Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



When reading and talking about the racial system in Brazil as seen from an American perspective, a constant theme reoccurs: compared to the United States, in Brazil class matters more than race. Tied to this approach is the assumption that racial relations are much better in Brazil than in the United States. This paper will show how this approach is completely misleading and written primarily for political purposes (as most sociology has always been).

The interesting thing about the comparison of Brazil and the United States is not how many differences there are between the two countries, but the amazing number of similarities.

What's Wrong with the American and Brazilian Approach to Racism

First of all, it is not useful to write about social forces affecting racism as if they were completely separate forces. To understand racism it is best to think of the theory of the supposedly conservative structural-functional system. In the United States and Brazil there are elaborate re-enforcing system parts that cooperate to keep the overall system of racism going strong. It is artificial to talk about the role of class over against the role racism. These two social forces go hand in hand to keep the system of racism going.

Indeed, in the United States the economic structure (class, in short-hand language) is the main way that blacks are kept in a relatively disadvantaged situation. To make a distinction between "class" and "race" as if they were too completely different phenomena is to miss the way racism actually works in the United States.

Second, structure is more important than attitude in understanding racism. There is little doubt that the attitudes of the Brazilians are more "liberal" in their responses to racism. But regardless of the differences in attitudes, the racist system in Brazil, like that in the United States, also continues strong. And is the Brazilian system of racism really less fierce than that in America? There is considerably more social, political, and economic inequality in Brazil than in America. So even though white Americans may be less "liberal" than white and brown Brazilians in their racial attitudes, because the economic system of distribution is worse in Brazil, the relative structural position of blacks in Brazil is also worse.

American Sociological Bias in Dealing with Brazilian Slavery

We of the Vernon Johns Society have shown in our writings that social scientists do not understand racism. They have consistently preferred to underestimate the role of race. Not only do social scientists not understand race, they also appear not to want to understand it because they constantly censor our attempts to emphasize the important role of racism (where we don't see race as an artificial byproduct of capitalism or simply due to the negative actions of rich businessmen). Not only do they underestimate race, they have always worked within the system of racism (most prominently in their cooperation with Booker T. Washington) and continue to do so to this day (with their current support of the racially separatist vision of "multiculturalism").

One cannot trust the opinions of American social scientists because they are so influenced by political goals, in this case, to criticize the American system by comparing it unfavorably to the Brazilian system.

This article will have no such political goal, but rather will take a non-politicized approach by emphasizing that Brazil should be understood on its own terms irrespective of our concerns about American racism. Our point is not that Brazil is worse or better than the United States. Rather our research will show the terrible effects of racism on Brazil (just as we have shown the terrible effects of racism on the United States).

The American social scientists overemphasize the importance of the differences between Brazilian and American slavery. They talk in terms of slavery being less harsh in Brazil than the United States. But the overwhelming fact is that slavery is slavery and bad anyway you look at it.

Slavery and race relations were and are not "worse" or "better" in Brazil compared to the United States. Rather slavery and race relations were and are bad in both countries. Brazil's problems with the racial question should be analyzed in an of itself. Of course, comparisons will be made, but without the implicit or not so subtle political message that the United States should be more like Brazil. Both countries have enough of their own problems without moralistic statements saying that one people are better or worse than another in their reactions to the race problem.

Leave it to Robert Park (in the introduction to Pierson 1967:lxxviii), who once served as the private secretary to Booker T. Washington, to give us a mistaken take on race. "One thing that makes the racial situation in Brazil interesting is the fact that, having a Negro population proportionally larger than the United States, Brazil has no race problem." (emphasis added)

The American liberals' love affair with Brazil reached its height during the period of Jim Crow in the United States.  Brazil did not have such a system of legalized segregation and the American liberals wanted to make the point that the United States should be more like Brazil.  The history of the African-American love affair with Brazil and the subsequent disillusionment is traced in Hellwig (1992).

The bias of American writings on Brazilian ethnic relations comes out in Pierson's work (1967:45) because he tried to argue that "the slavery involved . . . was ordinarily a mild form of servitude." And Pierson (1967:80) that "Brazil was not . . . without at least occasional evidences of brutality." These are just unacceptable statements. And in fact, Pierson's own writings contradict the statement even though he makes all kinds of excuses for Brazilian slavery. Certainly Gilberto Freyre (1956) work The Masters and the Slaves has a very long discussion of sexual sadism among the Brazilian slave owners. Freyre's work gives the lie to describing Brazilian slavery as mild and only occasionally brutal.

The more modern-day liberals who have worked on Brazilian racism are just as guilty of vulgar Marxism as the earlier American liberal writers. Thus in Michael G. Hanchard's book on the civil rights movements in Brazil in the large cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the blame goes to the white elites whose "neutralized" the civil rights struggles by promoting racial discrimination and the false premise of racial democracy. The same is true of the work of George Reid Andrews who emphasizes how the state has encouraged the myths of black inferiority and perpetuated racial stereotypes. And a similar liberal whitewash of the problem of racism is Thomas E. Skidmore's book on the endorsement of the intellectual elite's "supposed" belief in assimilation and the ideal of whitening. Is one type of myth worse than another? Perhaps, but only in a limited sense. Many a person has sought an answer to the problem of racism and how to get rid of it. Is the Brazilian intellectual elite's pushing the idea of biological assimilation of blacks any worse than the American intellectual elite's approval of racial separatism in the name of the myths of "separate but equal" and "plural but equal" (as they did in their endorsement of Booker T. Washington at the turn of the 20th century and of Harold Cruse following the rejection of Martin Luther King, Jr.).

