Brazilian Racial Democracy, 1900-90: An American Counterpoint

Brazilian Racial Democracy, 1900-90: An American Counterpoint

Journal of Contemporary History
Volume 31, Number 3 (July 1996)
pages 483-507
DOI: 10.1177/002200949603100303

George Reid Andrews, Distinguished Professor of History
University of Pittsburgh

Brazil is one of the largest multi-racial societies in the world, and the home of the largest single component of the overseas African diaspora. During the first half of the 1900s, it was frequently described, both by native-born and foreign observers, as a ‘racial democracy‘, in which blacks, mulattoes, and whites lived under conditions of juridical and, to a large degree, social equality. During the second half of the century, however, that description has been sharply revised. From 1940 to the present, national censuses have documented persistent disparities between the white and non-white populations in education, vocational achievement, earnings, and life expectancy. Survey research has shown racist attitudes and stereotypes concerning blacks and mulattoes to be widely diffused throughout Brazilian society, and Afro-Brazilians report being the victims of subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, racism and discrimination. Thus while observers writing in the 1930s and 1940s focused on the harmonious, egalitarian quality of racial interaction in Brazil, similar discussions in the 1980s and 1990s have emphasized ‘the perception, ever more widespread, that [the concept of] “racial democracy”, in its official and semi-official versions, does not reflect Brazilian reality’. ‘The myth of racial democracy appears to be definitively in its grave’, observed the news-magazine Istoé during the celebrations marking the centennial of the abolition of slavery, in 1988; ‘racial discrimination’, not racial democracy, ‘is the basis of Brazilian culture’, argued historian Décio Freitas.

What accounts for this transformation in characterizations of Brazilian race relations? I have argued elsewhere that the disagreements and debates surrounding the concept of racial democracy in Brazil are closely tied to the tensions surrounding the theory and practice of political democracy in that country. Racial democracy was originally conceived as part of a larger ideological…

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