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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.2 (2004) 379-380

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Diploma of Whiteness: Race and Social Policy in Brazil, 1917-1945. By Jerry Dávila. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Photographs. Maps. Tables. Figures. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xii, 292 pp. Cloth, $64.95. Paper, $21.95.

In Diploma of Whiteness, Jerry Dávila outlines how intellectual discourses combined with public policy on issues of eugenics, nationalism, and public education in the city of Rio de Janeiro from 1917 to 1945. He argues that Brazilian intellectuals and educators shaped Rio's public education programs into national role models, with the goal of creating what they considered an improved, or whitened, Brazilian population. These public education programs had a number of unexpected results, however: for instance, they opened up professional work opportunities to women, since most of the teachers were female. At the same time, the programs created an educational system that rewarded lighter skin and wealth, granting better chances for success to students and teachers with such characteristics. Tapping a wide variety of sources (including photographs, teacher journals, letters, and music, as well as school records, archives, media sources, and interviews), Dávila approaches the question that continues to puzzle and fascinate scholars of Brazil: how have notions of racial democracy intertwined unevenly with racist ideologies and practices?

The chapters of Diploma of Whiteness, which Dávila refers to as "snapshots," look at how different directors of the Rio school system influenced the development of public education policies. Programs of physical education, hygiene, nationalist songs, and statistical tracking systems were developed and implemented with the purpose of improving the "Brazilian race." He shows how such programs were easily adapted to fit the goals of the Estado Novo (1937-45), which emphasized policies of homogenization. Furthermore, Dávila discusses how ideologies based in positivism, eugenics, and "whitening" shaped the training and hiring practices of teachers. As whiteness became equated with modernity in the 1920s, "teachers of color, or of lower-class backgrounds, were perceived to be inappropriate mediators of this process" (p. 122) and were increasingly shut out, facing numerous obstacles in obtaining admission to teacher training programs. These ideologies also influenced how students performed in the public school system. Examining the testing system implemented by Anísio Teixeira in the early 1930s, Dávila is able to show [End Page 379] how these tests favored white, middle-class students and limited the success of poorer nonwhites. A timely work for current debates about affirmative action policies in Brazil, this study describes the long history of issues related to race, racism, and class in Brazil's education system.

This excellent study adds to research done on race and class, reformist movements, and public policy by authors such as Sueann Caulfield, Barbara Weinstein, and Nancy Stepan. Introducing us to debates over a statue of "the Brazilian man" to be placed in the Ministry of Education, for instance, Dávila describes how intellectuals and policy makers believed that "whiteness" could be achieved through education. This led to eugenicist policies and scientific programs designed to create the ideal Brazilian through the public school system. Dávila claims that even though "eugenics lost legitimacy in the aftermath of the Second World War, the institutions, practices, and assumptions it gave rise to endured" (p. 51). Thus, non-elite children received some benefits related to these new education programs, but these benefits came with a cost, since eugenicist beliefs associated with such programs legitimized inequalities in the school system and in Brazilian society.

Dávila's study raises a number of questions for future research related to this issue. For example, it touches only lightly on the topics of gender and sexuality. In addition, as Dávila himself suggests, more work is needed outside of Rio in order to understand public education policies, race relations, and nationalism more fully in other regions and in rural areas. Diploma of Whiteness is an interesting and clearly written book, appropriate for both graduate and undergraduate courses on Brazil and Latin America. Nonetheless, it is important to note that...


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