The Americas 60.4 (2004) 653-655
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Those who desire a firmer grasp of how public policy shaped and was shaped by competing conceptions of race, gender, and class from Brazil's Old Republic (1889-1930) through the centralization efforts of President Getúlio Vargas' dictatorial Estado Novo (1937-1945) will find an illuminating contribution in Jerry Dávila's Diploma of Whiteness. Moving beyond more fully studied racial ideologies of the period, Dávila explores how these far from monolithic prejudices and theories influenced concrete government policies in the crucial area of public primary and secondary education in the then Capital city of Rio de Janeiro, with reference to concurrent developments in other parts of Brazil.
Recent historiography tends to portray the Old Republic's treatment of Afro-Brazilians in a comparatively negative light, whereas the waning decades of the [End Page 653] Empire (1822-1889) are depicted as more open to the ascent of ambitious and talented free Brazilians of African descent, especially those blessed with "white" patronage. Scholars have produced quantitative and qualitative evidence to support this contention, which includes examples of Republican officials' greater zeal in periodically repressing what they saw as threatening or embarrassing manifestations of Afro-Brazilian culture such as capoeira, Afro-Spiritist religious practices, batuques, and the like. Dávila's study does not set out to overturn this view, but his evidence indicates that if opportunities for significant upward social mobility through education were few during the Old Republic, they were in many ways even less attainable during the Vargas era. First, Dávila notes that despite the public school system's growth in the 1930s and 1940s, it never provided enough spaces for all children of school age in Rio de Janeiro, and a disproportionate number of these potential students were nonwhite. He also documents how black and brown teachers virtually disappear from the public school system in the 1930s when new regulations professionalized teacher education and restricted this profession to mostly "white" women, to the chagrin of some Afro-Brazilian leaders of the period who spoke out against this trend.
Perhaps more significantly, Dávila demonstrates how the assumptions of reformers created educational, hygienic, and testing policies that tended to hold black and mixed race students to low performance standards in remedial classrooms. Most failed to learn enough to pass standardized exams that would promote them to the second and higher grades, and after being held back, most of these students eventually dropped out. "Objective" teacher and student testing and evaluations that drew heavily from models developed to serve the segregated school system of the United States gave a scientific cover to educational practices that perpetuated racial inequality. Even when testing did not confirm the assumptions of "white" Brazilian analysts, they tended to draw conclusions that affirmed ideas of white superiority. Thus, the wider inclusion of nonwhite students in the public school system did not guarantee the kind of education that promised competitive advancement but, according to Dávila, in most cases it served to reinforce long standing class, gender, and racial hierarchies. The argument in many ways parallels recent studies that suggest that the inclusion of women in the electorate and parts of the work force in the 1930s did not on the whole mean higher wages or less dependence on patriarchal figures. Vargas' labor policies tended to privilege poor, lighter skinned men who were expected to act as responsible patriarchs for their dependents. For a time, as Dávila argues, an exception appears to be those women who became well-paid, uniformed public school teachers, even though this situation had changed during the second half of the twentieth century. As he notes in the Epilogue, the powerful Paulistano politician Paulo Maluf once revealed his sexism by stating, "There is no such thing as a poorly paid teacher, there are only badly...