The Brazilians themselves are as little sophisticated than the American as regards the discussion of race. Clovis Moura, a black sociologist, believes that slavery became the blue-print for Brazilian society. It provided the dominant ethos, laid the foundations for economic inequality & exploitation, and influenced the way institutions, groups, and classes developed after abolition.  (My suspicion, however, is that Brazilian sociologists will be more traditionally Marxist, and less vulgar Marxists, and therefore also ultimately misunderstanding of racism.)

I wrote the above sentence in parenthesis before getting confirmation (from Fontaine 1988:1-3)-- I was able to do so just on a knowledge of  the influence of Marxism in the underdeveloped world.  Brazilian sociologists are emphasizing racism more, but it is still seen as a class epiphenomenon. Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1962) and Octavio Ianni (1962, 1972, 1978) focus on how racism became adapted to industrial capitalism.  Clovis Moura of the Brazilian Institute of Africanist Studies (IBEA) (1976, 1977, 1981) also has an overweaning class orientation.  In short, although Brazilian social scientists now see real racism in Brazil, it is still viewed as subordinate to class.

Fontaine (1988:2) insists that more social scientists are seeing racism as a real phenomenon subject to its own study in concert with class, but this is still a very simplistic version of racism and still influenced by the class perspective.  In this regard, those thinking about Brazilian racism are just getting in sync with the School of White Racism in the United States.  And, I suspect, the Brazilian social scientists have been and are coming up with their own versions of multicultural separatism.  

The problem with all social scientists regardless of their country of origin is that they do not understand the pervasive influence of race.  Currently, the writers on racism have figured out that racism is structural in nature, but have refused to see that it is not only just the whites that derive advantages from the racism system (which just leads to an anti-white racism among blacks and browns).  The real nature of racism is revealed in the opposition of blacks to civil rights pioneers such as the Reverend Vernon Johns  -- in the cooperation of these blacks with the segregationists and their censorship of those trying to bring about change.  

A racist system doles out rewards not only to rich whites, but to middle and working class whites and blacks, to white and black intellectuals, and blacks of different shades of color.  But, because of the political bias of the social scientists, they have so far been unable to accept this more complete view of the intricacies of the racist system.  They cannot bring themselves to criticize white working class people, or their fellow intellectuals, or blacks or browns.  They can currently only criticize whites.  But they miss the more insidious nature of racism by doing so, and simply open themselves, deservedly so, to charges of intellectual racism.  

Slavery: Brutal in America, Brutal in Brazil

Brazil received from 1550 to 1850, it dates official of the end of the traffic of black, approximately 3,600,000 Africans. ( review of the book VISÕES DE LIBERDADE.

American and Brazilian slavery were primarily alike: brutal, dehumanizing institutions. It makes no sense to stress the comparison of slavery in the two countries, unless one has a political purpose.

Pierson (1967: ) writes that in Brazil there was no need to adopt a "Black Code" to control the blacks. But this is contradicted by Pierson (1967:42) himself. In 1806 there was a raid on a house involved in a planned slave revolt. A number of suspected plotters were arrested and a great quantity of armaments confiscated. Subsequently, officials ordered the arrest of every slave found in the streets after nine o'clock at night. At about the same time the Bahian governor ordered two troublesome quilombos (or settlements of fugitive slaves) destroyed.

Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to free its slaves (1888). Among the reasons given by Pierson (1967:64) for the abolition of Brazilian slavery, he does not even mention the most important source: the active opposition of the British, who dominated the Brazilian economy.

Brazilians are probably more color conscious than Americans because being black or white was not the question. One could be different shades; one could be a mixture of Black, White, and Indian. Indeed, the language of Brazil gives away their color consciousness. When looking at the definitions at the back of Freyre's book (1956), one sees many terms for color. These terms are arranged roughly from lighter skin to darker skin.

brancarao --a very light-skinned mulatto, so light as to appear almost white;

caboclo/a -- literally means copper-colored; applied to Indian or mestizo;

mameluco/a -- offspring of white and Indian, sometimes including black;

cabore -- offspring of black and Indian;

cafuso -- offspring of Indian and black parents;

cariboca -- a mestizo, part black and part Indian;

cabrocha -- a feminine dark-skinned mestizo type; and

cabra -- a brave mestizo of African, white and Indian ancestry.

Other terms indicated the prejudice against blacks, one of the most objectionable referring to bodily functions. Such is the case with budum and catinga (referring to the body odor reputed to characterize the African). Other terms indicating great social discrepancies are:

cria -- a young black, born and reared in the Big House;

ladino/a -- a slave who spoke Portuguese, had some Christian teaching, and worked around the house or field;

mae preta -- black mammy;

malungo --a young black playmate of the whites lads of the Big House;

mucama -- a favorite black maid employed as house servant and personal attendant;

muleca -- a young black maid in the Big House;

mulecote -- a sturdily built muleque, or black lad;

muleque -- a young black; now a wag or a blackguard; and

mulequinho -- pickaninny; small black lad.

The fact that things have not changed all that much in Brazil is seen in the Dictionary of Informal Brazilian Portuguese (Chamberlain and Harmon 1983:628). Here is listed under the heading "Negro" terms such as monkey (o macaco) and rotting black flesh (urubu), along with others of a non-complimentary sort.

