Brazilian ethnoracial classification and affirmative action policies: Where are we and where do we go?

Brazilian ethnoracial classification and affirmative action policies: Where are we and where do we go?

Social Statistics and Ethnic Diversity: Should we count, how should we count and why?
2007-12-06 through 2007-12-08
Montreal, Quebec Canada

September 2007
12 pages

José Luis Petruccelli, Senior Researcher
Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, Brésil

Brazilian society is characterized by persistent racial fragmentation, which constitutes a significant variable structuring social outcomes and is evident in the socioeconomic inequalities constantly observed in field research. A variety of information converges to demonstrate ethnoracial criterion as a decisive parameter of exclusion and of social subordination. Particularly salient among the reasons for this reality is the permanence of several discriminatory practices in public and private institutions against the populations of African and indigenous descent.

Although statistics of race have been incorporated in a continuous way in surveys only since the 1980’s, the country has a reasonable tradition of statistical experience of racial classification. In this sense, two aspects must be outlined: first, the majority of Brazilians identify according to a relatively restricted group of color representations; second, open-ended responses to racial self-classification, as well as pre-codified classic categories, demonstrate a fair amount of stability.

But an important ambiguity persists with respect to the category applied to the miscegenated groups, at the national level and particularly in some areas of the country that have been, historically, less influenced in their population composition by the Atlantic slave traffic. As a matter of fact, the pardo (brown) term designates a residual category in the racial classification system, inside which at least three types of ethnic groups can be distinguished: firstly, the group that identifies in this way due to phenotype that is perceived to be of African origin, which is, without any doubt, the most numerous in this category; secondly, a group that can be identified as predominantly of Indian descent, characteristic of the areas mentioned above; finally, a group that expresses an adhesion to a specific historical-geographical condition and does not actually constitutes a proper ethnic identification in the sense of physical appearance, since, in terms of social relationships, they don’t suffer racial discrimination.

In this way, it does have methodological pertinence to continue investigating the best possible means of identifying the mentioned racial categories, which present temporal persistence and sociological consistence. As a result, more finely tuned information would be available, indispensable for an appropriate elaboration of targeted affirmative action policies, understanding that the purposes of the ethnoracial classification range from allowing free expression of identities to the facilitation of formulating laws and nondiscrimination policies.

The reflections in this work aim to begin answering the following questions: Is the current system of racial classification in use, reasonably correct? Furthermore, is it possible to elaborate a classification system essentially “correct” ? What would the most appropriate number of ethnoracial categories be then? Or even, what would be the best means of accounting for the mentioned specific characteristics, granting the necessary recognition to the expression of socially relevant identities and of regional differences?

…The question of racial classification raises diverse arguments, from orthodox Marxism up to ideological right-wing positions, trying to depict the difficulties of identifying who the beneficiaries of the proposed actions would be. The ghost of the miscegenation ideology rises again to contest the justice of the compensatory policies. If Brazilians are all miscegenated, runs the argument, they would be all “equal” and it could not be a means of differentiating blacks from non-blacks, since all would have something to do with African origins. To this “ideological” position a “scientific” point of view recently emerged: the geneticists discourse about the genealogical mixture of the ancestries of Brazilian whites, shuffling genomic characteristics with social representation of ethnoracial identity, in spite of the well known differences between origin (and DNA) and colour (or mark). Yet, whatever the extent of racial mixture in the country “the majority have lacked the basic rights associated with citizenship for most of the twentieth century and for all of the country’s earlier history” (Nobles, 2000)…

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