Brazil and US: The Black-White Divide

Brazil and US: The Black-White Divide

    When Americans are confronted with the existence of
    differential treatment of Brazilians by
    color, many turn to
    the US "black"/"white" model and suggest that this mode
    is the "best" solution for
    Brazil. Why bifurcate a population
    into "black" and "white" to ensure social justice?

    Javier Nelson


    As a proud Dominican, I am ashamed to admit it, but my exposure to my first real written description of Brazil came
    in 1973, when I was asked to read a book called
    Race and Racism, written in 1967 by a historical sociologist named Pierre
    van den Berghe.

    In this book, van den Berghe compared and contrasted four societies historically, starting with the least racist and
    ending with the most racist. The first society was Mexico, the second Brazil, the third the United States and the fourth South
    Africa. Brazil’s history should be well known to this (Brazilian) readership, but suffice it to say that van den Berghe was not
    wholly approving of Brazil’s race relations (notwithstanding Brazil’s position as second-least racist of the four societies). He
    called Brazil a "racial purgatory" as opposed to the popularly used expression "racial paradise".


    Because van den Berghe was aware that Brazil still suffered from racism, in spite of the racial ambiguity, the racial
    mixing, the concept of nationality-over-race, the African artifacts in culture (like samba, etc.). What was van den Berghe’s
    solution to the Brazilian dilemma? He didn’t point to concrete suggestions, instead noting that what he called "competitive race
    relations" (in which people are thrown into intense economic competition for scarce resources) seemed to be behind some of the
    increases in racism that he had cited. What van den Berghe
    didn’t prescribe as a Brazilian solution is a strategy I am about
    to describe below.

    When North Americans and other outsiders are confronted with the existence of differential treatment of Brazilians
    by color, many of them have and have had a singular reaction which I consider counterproductive: they turn to the U.S.
    "black"/"white" model (which advocates absolute, rigid, immutable and permanent social boundaries between endogamous
    populations designated as "black" and "white") and suggest that this mode of social interaction is then the "best" solution for
    Brazil’s racial problems (since, quite obviously, the color gradations, the multiple social names for different colors, the high
    degrees of intermarriages between people of different colors, "don’t work").

    Thus, Brazilians who previously may have thought of themselves as Brazilians
    first and whatever-color-they-are a distant
    second are urged to be loyal to their "race". Darker mulattoes and others are therefore "black"—lighter mulattoes and
    persons of clearer complexions are therefore "white"; and the stage is set for confrontational activities.

    Never mind that most people of whatever complexion are poor and that the class system in Brazil is among the
    most oppressive in the world for anyone of any color outside of a very select percentage of individuals.

    Need for New Thinking

    It is as if social thinkers are paralyzed into looking at social relations like iron filings attracted by a magnet: either at
    one "pole" or another (never a compromise). Why would it be absolutely necessary to bifurcate a population into "black"
    and "white" to ensure social justice for anyone?

    One of the things that the North Americans (U.S.) have done
    right is to protect people of all colors based on law far
    better than most other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Thus people of brown and dark brown color have long prospered
    in the United States to a degree unheard of in Latin America—and this has been done by insisting on the observance of
    one’s Civil Rights. I, myself, went to university in the United States among blacks who have ALL attained highly successful
    professional careers.

    Off the top of my head, of five or so blacks in musical groups I played in as a youth, two are U.S. Army Colonels
    (retired), one is a Ph.D. retired from AT&T, one is a successful band director in the Public Schools and the other is a judge. Why
    were these people successful? Because they were presented with opportunities to let their performance speak for them rather
    than their color in an atmosphere of legal protection from discrimination.

    One of the things that the North Americans have done
    wrong, however, has been the tendency for them to let one’s
    racial identity overshadow one’s national identity. This leads to a sense of social alienation in the United States which is
    difficult for Brazilians (or Dominicans) to understand. What do I mean by social alienation? The same five gentlemen who I
    mentioned as models for success nonetheless to a
    man are dissatisfied with their lives because they feel that, as blacks, the
    world is against them. Moreover, they are far more likely to identify with and empathize with other blacks and "people of
    color" (including Brazilians or Dominicans) than
    fellow U.S. citizens who happen to be white.

    I do not believe that Brazilians would be well-served by following in the path of racial confrontation and
    polarization exemplified by the U.S. However, I do think that Brazil had better decide to take a page from the U.S. book and set out
    to ensure opportunities for all Brazilians—guaranteed—regardless of one’s color
    by law . I believe that Brazil can
    combine the best of their system (high intermarriage, conception of nationality over color, multiple designations for different
    colors, studied ambiguity about race, etc.) and the U.S. system (a well-developed system of laws, safeguards and other
    mechanisms to guarantee that people will not be taken advantage of because of their color).

    It does not have to be either the "racial paradise" as a fiction (which is what goes on in Brazil today) OR
    bifurcated, endogamous, polarized "black and "white" social universes separated by an unreachable social chasm (what goes on in
    a large part of the U.S.).

    Learn from the North Americans—they are learning from you: pushed by the influx of Latin American immigration,
    their interracial marriage rates are rising, their population is becoming more used to multiple racial designations and they are
    seeing brown rather than black or white.


    William Javier Nelson, holds a Duke Ph.D. in Sociology and is of Dominican nationality. Letters (friendly or hostile,
    Spanish or English) can be addressed to:


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