There may have been more opportunities in Brazil than in America for blacks to move up, but probably more restricted to mestizos than blacks themselves. The negros de ganho were black slaves engaged in gainful employ who gave much of their proceeds to their master.

The great influence of slavery in blocking the aspirations of blacks and others of mixed blood, is seen is the stories of the art of the "malandragem," that is, the art of being a malandro. A malandro was a heroic figure with roots in Brazilian folklore; the upwards striving hero who lived by his wits. One of the best known examples of a malandro tale was that of the tall, seductive ex-slave named Xica da Silva. She became the lover of an official sent by the Crown to preside over Portugal's monopoly of the production and sale of precious metals in Minas Gerais. Xica used her sexual wiles to seduce her way to the top so to speak. The Portuguese contractor for the diamond mines amassed an enormous fortune and spend much of it on Xica (including a man-made lake and a small boat to imitate an ocean, which Xica had never seen). The couple had 13 children, all of them legitimized by their father. (Page 1995:64)

The Portuguese and Brazilians -- Always Less Puritanical than the British and the Americans as Regards Racial Intermixture

For various political and ecological reasons, Brazil has been less puritanical than the United States. This discussion will abandon any trace of moralism, and speak of the attitudinal results as being definitely traceable back to ecological and political factors.

The Moors ruled over Portugal for more than five hundred years (711-1244). Since the darker-skinned Moors held control for so many years it was no accident that there was considerable "miscegenation" between the peoples. Indeed, Portuguese women came to view darker-skin as preferable to white skin when considering a potential marital or sexual partner. In addition, black slaves were imported into Portugal from 1433 on and there was definite intermixture with these people. "Traces of African descent are still today unmistakable in the population of Lisbon." (Pierson 1967:116-117) So the Portuguese already were more liberal in their attitudes when they came to Brazil. (A smaller factor, but probably of some importance, is that the Portuguese skin complexion is darker than that of the British.)

Probably the most important factor affecting the attitudes of white Brazilians toward Indian and Black women was that, unlike the British, Portugal did not send many women or families to the New World. In fact, the small country of Portugal was so spread out over the world, that there was a severe shortage of manpower in every place dominated by the Portuguese, including Portugal itself. For instance, Albuquerque complained of the insufficient number of men given for his conquests in the East (Pierson 1967:112).

The lack of sufficient labor power, of course, made the white Portuguese very willing to mate with both Indian and Black women. In fact, these unions were actively approved by the Portuguese, even in Portugal. Seventeenth-century Portuguese law recognized "common law" marriage and this was just one of the "virtually every kind of union" approved in order to increase the population (Pierson 1967:113). Portugal and Brazil needed bodies, and what better way to get them than to populate new Portuguese with a ready supply of available Indian and Black women?

Another motivation for the intermixture of whites and blacks in Brazil was that white skin was considered the powerful color and dark mothers considered themselves "especially favored" to have a lighter-skin child. These mothers had a common saying ("Estou limpando a minha raca." -- "I am cleaning my race.") to refer to this "whitening" of the race. (Pierson 1967:120)

Sex as a Social Control Device

In Brazil the ability of a black person to improve their own lot was and is a difficult task. But even if they might find it impossible for themselves to escape the extreme form of racism in Brazil, their children could have a better life.  If the black person chose as a sexual partner a person of lighter skin color, their children would be more likely to have a lighter skin color, and thereby not be as subject to the extremes of racism as the black mother or father.

Sex has been used as a safety valve in Brazil.  The lowest on the skin color ranking scale could always improve the lot of their children (and thereby partly improve their own lot) by having lighter colored children.  So the emphasis on sex in Brazil is just part of the overall racial system of social control.  

In the United States, this provision of the Brazilian type of sexual safety-valve was never possible.  In the United States, as long as a person has identifiable physical characteristics of African peoples, they are identified as black.  Lighter skin is seen as better by both blacks and whites in the United States, but this is only relative compared to the situation in Brazil where finer shadings of skin color are recognized.

It has been said that Brazilians are sexual exhibitionists.  This is in part explainable by the emphasis on sex and "miscengenation" in the culture.  And "Carnaval" is just one example of the importance of this system of sexual social control.  After all, those of darker color and lower class status but with good-looking physical bodies can be for several days equal to (or even superior to) those of lighter skin and higher status.  So Carnaval is a celebration not only of sexual freedom but also of class freedom (even if it is only a dream for a little while).

There is less racial consciousness among the blacks in Brazil precisely because they can improve their lot by having children with lighter skinned persons.  This also explains the importance of  the recognition of  skin color shadings in Brazil.  When different shadings are recognized, it gives a chance for each group on a particular rung to selfishly defend their position vis-a-vis others below them.  A racist system of social control takes advantage of the inherent selfishness of separate groups to keep the less privileged opposing each other. In other words, there is a method to the madness of the recognition of the importance of various race intermixture shadings.

Results of an Emphasis on Non-Colonization

An interesting question is to what extent the underdeveloped status of the Spanish and Portuguese worlds today in the Western hemisphere is due to the fact that Spain and Portugal did not put the primary emphasis on colonization, but rather on exploitation. Sending women and families over to the New World would have placed more of an emphasis on the New World settlements being just little Spains and little Portugals designed to keep pace with economic and political developments in the mother countries. Not putting the major emphasis on colonization undoubtedly encouraged the theme of exploitation -- that the New World settlements were to be only ancillary to the mother countries but never really like them. This also meant an accent on the exploitation of peoples --- Indian, black and mestizo -- an emphasis that would have great effects on the national character of the dominant whites.

