restricted access 9. Rethinking Race in Brazil
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Chapter 9 Rethinking Race in Brazil Introduction: The Repudiation of the Centendrio May 13, 1988, was the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil . In honor of that date, various official celebrations and commemorations of the centendrio, organized by the Brazilian government, church groups, and cultural organizations, took place throughout the country, even including a speech by President Jose Sarney. But this celebration of the emancipation was not universal. Many AfroBrazilian groups staged actions and marches, issued denunciations, and organized cultural events repudiating the "farce of abolition." These were unprecedented efforts to draw national and international attention to the extensive racial inequality and discrimination that Brazilianblacks—by far the largest concentration of people ofAfrican descent in any country in the Western Hemisphere —continue to confront. Particular interventions had such titles as "100 Years of Lies," "One Hundred Years withoutAbolition," "March for the Real Liberation of the Race,""Symbolic Burialof the 13th of May," "March in Protest of the Farce of Abolition," and "Discommemoration (Descomemorafao) of the Centenary of Abolition" (Maggie 1989). The repudiation of the centendrio suggests that Brazilianracial dynamics , traditionallyquiescent, are emerging with the rest of society from the 130 Rethinking Race in Brazil 131 long twilight of military dictatorship. Racial conflict and mobilization, long almost entirely absent from the Brazilian scene, are reappearing. New racial patterns and processes—political, cultural, economic, social psychological—are emerging, while racial inequalities of course continue as well. How much do we know about race in contemporary Brazil? How effectively does the extensive literature explain the present situation? In this chapter I review and critique the main theories of race in Brazil in light of contemporary racial politics there. I focus largely on postwar Brazilian racial theory, beginning with the pioneering studies sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the 1950s. This body of theory has exhibited considerable strengths in the past; it has been particularlyeffective in dismantling the myth of a nonracist national culture in which "racial democracy" flourished , and in challenging the role of various elites in maintaining these myths. These virtues, largely understandable in light of the analyticalhorizon imposed on critical social science by an antidemocratic (and indeed often dictatorial and brutal) regime, now exhibit some serious inadequacies when they are employed to explain current developments. I intend this essay to be a critical reappropriation of this literature that both accepts much of its insights and rejects its limitations.Such a reinterpretation , I argue, sets the stage for a new approach, based in racial formation theory. In the concluding section of the essay I set forth this perspective and suggest that it offers a more accurate view of the changing racial order in contemporary Brazil. Racial formation theory can respond both to the ongoing racial inequalities and persisting salience of racialdifference and to the new possibilities opened up by the transition to democracy ; it can do this in ways that the established approaches, despite their considerable merits, cannot. Theoretical Perspectives: The Debate ThusFar Until quite recently Brazil was seen as a country with a comparatively benign pattern of race relations.1 Only in the 1950s, when UNESCO sponsored a series of studies—looking particularlyat Bahia and Sao Paulo—did the traditional theoretical approaches, which focused on the concept of "racial democracy," come under sustained attack.2 The work of such UNESCO researchers as Thales de Azevedo (1966), Roger Bastide (1973, 1978), Florestan Fernandes (1969, 1978; Bastideand Fernandes 1959), and Marvin Harris (1964) documented as never before the prevalence ofracial discrimination and the persistence of the ideology of "whitening." This set of overtly racist attitudes and beliefs had supposedly been discredited in the 1930s and 1940s after the interventions of Gilberto Freyre (Freyre 132 Rethinking Race in Brazil 1940; Skidmore 1974)and the advent of the more modern "racial democracy " view. In a word, the UNESCO-sponsoredresearch set new terms for debate, constituting (notwithout some disagreements) a new racial "revisionism ." The Revisionist Approach Racial revisionism was full of insights into Brazilianracial dynamics, but it also had significantlimitations. Chief among these was a tendency to reduce race to class, depriving racial dynamics of their own, autonomous significance . In the space available here, I offer only a summary criticism of this perspective, concentrating on the leading members of the revisionist school. In Florestan Fernandes's view,Brazil's"racial dilemma" is a result ofsurvivals from the days of slavery,which came into conflict with capitalist development and would be liquidated by a transition to modernity. "The...