Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 206-217
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Post-Revisionist Scholarship on Race
Nancy P. Appelbaum1
Beginning in the late 1950s and peaking in the 1980s and 1990s, a revisionist wave of scholarship focused on dismantling myths of Latin American "racial democracy." Scholars emphasized the insidiously disempowering effects of egalitarian myths and documented pervasive inequality and racism.2 By the late twentieth century, most scholars had [End Page 206] reached a consensus on some basic principles underlying all critical race scholarship: Race is a contingent social and historical construct; racial identities are not simply determined by ancestry or phenotype. We generally agree that other factors, such as economic class, social context, and political mobilization contribute to shaping how people identify racially (though we do not always agree which factors have been the most important).
So much has been written on race in Latin America that one might understandably wonder whether there is anything important left to study and debate. Yet, building on these basic insights, new contributions to the literature continue to bring up original lines of inquiry, thus demonstrating the ongoing vitality and even urgency of the topic. There are indeed many questions waiting to be explored, questions that get at the core of how race is "made" and how race has shaped citizenship in modern nations.
If the books reviewed in this essay can be considered representative of a new trend, then a post-revisionist scholarship is emerging that focuses on the production of racial knowledge. This literature considers the interaction of bureaucratic institutions with social and intellectual movements in modern nation-states, leading us toward a fuller understanding of the institutionalization of racial inequality and its cultural [End Page 207] underpinnings. These books examine how specific state entities—such as school districts, census bureaus, and Indian bureaus—have produced and disseminated knowledge about race. They are also unified by a common argument that citizenship has been implicitly and explicitly racialized, and that race has served to constrain the full exercise of citizenship. The best post-revisionist scholarship, moreover, moves beyond the revisionists' emphasis on denunciation and takes a more nuanced view of how elite intellectuals and popular forces have interacted in the making of race.3
Producing Racial Knowledge in the Public Schools
Historian Jerry Dávila's fine recent book, Diploma of Whiteness: Race and Social Policy in Brazil, 1917–1945 examines how elite intellectuals, politicians, and educational bureaucracies interacted to shape public education in an urban school system. His research focuses on education reform in Rio de Janeiro, 1917–1946, whereby "an emerging white medical, social scientific, and intellectual elite turned their assumptions about race in Brazil into educational politics" (3). He argues that intellectuals projected their views about racial degeneracy "into Brazilian society in ways that typically worked to the disadvantage of poor and nonwhite Brazilians, denying them equitable access to the programs, institutions, and social rewards that educational policies conferred" (3–4).
Dávila deftly shows how Rio's public schools served not only as institutions for disseminating knowledge to children, but also as laboratories for producing knowledge about them. School reformers collected detailed anthropomorphic data on schoolchildren and used it to produce statistics inscribed within a eugenic framework that associated health and scholastic aptitude with whiteness. Dávila casts a critical eye on school-based hygienic, medical, dental, and nutritional initiatives. On the one hand, Dávila admits, these programs did...