The emphasis on exploitation in Brazil is seen in the dominance of the large landed estates along with the sugar mills. Also important were the large mineral interests. (When the author first heard of the state in Brazil known as Minas Gerais, he was somewhat perplexed when he learned the translation was General Mines, the state's named sounding like that of a company name. Can you imagine an American state known as General Electric? This illustrates the great discrepancies in power in Brazil among the classes.)

Even when Brazil became a Republic the executive joined forces with the local oligarchies to maintain power (Rocha 1997:37-38) As part of this power assertion, the rich worked to prevent the rise of independent political parties. Political parties have arisen but have proved too numerous and too fleeting. In 1977 conservative gerrymandering gave too much representation to the areas with more right-wing representatives. (For instance, a congress person from Sao Paulo represents 467,000 people while one from the small northern state of Roraima represents only 30,000).

Undoubtedly, like the United States, close study will show that any attempts by the disadvantaged in Brazil to overcome the powerful position in Brazil of the upper class was harmed by a lack of political solidarity among the poor and working class because of racial divisions.

The existence of a large group of mulattos in Brazilian society created a more complicated racial picture in Brazil compared to the United States. It undoubtedly lessened racial tensions somewhat between black and white as the mulattos could enjoy higher status than the blacks.

Brazilian Culture -- As Messed Up as American Culture

Someone needs to do a comparative study of the cultures of countries that at one time were or had large-scale economies based on slavery. There is a definite poisoning of the larger culture due to this fact. Slavery not only affected those enslaved, but those who did the enslaving.

Brazilians are noted for their considerable violence. There are many acts of violence in Brazil, including a very high murder rate. Brazilians are said to have little respect for the value of life. They are quick to take a life. Indeed, Chapter 9 in Page's book (1995:229) is entitled "The Culture of Brutality." (In 1999 in Sao Paulo, over a four day period of Carnaval, 114 people were murdered.)  An interesting statistic is that Brazil with only 150 million people suffers 50,000 auto deaths per year compared to 45,000 for the United States with its 275 million people. (Page 1995:257) Apparently, there is even a greater culture of selfishness with an associated disdain for traffic laws as well as other laws in Brazil than in the United States.

Brazilians are in some ways more "liberal" about sex than Americans. But this has to be placed in context. Highly sexualized institutions and holidays, like that of Carnaval, should not be taken as representative of Brazilian attitudes and conduct toward women. Brazil is still a male dominated society. In fact, this domination has been and is so strong, that some respite is needed from its tyrannical properties. Carnaval has been described as being important precisely because it is the break from the routine that makes the routine tolerable (Page 1995:3).

To complain about racism in Brazil, like the United States, often leads to cries of "un-Brazilian." (Cleary, 1998)  And in 1969 Brazil's National Security Council declared as "subversive" any studies and reports dealing with racial discrimination in that country. (Fontaine 1985:2)

Common Willingness to Fool Oneself on the Issue of Race in the United States and Brazil

In the United States, the experience of resistance among both black and white liberals to the ideas of the father of the civil rights movement, Vernon Johns, and the continuing resistance to these ideas as seen in the censorship of the Vernon Johns Society indicates that the usual situation among both blacks and whites is to deny the overwhelming influence of race on the society. Racism is a reality so ugly that few people are willing to acknowledge its influence. This reluctance is further strengthened by the negative sanctions imposed on those who try to acknowledge the influence of race. People are censored, demoted, and fired, in efforts to prevent a more honest consideration of the role of race in American society.

Therefore, it should not be surprising that this same phenomenon of nonrecognition exists in Brazil. In Brazil the vast majority of people continue to acquiesce in the national myth that Brazil is a fortunate land, indeed, a great racial democracy. George Reid Andrews has written a book that asks the question why do Brazilians continue to accept the virtually complete myth that Brazil is a racial democracy.

It may be that in the face of the reality of racism, people prefer communally to endorse the myth of equality of opportunity and racial democracy because it asserts at least their intellectual commitment to these ideas in some future world and as a goal that if not reached as least will be endorsed. A worse situation would be to acknowledge the racial discrimination and prejudice and then acknowledge that the belief in justice and non-racism in also a myth. It would be too much o acknowledge both the reality of racism and the myth of equality and racial democracy. It is obviously in their common interest to promote this myth. The fact that the myth continues in the face of the facts is proof enough of the usefulness of the myth. Everyone agrees to pretend that the myth is not a myth.

Now, it is permissible to forgive the average person and the larger society for endorsing the myth of equality and racial democracy, but it is not forgivable for social scientists to also endorse the myth. To put politics over science is just not acceptable.

Brazil and the United States: The Creation of Racist Political Systems

Brazil was very late in declaring its independence from Portugal.  And even when it did it was dominated by a Brazilian monarchy (with some modifications of course from the Portuguese system).  The Constitution of 1824 gave the government only limited powers and barely even conceptualized the idea of a contractual agreement between people and their government.  (Eakin 1997:30)  The principal emphasis was on the powers of the Emperor who was given a great "moderating power" over the other branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.  (Flynn 1978:11)

Far too much power was still held by locals.  Flynn (1978:6) writes that:

"One feature of nineteenth-century politics reflected till recently in twentieth-century development was the intense energy, passion and bitterness of political activity at the local level . . . and the consequent weakness, and superficiality, of much national politics."

