Comparative racisms: What anti-racists can learn from Latin America

Comparative racisms: What anti-racists can learn from Latin America

Volume 11, Number 1 (2011-03-31)
pages 32-58
DOI: 10.1177/1468796810388699

Jonathan Warren, Chair of the Center for Brazilian Studies; Associate Professor of International Studies
University of Washington

Christina A. Sue, Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Colorado, Boulder

There has been extensive debate about the putative imperial dimensions of critical race studies in Latin America. The concern is that US racial discourses, identities and anti-racist strategies are being incorrectly applied to, if not forced upon, Latin America. Those who disagree with this position, including ourselves, argue that it is legitimate to take insights and understandings gleaned in the USA as tools for understanding and challenging racism in Latin America. However, we also believe that the exchange of ideas regarding effective anti-racist strategies should flow in both directions. Therefore, in this article we change the direction of the traditional dialogue by discussing ways in which research in Latin America can inform the theoretical foundation of antiracism in other countries, such as the USA. Specifically, we discuss the implications of current strategies of race mixing, minimization of racial consciousness, colorblindness, multiculturalism and racism literacy for current theories of anti-racism.

There has been extensive debate about the putative imperial dimensions of critical race studies in Latin America. The concern is that US racial discourses, identities and anti-racist strategies are being incorrectly applied to, if not forced upon, Latin America. Is it appropriate to refer to self-identified mixed-race Latin Americans as ‘black’ or ‘Indian’? Should the language of US anti-racism, which includes terms such as white supremacy and segregation, be used to describe the racial terrain in Latin America? Is the encouragement of black and indigenous movements in Latin America productive? Sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant (1999) have argued that US perspectives on race represent merely another dimension of ‘cunning imperialist reason’. Latin America is being pressured to emulate not only US models of capitalism, modernity and democracy, but also its less-than-laudable politics of race.

Those who disagree with this position, including ourselves, argue that it is legitimate to take insights and understandings gleaned in the USA as tools for understanding and challenging racism in Latin America. Theoretical models, concepts and political tactics can be inappropriately applied to different contexts, but this certainly is not inevitable. In fact, ideas, directions, clues and insights generated in one region may prove useful in another part of the world, especially when applied with a learned sensitivity of the particularities of the place, both from which the lessons were generated and to which they are being applied. Just as it has proved beneficial to take theoretical and political insights generated in Europe to better understand and navigate capitalism and modernity elsewhere in the world, it is equally suitable to use knowledge garnered in US anti-racist endeavors to situations beyond its borders. Indeed, it seems arbitrary to suggest that intellectuals and activists can draw on the traditions of Weber and Kafka, but not on those of DuBois and Morrison. To dismiss exchanges based on these latter traditions as ‘brutal ethnocentric intrusions’ or the advancement of ‘racistoid perspectives’ (Bordieu and Wacquant, 1999) seems crude and reductive at best.

Largely overlooked in the heat of this debate have been the insights that Latin America may offer the ongoing struggle against racism in the USA and elsewhere. This article hopes to enliven this nascent discussion (see Sawyer, 2003; Telles, 2004; Wade, 2004), and perhaps, in the process, alleviate some of the feelings of US imperialism given the North–South direction of the didactic process in recent decades. In other words, rather than focusing on what the US experience can teach Latin America (the emphasis of much of the scholarship in the past few decades), we wish to elaborate on the lessons race and ethnic studies in Latin America may hold for anti-racists in the USA. Fortunately, many putative solutions to racism currently touted in the USA are not untested propositions. Although unbeknownst to many proponents of these anti-racist proposals, their ideas have circulated and have undergone empirical scrutiny for well over a century in other parts of the hemisphere.

Below, then, is a discussion of some of the key findings from the contemporary scholarship on race in Latin America. This overview is not meant to be a review of the increasingly vast literature on the topic; instead we seek to highlight those findings that are of particular relevance to ongoing policy and academic debates in the North Atlantic. To scholars of race in Latin America, this selected summary offers an original synopsis of literature on race and racism in the region. Our intended audience, however, is not foremost Latin Americanists but rather North Atlantic scholars and policymakers, who could benefit greatly from a better understanding of the Latin American experience with race…

Race mixing and mixed-race identities have not proven successful anti-racist strategies.

In the United States it is often implied, if not explicitly stated, that race mixing will disarm racism (AMEA, 1997–2006;2 Daniel, 2002; D’Souza, 1995; Gay, 1987; Fernández, 1996; Harris, 1964; Kalmijn, 1998; Nakashima, 1992; Patterson, 2000; Zack, 1993). Social pundit Dinesh D’Souza argues, in The End of Racism, that ‘the country is entering a new era in which old racial categories are rapidly becoming obsolete. The main reason for this is intermarriage’ (1995: 552). Writing in The New Republic, under the headline ‘Race Over’, the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson asserts that the color line will not be an issue much longer since ‘migratory, sociological, and biotechnological developments’ are undermining race (2000: 6). Cultural and biological race mixing, coupled with new biotechnological methods to change hair texture and skin color, enabling African Americans to ‘enhance their individuality’ by ‘opting for varying degrees of hybridity’, will ultimately change the future of race (Patterson, 2000: 6). The outlook is clear to Patterson: ‘By the middle of the twenty-first century, America will have problems aplenty. But no racial problems whatsoever’ (2000: 6). By 2050, ‘the social virus of race will have gone the way of smallpox’ (2000: 6).

