rio de Janeiro, 1985); Barroso, Carment (ed.), Mulher, Sociedade, e Estado no Brasil (Sāo Paulo, 1982).

39 The MNU was, however, riven by regional and ideological divisions, and was unable to maintain its cohesion at a national level. See Ercilia do Nascimento, Maria, A Estratégia da Desigualdade, pp. 112117.

40 For US comparisons, see Omi, Michael and Winant, Howard, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon: Race in the United States’, Part II, Socialist Review, 72 (Nov.–Dec. 1983), pp. 3840.

41 Gonzalez, , ‘The Unified Black Movement’, p. 130; a recent representative statement on quilombismo is do Nascimento, Abdias, ‘Quilombismo: The African-Brazilian Road to Socialism’, in Asante, Molefi Kete and Asante, Kariamu Welsh (eds.), African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity (Westport, 1985).

42 ‘Bene’ often combines her anti-racist polemic with defence of women's rights. For a particularly strong statement, see Benedita Souza da Silva, ‘A identidade da Mulher Negra – a Identidade da Mulher India’, presented at the Conferéncia Nacional Saude e Direitos da Mulher, October 1986 (mimeo).

43 In the USA, black movement successes were met with sophisticated state strategies which I have elsewhere analysed in terms of ‘absorption’ and ‘insulation’ (Omi, and Winant, , Racial Formation, p. 81). Predictably, in Brazil there are big debates about the extent of service, versus the degree of co-optation, offered by such organisations. The state tendency to establish a bureaucracy when confronted by opposition is very strong.

44 For surveys of debates about racial identity during the 1960s and 1970s, see Skidmore, , ‘Race and Class in Brazil’; Mitchell, , ‘Blacks and the Abertura Democrática’.

45 da Silva, Carlos Benedito Rodrigues, ‘Black Soul: Aglutinaçāo Espontanea ou Identidade Etnica: Uma Contribuiçāo āo Estudo das Manifestaçōes Culturais no Meio Negro’, presented at the Fourth Annual Meeting of the Associaçāo Nacional de Posgraduaçāo e Pesquisas em Ciencias Sociais (ANPOCS), 1980.

46 Olodum's intervention is not free from the limitations which traditionally afflict popular Afro-Brazilian figures however. The group's appearance in 1990 on videos made for Paul Simon's record Rhythm of the Saints has provoked criticisms for ‘selling out’.

47 Stephens, Thomas M., Dictionary of Latin American Racial and Ethnic Terminology (Gainesville, 1989).

* Early versions of this work were presented at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in October 1989 and at the Latin American Studies Association meetings in Miami, December 1989. Thanks are due to Maria Brandāo, Heloisa Buarque de Holanda, Michael Hanchard, Carlos Hasenbalg, Gay Seidman, Tom Skidmore and George Yudice, and to an anonymous reviewer at the Journal of Latin American Studies. Research for this article was supported in part by a Fulbright grant.

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Rethinking Race in Brazil*

  • Howard Winant (a1)


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