One of the worst features of Brazil was the power of the local lord of the manor so to speak. This system in Brazil was known as "coronelismo" (the rule of the "colonels," so named because the local landowner or political boss was usually also the colonel of the National Guard in the area).  The system indicates the dominance of the powerful and rich few within the electoral system at the local level. (Flynn 1978:13-14)

When Brazil finally got around to declaring a republic, it was a system even more weak than that created in the United States.  And racism is undoubtedly much to blame for this situation, as it was in the United States.  The new era of government dawned with the abolition of slavery.  Unhappiness with the abolition of slavery (1888) denied to Emperor Dom Pedro II his traditional pillars of support: landowners, clergy, and military. (Eakin 1997:36) In fact, the emperor was forced into exile following a military coup.

A new constitution went into effect in 1891. The resulting government was a weak one like that in the United States.   Eakin (1997:38) notes that "The birth of the republic marked the emergence of the military as the key power broker in national politics."  Now positivists, republicans, military figures and the middle class shared power with the traditionally dominant landowners.  

Like the United States, power in the Brazilian government was considerably decentralized. In Brazil the "states pledged support to the federal government in exchange for the right to run their own affairs." (Eakin 1997:38)  The result was that the federal government often had to resort to the use of force to bring about its policies.  And, like the early United States with its very restricted idea of who was qualified to be a voting citizen, less than 1 percent of the Brazilian population could vote.  Also similar to the United States with its powerful slave plantations, the Brazilian system of restrictive and decentralized government allowed the powerful landowners to keep their considerable powers.

The Farroupilha Revolution (1835-1845) in the state of Rio Grande do Sul almost separated that state from the Brazilian nation.  This ten-year campaign was only one of a number of such revolts across Brazil. (Love 1971:13 & 15)

It was not until after 1930 that regionalism declined "as new cleavage lines appeared in Brazilian politics (Love 1971:249)."  The new cleavage lines arose because of the accelerating rates of urbanization and industrialization.  And this brought in the major phenomenon of populism (notice: not socialism).

Brazil: The Absence of a North and South

One big difference between Brazil and the United States is that Brazil was not divided between two conflicting types of economies as was the United States. The United States was home to two fundamentally contradictory economies: a slave economy and capitalism. This incompatibility eventually led to a civil war. Most of Brazil was an agriculture sand slave economy. Brazil did not have a quickly developing industrial economy that would find slavery a huge encumbrance.  (There was regional conflict, but largely due to the growth of Sao Paulo as an overwhelmingly rich and powerful seller of the coffee crop.)

The closest thing that might have had the chance of developing into a moral equivalent of a North in Brazil was the presence of the Jesuits, but these men primarily championed the Indians. Their careers in Brazil were cut short when they were thrown out of the country. Jesuits insisted the Indians had souls, so they proved embarrassing to the state. In 1759 they were expelled from Brazil and the colonies, resulting in the closure of many institutions of learning and disturbing basic civil administration. The settlers were helped in their fight against the Jesuits by the Marquis de Pombal, who became the power behind the Portuguese throne for much of the 18th century. He saw the Jesuits as a threat to Crown control. He seized the Jesuits' cooperation with the Guarani in the Guarani wars as an excuse to expel the Order from Brazil.

The Poor and the Working Class: Divided by Their Own Racism

Since Brazil is a country consisting of a greater intermixture of peoples, it is no wonder that Brazil is correspondingly more divided by race than the United States.  The divisions within among the non-whites of Brazil were apparent early on.  The Englishman Henry Koster (1966) lived in Brazil in the early 19th century and observed the divisions that most of today's sociologists would not investigate because it would not be politically correct. Koster noted that the mulattos (black and whites mixture) considered themselves superior to the mamalucos (Indian and white mixture) and leaned toward the whites.  He (Koster 1966:176) also noted that "Even the mestizo (Indian and black mixture) tries to pass for a mulatto, and to persuade himself, and others, that his veins contain some portion of white blood . . ." He observed that the pure blacks ". . . are easily affronted, and the least allusion to their color being made by a person of a lighter tint, enrages them to a great degree."  

People of color quickly adjust to the racist system and do the best they can with the resources available to them.  Koster (1966:177) observed that the creole blacks of Recife "have accumulated considerable sums of money, and possess many slaves."

Koster (1966;175-176) also noted the racism among the whites.  Although white men did marry blacks at times, he stated that "Still the Brazilians of high birth and large property do not like to intermarry with person whose mixture of blood is very apparent."  But the larger point here is that in a racist society all parties are guilty of racism.  They partake of the rewards for cooperating with (and the punishments for not cooperating with) the racist system. They all know the system and they work within it.

African-Americans who see themselves more as a single black group in the United States have been able to develop a fair amount of unity in how they view the political world.  This does not appear to be the case in Brazil.  

In Brazil there has developed a black consciousness movement but "it has failed to attract widespread support. (Eakin 1997:118)"  And Eakin asks the question "How is it possible to build a movement around consciousness of being black when most non-whites do not see themselves as black and do not wish to be considered black?  After all, whiter skin is widely believed to be a key to mobility."  And whiter skin is seen as that key to mobility partly because of the lack of unity between blacks and mulattos in Brazil.  Brazilian "blacks" (in American terms) vote more conservatively than their American counterparts precisely because they see their political fortunes as different.