The ‘race mixers’’ basic thesis is that, if racial identities and the physical markers of these traditional categories are eroded, giving way to multiracial identities and a racial continuum, then racial discrimination will fade. It is promised that the racial hierarchy will evaporate if Americans emphasize their commonalities (rather than their differences) with their compatriots by embracing café-au-lait identities and attempting through miscegenation (or biotechnology), to produce greater numbers of mixed-race (or hybrid-looking) subjects. Reginald Daniel, for one, sees multiracial identities as enabling ‘whites and blacks and everyone in between to transcend their separate and hostile worlds… Such a transformation in thought and behavior would move the US closer to the ideal of a land of equal opportunity for all’ (2002: 194). Susanne Heine, a guest editor for Interracial Voice, also sees multiracial practices as a powerful tool for dismantling the racial hierarchy. ‘Intermarriage’, she asserts, will make:

‘Black America’ just one more of history’s footnotes… With each new wave of immigrants who cause new mixes to arise, ‘Black America’ and ‘White America’ will continue to fade into each other, atrophying and losing their steam, even as ‘America’, the one, the real and the only, that Destiny has as her ultimate design, begins taking shape. (2006: 3–4).

In sum, US advocates of race mixing clearly anticipate that such practices will lead to the disappearance of racism in society.

In Latin America, intellectuals, governments and ordinary citizens have long promoted mestizaje (race mixture) as the means for transcending race and producing national cohesion. For example, early 20th-century Mexican social scientists and policy makers vigorously advocated for race mixing in order to erode racial divisions, which they viewed as impeding national cohesion and development. As Alan Knight notes, the Reforma was concerned that Mexico had ‘failed to create a genuine, unitary nation—after the model of France, Germany or Japan, nations from which ‘‘there arises a solemn cry of shared blood, of shared flesh, that cry which is above all else, since it is the voice of life, the mysterious force which pulls material together and resists its disintegration’’’ (citing Manuel Gamio, Knight, 1990: 88). The need to build a unified nation thus rested on the creation of a mixed-race population…

…Despite the race-mixers’ predictions, both past and present, the official encouragement and popular embrace of mixed-race practices and identities have not ended race or racism in Latin America. To be sure, blackness and Indianness as habitable identities have been dramatically weakened; however, this café con leche reality has not led to the demise of race. As one Afro-Cuban doctor noted: ‘Race is a problem here. Race mixture only creates other categories and a means to whiten your children. But everyone knows that it is best to be white and worst to be black’ (Sawyer, 2006: 124). Similarly, in Venezuela, despite the pride of a café con leche mixed race identity, Venezuelans want to have as little café and as much leche as possible (Herrera Salas, 2007; Wright, 1990). In other words, far from diminishing racism, mixed-race identities have been claimed as a strategic measure to escape blackness and Indianness (Burdick, 1998a; Degler, 1971; Goldstein, 2003; Sue, 2010; Twine, 1998).

Furthermore, scholars of race in Latin America have argued that the region’s emphasis on race mixture has masked race-based inequalities and discrimination (Hasenbalg and Huntington, 1982; Twine, 1998), allowed prejudice to go unchecked (Robinson, 1999; Sagrera, 1974), and produced a feeling of relief among whites, exempting them from the responsibility of addressing racial inequities (Hasenbalg, 1996). Additionally, others believe it has inhibited demands for indigenous and black rights and access to resources (Mollett, 2006). To take one example, Charles Hale (1999) found that discourses of mestizaje and hybridity closed discussions of collective rights and racism just when these discussions were beginning to make a difference in Guatemala. Confirming Hale’s observations, Tilley noted that the budding Mayan movement has stimulated a more politically potent backlash anchored in the widely accepted belief that race mixing has eroded racial distinctions. That is, ‘collective Mayan protest was [portrayed as] nonsensical and specious, even racist [because] Indian and Spanish races had long ago been ‘forged’ into one’ (Tilley, 2005).

Unfortunately, then, the promotion of race mixture, as well as identification as mestizo and white by individuals of African and indigenous descent, have not delivered the blow to racism that many have predicted. Studies of Latin America show that race continues to be socially significant even though racial identifications and locations are smooth gradations rather than entrenched positions (Martinez Novo, 2006; Sawyer, 2006; Telles, 2004; Wade, 1993). Racial inequalities flourish despite the fact that race mixture and interracial marriage have been commonplace and officially encouraged for more than a century…

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