Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Future of Brazilian Race Relations: A Barack Obama Effect?

I stayed out of the original comments thread from Karthika's post because I had plenty to say, and I think between the comments there and Erik's post, a lot has already been said. Erik gets Brazil right for the most part, as do Randy and Venha Futuro; there, race is incredibly coded in terms of money, clothing, education, and capital-c "Culture." Thus, Sao Paulo residents call idiot drivers or the poor or anybody who pisses them off "baiano" (in Rio, it's "Paraiba," another poor northeastern state with a large number of Afro-descendants), and I've had conversations with my "whiter" Brazilian counterparts where they have point-blank said that there is no racism in Brazil, all while sitting and eating in a pricey restaurant where all of the poorly-paid staff is brown-to-black, or heard somebody explain to me how the funk of the favelas is not "culture," that "culture" means Beethoven and Monet. This is in no way to enter into a "whose racism is worse" debate by claiming Brazil's racism is worse than the U.S.'s- such a debate over things like racism or slavery is less than useful, and tends to obscure the fact that those institutions are appalling regardless of where they are or their particular structures. Each country has its own historically formed racist expressions and structures, and it should go without saying that they are both troubling.

I think a lot of what Erik is saying about the U.S. is fascinating (and frightening). I am a bit curious as to what role he, Karthika, or anybody else thinks identity politics might play in combatting or reifying racism in the U.S. And I am a bit bothered (though it's no fault of his own) that this talk of America being a post-racial society is a particularly white issue (at least it's seemed as such to me). As Erik alludes, it's easier for whites, and maybe even others, to say America is "post-racial" now, but given the implication that racism therefore is no problem seems risible, and I'm fairly certain if I were to walk into Harlem, Washington Heights, the California fields, etc., and suggested that racism was dead, I would be met with a justified amount of derision.

However, what I really want to address here is the flip-side of Erik's discussion; specifically, the effect Barack Obama has had on Brazil. In short, Obama has given hope to more people than just U.S. residents. For generations, Brazilian and American scholars have debated whose racism and/or slavery was worse, and it's not uncommon to hear from most Brazilians the statement that American racism is worse (and again, I don't endorse this view or its opposite; I think neither view is particularly helpful). However, Obama's victory has forced a bit of a re-evaluation and introspection in Brazilian society, especially among Afro-descendants. For example, declaring oneself to be "black" has become far more popular than it had been prior to the election, and while a majority of Afro-descendants still categorize themselves as "brown" (and certainly some politically active Afro-descendants called themselves "black" before the election), I think it's safe to say that self-identifying as "black" has become a much stronger claim to personal pride and ability than it had before Obama was even campaigning. In some ways, it's almost the opposite of what's happening in America: where we are now seeing a major discursive effort to hide race under the rug by pointing to Obama's victory, some in Brazil are forcing the issue of race into public discourse by radicalizing their identity within Brazil's social structure, drawing inspiration from Obama's victory.

What is more, Obama's victory has forced some more uncomfortable self-evalutaions in Brazilian society. If America was supposed to have a worse racism than Brazil, and we've now elected an Afro-descendant to the office of the presidency, why hasn't Brazil done so? And not just to the presidency; the number of "brown" to "black" people in office at the national, state, and even local level is miniscule, and may be poorer than in the U.S. Certainly, Rio has never had a David Dinkins or a Ray Nagin. In short, the fact that we've been able to not only nominate but an elect an Obama has forced some Brazilians to quietly ask why they haven't been able to do so yet. Some progressives in Brazil have countered Obama has a Brazilian counterpart in Lula, who rose up from being a metal worker with no college education to become president of Brazil. While this is true (who's the last labor union leader we've elected? Oh, right....), the class-based nature of this argument in Brazil in some ways just reifies the racist structures of Brazil; by suggesting that Obama is to Lula what race is to class again denies the race-components of class in Brazil (as well as the class-components of race in the U.S.). In other words, they claim that Brazil only has class issues to overcome, and made great strides by electing Lula, thereby ignoring the racial problems still present in Brazil.

I think that Obama's victory and this self-imposed introspection in Brazil may actually lead to some small but important shifts, though. Just this past election year, international news agencies ran stories on 10 candidates who ran for public office in Brazil as "Barack Obama" (in Brazil, you can have virtually any name you want appear for your candidacy on the ballots). Just recently, Frontline ran an excellent report on one of the first of Brazil's "Baracks," as it followed Claudio Henrique's campaign to become the first black mayor of Belford Roxo, one of Rio's poor suburbs (and, in a great epilogue, his journey to the U.S. to attend the inauguration). The 10-minute story (which I highly encourage you to take time to watch) really gets at the key issues of how Obama has affected racial identities, society, and the political landscape in Brazil. Henrique didn't run as "Barack Obama" as some sort of gimmick; he ran because he had genuine hope and admiration for the man he felt had made his own candidacy possible. As one of the people interviewed put it, Obama has become a symbol for uniting, for overcoming society's racial obstacles, and this symbology has taken on major importance in Brazil.

This isn't to say that Obama's candidacy and now victory will lead to a "post-racial" society in Brazil anymore than it will lead to a "post-racial" society here, and many people in Brazil are dismayed and fearful that Obama's victory will lead to Brazil's own racially marginalized only getting "uppity" and making demands that rock the boat of denying racism. Nonetheless, the importance of Obama's victory to racial politics in Brazil cannot be denied, and it seems, at least right now, that there could be some subtle but important shifts in how Brazil deals with its own racial problems and legacies in the next several years.