And, just as the non-whites are politically divided in Brazil, so are the whites in the middle and working classes.  Compared to countries without a strong history of slavery and a persistent presence of a black minority, both the whites in the United States and Brazil vote more conservative politically.

American sociologists will not tolerate criticism of the American working class. In their convenient vulgar Marxism, any racism of the working class is the result of the manipulations of the rich. Racism is not a real phenomenon according to them. This is an obvious political stance on the part of the sociologists, and certainly is not science. But they see the truth as very secondary to protecting the interests of the political groups in favor with sociology. They justify this in their own minds by saying they are keepers of the faith and protectors of the less advantaged. But actually, the refusal of the sociologists to deal effectively with racism just keeps racism going strong.

Once again, liberals cannot accept the real racism amongst the middle and working classes. Racism is not a real phenomenon worth of consideration in its own right, but rather only as a byproduct of the actions of powerful white elites. This vulgar Marxism is so vulgar that one could almost say it constitutes a conspiracy theory. And we all know how useless large-scale conspiracy theories are for they are virtually impossible to disprove.

Unfortunately for the sociologists, racism is a real phenomenon. Of course, racism is affected by the actions of the rich, but still has independent causal sources of its own. And it is a fact that, independent of any actions of the rich, racism has split the poor and the working class in both the United States and Brazil.

Brazil has had ongoing problems with political instability. These problems are common to most of the countries in Latin America, so this instability should not be attributed primarily to the ongoing problems of racism in Brazil. But racism has made the situation worse. Jan Rocha (1997:37) pointed out that since Brazilian independence from Portugal there have been seven constitutions, either approved or imposed.

In Brazil the effects of racism can be seen in the dominance among the poor of, not socialism, but of populism, which has more connection to fascism than communism. In 1930 Getulio Vargas, a former deputy, minister, and governor in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, overthrew the Brazilian government. Borrowing from the ideas of Mussolini, Vargas created a dependent relationship between government and labor that simply "mirrored the traditional tie between the haves and have-nots in rural Brazil." (Page 1995:203)

After World War II, Vargas created the Brazilian Labor party (PTB -- Partido Trabalhista Brassileiro) that supported the paternalistic policies of the government. Vargas was deposed but made a comeback in 1950. In his return to power he merely reworked his old populist views for the new political climate. Through the years following Vargas, mainstream Brazilian politicians continued to espouse populism. (Page 1995:207 & 209)  Indeed, in the years 1945-1964 politics in Brazil were roughly balanced between populist and conservative forces. (Love 1971:256)

Racism slows development, because those occupational forces that should have been expected to support liberal causes did not do so in the theoretically expected numbers. That Brazil was behind her neighbor countries in terms of social progress can be seen in the discussion of the rise of populism in Brazil.  With increasing rates of urbanization and industrialization, the Brazilian labor movement began to grow but it was effectively repressed between 1917 and 1919.  What the Brazilians referred to as "the social question" (those problems associated with industrialization and urbanization) were not being addressed. Indeed, President Washington Luis (1926-1930) had said that "The social question is a matter for the police."  (Conniff 1981:54)  And in this regard "Brazil was far behind her Latin American neighbors." (It is not an accident that these neighbors did not have the racial problems of Brazil.)

The Brazilian response to the "social question" (like that of the United States) was much closer to populism than socialism.  Indeed, the very term "social question" reveals the extent of  the weakness of  liberalism in Brazil. 

In 1930 Getulio Vargas, a former deputy, minister, and governor in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, overthrew the Brazilian government. Borrowing from the ideas of Mussolini, Vargas created a dependent relationship between government and labor that simply "mirrored the traditional tie between the haves and have-nots in rural Brazil." (Page 1995:203)

Conniff (1981:179) writes that "In the 1940s Vargas effected his most noteworthy transition, this time from dictator to populist."  After World War II, Vargas created the Brazilian Labor party (PTB -- Partido Trabalhista Brassileiro) that supported the paternalistic policies of the government. Vargas was deposed but made a comeback in 1950. In his return to power he merely reworked his old populist views for the new political climate. Through the years following Vargas, mainstream Brazilian politicians continued to espouse populism. (Page 1995:207 & 209)

The tradition of populism continued in the post-Vargas era.  Even, the head of the Communist party in Brazil, Luis Carlos Prestes, led the party "with a conciliatory, even populist, stance." (Conniff 1981:180)  And the Brazilian Democratic Movement of the 19780s was certainly not a leftist party.  

More recently, a labor party has made more progress in Brazil. The popular leader nicknamed Lula helped form the Workers' party (PT -- Partido dos Trabalhadores). That Brazil is still much affected by populism, however, is evident in the following observation (Page 1995:222), explaining one of the reasons the Workers' party performed relatively well in the presidential election campaign of 1989: ". . . health problems forced the early withdrawal of Janio Quadros, the right-wing-populist ex-President, who appealed to much the same constituency as Lula."More recently, a labor party has made more progress in Brazil. The popular leader nicknamed Lula helped form the Workers' party (PT -- Partido dos Trabalhadores). That Brazil is still much affected by populism, however, is evident in the following observation (Page 1995:222), explaining one of the reasons the Workers' party performed relatively well in the presidential election campaign of 1989: ". . . health problems forced the early withdrawal of Janio Quadros, the right-wing-populist ex-President, who appealed to much the same constituency as Lula."

Blacks: On the Bottom of the Social Structure

Brazil is a very rigidly stratified society. Upward mobility is difficult for anyone in Brazil. But the lighter the skin color, the easier the rise to higher social position.

