Monday, September 25, 2006

Brazil Blogging: Race

It seems only appropriate that I kick off the first of what will be many blogs from Brazil over the next fifteen months that I tackle one of the biggest problems facing Brazil: racism.

Ever since Gilberto Freyre published "Master and the Slaves" ("Casa Grande e Senzala") in 1933, Brazil has relied, openly or subtly, on the notion, plucked from Freyre, that Brazil is a "racial democracy" due to the mixing (to some, including Freyre, violence-free and harmonious) of indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, and caucasian Europeans. They contend that this mixing has led to so many different skin-colors within the country, and even within families, that there can be no racism in Brazil. Not only this, they point to the supposed-absence of such mixing in the U.S. and the existence of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, etc., to suggest that Brazil not only is a racial democracy, but that slavery in the U.S. was and racism is far worse than in Brazil.

Brazilians are not solely to blame for this. Respected North American scholars such as Carl Degler have coined terms such as the "mulatto escape hatch" to basically suggest that Freyre was right.

But he wasn't, and if you take a close look at Brazil today, you can see how wrong he and the millions, both academics and "people on the street," are. Sure, you walk along, and you really do see a far greater physical superficial difference in skin colors of people in Brazil. This isn't like East Asia, where an American is kind of hard not to pick out in a crowd (at least not on skin color - the "I'm with stupid" t-shirts and the "Take this job and shove it" mesh hats differentiate far more nicely). One could easily see where Freyre might suggest that you can't be racist in Brazil when it's hard to pinpoint any one "race" in anybody.

But there are telltale signs. Certainly, there are folks (one of whom I have the pleasure of knowing) who insist that blacks are not to be trusted, that they are morally corrupt, and would steal from you if they could, even while this individual refuses to pay her black maid a respectable income.

Yet the signs are often more subtle, if no less sinister. One such sign is the advertisements. Nearly every ad is almost explicitly white people. Brown (their term, not mine) and black people rarely appear in ads unless they are famous, and the non-celebrity minorities that do appear in ads are often portrayed as the subaltern in the power system at play within the ads (such as small Afro-descendant children looking up to pretty white people who are helping them).

The other place one sees such racial disparities is in the workplace (or lack thereof). It's not that there aren't minorities in decent positions. But if you get on an elevator and there is somebody working the elevator, he or she (generally male, but I'm open-minded here) is Afro-descendant. Maids are almost never "white", and rarely even a "light brown" (and to you, dear reader, I now ask forgiveness - I'm basically translating racial terms that have no equivalent in English, another sign Freyre would point to as showing how much more successful racial mixing and harmony were in Brazil). Even the street vendors, while often times being "brown", are noticeably darker than professionals (though, of course, there are exceptions). And this is to say nothing of the cultural whitening or darkening power of income in Brazil. And when you see people waving flags or handing out cards promoting one political candidate or another (elections in Brazil are this Sunday, October 1 - stay tuned for THAT blog, which will have plenty to say, I'm sure), it's generally people who are poor and unemployed, and thus able to get paid (poorly) by political parties. The real crime of this latter is they are often waving flags for parties of the center-right and right, parties that have always and, if gaining office, will continue to screw the poor and minorities like they have over the last 500 years in Brazil.

Then there are the homeless. People sleeping on sidewalks all over, begging for money, and nearly all of them are Afro-descendants or the darker side of that generic "brown." I've yet to see a "white" or "light" person among them. This isn't to suggest that there aren't white or light homeless people, yet the numbers are small.

And finally, there is a book that greets me upon my arrival. In recent years, there has been outstanding work on race in Brazil, undermining, contradicting, and even discarding the U.S. comparison. One of the most notable works in this area is Michael Hanchard's edited volume, Racial Politics in Contemporary Brazil. Yet upon my arrival, I see a book titled "We are not racists", with a subtitle something along the lines of "Why people are incorrectly trying to make us a bi-racial society." (I may have the exact phrase wrong, but I have the exact gist right). The notion, of course, is that Brazil is NOT racist, and that those who are trying to improve things through Affirmative Action laws (where Brazil employs quotas since 1997) and who are suggesting that race and racism are serious problems in Brazil are only CREATING racism where there had (supposedly) been none before. As unsubtle as the notion of a "racial democracy" was, this new book, which is advertised on the back windows of buses throughout Brazil, doesn't beat around the bush.

Books like these are absolutely awful, yet fully a part of the legacy of scholarship on race in Brazil. While many scholars like those featured in Hanchard's work, both North American and Brazilian, look at the subtle economic, political, and social ways in which racism exists and continues in Brazil, thus making headway, scholars like the author of this new book (whose name I can't remember, but will put up when I see it again) try to undermine all of that, continuing to rely on a comparison that pits Brazil vs. the U.S. and insists that the U.S. is the model against which Brazil must work. Thus, they see what they perceive (falsely, it turns out - just look at regional differences in racial hierarchies such as the indigenous-hispanic-anglo divisions in the Southwest, the Asian population, both East and South, throughout the U.S., and, let's not forget the Finnish-Swedish-Norwegian divisions of the great North Midwest) as a black-white division in the U.S. The thought is that in the U.S., we only perceive race in black or white, and that just leads to the institutionalization of racism via Jim Crow laws (nevermind their abolition). Thus, some scholars who will be widely read in Brazil insist that Brazil ISN'T racist, and that any effort to actually achieve equal rights for all will only LEAD to racism.

This may be nonsensical, and even droning, to some who do not know or care about Brazil or international racial politics. Yet it is very disturbing. Certainly, it's a pipe dream to think that racism can ever be eradicated, for people will always diffentiate each other on superficial characteristics. Yet as long as large portions of the Brazilian population continue to ignore or deny racial differentiation within society, and the racism that derives from that, and as long as some scholars insist that racial equality will actually LEAD to racism (nevermind that the indigenous peoples of Brazil never pop up in their arguments), Brazil will continue to struggle (some would say futilely) in the battle to improve economic gaps within the population (Brazil has the largest gap between rich and poor), to improve political openings, to improve society.