Blacks and mulattos continue to have lower education levels than whites. According to data of the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), in 1990, 28% of the black population were illiterate, against 11% of the white population. ( br/res_pgm/b4596/visoesli.htm) review of the book VISÕES DE LIBERDADE.

And blacks and mulattos experience racial discrimination. The average income for white Brazilians is twice that for black Brazilians. (Cleary, et. al. 1998:623)

Ongoing Prejudice in Brazil Against Blacks

Tiffany Brown (Whiten Up: Race and Class in Brazil) notes that ". . . for Brazilians, color categories are the equivalent of race categories. . . . Brazilians have internalized anti-black stereotypes so much so that "black" is seen as a set of poor cultural values, negative behaviors, and poverty in addition to being a color."

"In some ways, Brazil's claims to a racial democracy reinforce the culture's informal racism. "The fact that some blacks had apparently gotten rid of their 'stigma' and had joined the white community" made most Brazilians see the deprived conditions of most blacks "as a consequence of class rather than racial differences or of black inferiority" rather than racism (Viotti da Costa 243). So while Brazil claimed to be racially democratic, "[w]whitening was the most common form of social ascension," both by "marrying light" (Shapiro 830) and by "social whitening" or adopting white/upper-class ways (Viotti da Costa 243). "


Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977) was a dark-skinned black woman who lived in one of the favelas (shantytowns) of Sao Paolo. She and her children were constantly poor and hungry. She had to scavenge garbage areas to earn the necessary money to feed and clothes her family. A newspaperman, Audalio Dantas, discovered her and eventually saw her diary published as Quarto de Despejo (Child of the Dark). With the publication of her first diary she had some money available from the royalties. Robert M. Levine (1997), one of the translators, in the afterward to her second book I'm Going to Have a Little House, has an excellent discussion of the "constant" racial prejudice the authoress faced. Since she was of dark skin, Brazilians classified here as one worthy of the epithet a negra retinta, referring to her African appearance. The poverty she endured was much greater than that in the United States. (Not to mention the death squads that regularly murder children on the urban streets of Brazil -- in 1992, 442 children in the state of Rio de Janeiro were murdered -- Page 1995:260). For instance, when her book earned her royalties, she could not by herself access these funds from a bank because she was an indigent person, and as such was not allowed by law to have a bank account under her own name.

Levine described Carolina as being reviled for her blackness as well as for her poverty. Dantas censored many of the passages in her first diary that dealt with race. For instance, he censored the entry that described arranging for a white woman to work for Carolina as a servant. When Carolina (1997:79) had visitors, the white Dona Maria would become sad and grumble "My God in heaven, the world's coming to an end! God is punishing me. The world is turned upside down. I, a white woman, have a black woman for a boss." Indeed, the maid demanded a higher wage because she had to work for a black and a former shantytown dweller. In another incident, Carolina met a black woman so upset at the prejudice directed her way that she became depressed at being black and would not go to "dances for blacks."

Carolina was never good enough for the whites, but she also was never good enough for the intellectuals of Brazil. They rejected her because she was not revolutionary enough -- dare we now say it -- she was not politically correct enough for the intellectuals. They looked down on her because the three different fathers of her three children were all white. And the intellectuals claimed that she was too "selfish" because she cared most about her children and herself than any political cause. (Even though the poor woman with her small royalties was always giving money to poor people who came to her for assistance.) In short, they did not see her as an appropriate spokesperson for their political views. (Her story shows how the intellectuals used and abused her for their purposes and then threw her away -- she died in the same poverty from which she came -- a national tragedy. Perhaps the intellectuals who asked what kind of person Carolina was, should ask themselves what kind of people are they.)

Jan Rocha (1997:27) has pointed out that even though half of Brazil's 150 million people are black or mixed race, "official Brazil is white and TV commercials are positively Scandinavian. "Blacks only appear on TV as soccer players, suspects, or stiffs," complains one black activist. . . . Immigrants, adventurers, ex-Nazis, and runaway bank robbers have found more tolerance in Brazil than its own black citizens."

The most complete scientific-journalistic study about racism is Brazil was conducted just last year by the major newspaper Folha de São Paulo and the Institute of Research Datafolha. Some of the results were very surprising: while 89% of Brazilians said they believe there is racism in the society, only 10% admitted they were prejudiced; but 87% manifested some sort of prejudice by agreeing with racist statements or admitting having had discriminatory behavior in the past. ( by Rosemary Gund)

There seems less awareness of or resentment of the link between skin color and class in Brazil. This may be because of the lesser extreme gap between blacks and whites in the United States, and the recognition of peoples of different skin colors in Brazil. For instance, there is more intermixture of blacks and others on the beaches of Brazil. (Cleary, et. al., 1998:623-624) But when almost half the Brazilians have some black blood in them and have darker skins than North American whites, skin color would appear obvious that skin color would be less of a problem.

One Cannot Understand Brazil Without Understanding the Impact of Slavery and Racism

The fact that racism has always been a big problem for Brazilians can be seen in the Brazilian national inferiority complex, which has only been somewhat lessened by Gilberto Freyre's (1956) positive promotion of the positive effects of racial hybridization in Brazil. The publication of Freyre's masterpiece Casa-Grande & Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves) was a landmark in Brazilian cultural history. It was a sociological study of the formation of Brazilian society in the sugar-growing regions of the country during the colonial period. Freyre emphasized the importance of the distinct ethnic mix. Freyre described the positive impact blacks had had on the social fabric and national identity.  Inf fact, Freyre was the originator of the now-dominant myth of Brazil as a "racial democracy."

But the presence of the Brazilian inferiority complex is apparent with the statement that Freyre's book "made the Brazilian upper classes feel pride rather than shame." Frankly, from reading Freyre's work, it is very apparent that he is talking to a larger conservative, and largely racist, audience. He constantly brings up an old white wives' tale of racial intolerance and then argues why it is not valid. He does this over and over again. He could just have well been talking to white Southerners of the 1950s in the United States, trying to combat their prejudices.

The Brazilians' inferiority complex is directly traceable to the fact that so many Brazilians have black blood in them (probably more than 50 percent because many undoubtedly have conveniently forgotten their racial past). In contrast, Brazil's neighbors, the Argentineans, seem to have a superiority complex because of their white skin -- they are "white" European. Argentina did not having the racial intermixing of Brazil and Argentineans will quickly make this known when talking about their country. Now how can their be no racial problem in a country with an inferiority complex about the ethnic composition of its people?

Greater Separatism in Brazil

In America, what passes for racial "liberalism" under the name of "multiculturalism" is actually a form of racial separatism. So these "multi-separatists" might actually praise Brazil for its separatist tendencies. But if one has not accepted separatism, has not accepted that blacks should be separate from whites, these separatist tendencies in Brazil will be viewed with a bit of disappointment. This is not to say that Brazilians or Americans are better or worse compared to each other. This is something that happened due to historical circumstances. Both nations have to be restructured someday.

The greater separatism in Brazil has somewhat lessened the important integrative process of acculturation. For instance, there arose a special African language known as Nago, which intensified the blacks isolation from the white world. Even Pierson (1967:71) says it retarded the whole acculturation process. Another example is that in Brazil tribal units were not deliberately broken up with the result that Brazilian blacks were better able to preserve and transmit their African culture. (Pierson 1967:73)

The most disturbing element about Brazil today is how racially distinct so many of the states are. This is something the United States has actively opposed. There is no state in the United States that is identified as a predominantly black state. But in Brazil, Bahia is definitely seen, and is in fact, "black,"while some other states are seen primarily as "white." The city of Salvador in Bahia has a population that is composed of 80 percent back and mulatto citizens (while most of the city government is white) (Page 1995:78) . Blacks are disproportionately concentrated in the north and hee is where the greatest poverty is found.

On the other hand, the state of Rio Grande do Sol has many towns that are very distinctively German or Italian, and not German/Italian because of the ghettoization of these people. But rather the Germans/Italians have set up a kind of "state of their own" within a state. Gilliam (1992:180) notes that "It is shameful for Brazilian blacks in the southern states to be more exposed to German culture than to Africanness. In Blumenau (dig the name), some blacks learn German before Portuguese!"

The Future of Racial Politics? Better in the United States

The complexity of race in Brazil and its connections to class makes eradicating racism in the national culture even harder to do. Without a clear system of discrimination to point to, Brazilians can claim that they are not racist, despite whitening ideology, and anti-black stereotypes. The result is that racial inequalities persist and continue to undermine Brazil's claims of racial democracy.

As the United States jettisoned Jim Crow legalized segregation, the two nations of the United States and Brazil have increasingly come to look like each other, with the Brazilians minorities being somewhat more conservative than their American counterparts.  (But Brazil is more divided by race than the United States so this is understandable.)

The blacks in the United States have been frustrated with the apparent refusal of the Brazilian blacks and mulattos to develop a "black consciousness" somewhat similar to what has developed in the United States (Gilliam 1992).  They have wondered how it will be possible for Brazil to develop a strong racial movement like that in the United States.  But this is again a result of American political bias in the social sciences. The social scientists in America have endorsed a new version of racial separatism, a "plural but equal" separatism that hides its separatist past and present under the name of multiculturalism.   

The lie of multiculturalism is partly illustrated by the actions of Brazilian immigrants in the United States (see Margolis 1994).  The Brazilians have deliberately tried to make it clear to Americans that they are not Hispanics.  (Even though many Brazilian-Americans and Brazilian immigrants speak Spanish learned by working with Hispanics in lower level jobs.)  Nor do the Brazilians like to use the term Latinos.  They know that Hispanics face a lot of prejudice in the United States, and so they do not want to be thought of as Hispanic or Latino.  They want to be thought of as Brazilians.  This, of course, hurts Hispanic efforts at political unity.  What's important is to recognize the natural selfishness of  groups and try to work with this knowledge rather than to try to pretend the selfishness does not exist (or is only the result of some rich buissnessmen using divisive advertisements).  This selfish behavior just shows how, in a racist society, every group is guilty of a bit of racism and the overall system has to be dealt with instead of just focusing on the racism of the whites.

The very lack of separatist sentiment in Brazil may make Brazil a more likely country to endorse the necessary struggle changes to work toward a truly non-racist country.  The American black movement currently is not qualified to do this -- rather they reject any alternatives to their separatist multicultural segregation.  One thing for certain -- overcoming structural racism is not going to be easy in either country.


Brazil is a country with serious, ongoing problems with racism. To stress that Brazil's problems are less than those of the United States is to continue the American bias of undermining the appreciation of the important and independent social force of racism in our world. And, worse, it just keeps racism going strong.


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Skidmore, Thomas E. 1993. Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. Duke University Press. (First published in 1974).


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