Rethinking Race in Brazil

Rethinking Race in Brazil

Journal of Latin American Studies
Volume 24, Number 1 (February, 1992)
pages 173-192

Howard Winant, Professor of Sociology
University of California, Santa Barbara

Introduction: the Repudiation of the Centenário

13 May 1988 was the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil. In honour of that date, various official celebrations and commemorations of the centenário, organised by the Brazilian government, church groups and cultural organisations, took place throughout the country, even including a speech by President José Sarney.

This celebration of the emancipation was not, however, universal. Many Afro-Brazilian groups staged actions and marches, issued denunciations and organised cultural events repudiating the ‘farce of abolition’. These were unprecedented efforts to draw national and international attention to the extensive racial inequality and discrimination which Brazilian blacks – by far the largest concentration of people of African descent in any country in the western hemisphere – continue to confront. Particular interventions had such titles as ‘100 Years of Lies’, ‘One Hundred Years Without Abolition’, ‘March for the Real Liberation of the Race’, ‘Symbolic Burial of the 13th of May’, ‘March in Protest of the Farce of Abolition’, and ‘Discommemoration (Descomemoração) of the Centenary of Abolition’. The repudiation of the centenário suggests that Brazilian racial dynamics, traditionally quiescent, are emerging with the rest of society from the extended twilight of military dictatorship. Racial conflict and mobilisation, long almost entirely absent from the Brazilian scene, are reappearing. New racial patterns and processes – political, cultural, economic, social and 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 article the main theories of race in Brazil are critically reviewed in the light of contemporary racial politics. I focus largely on postwar Brazilian racial theory, beginning with the pioneering UNESCO studies. This body of theory has exhibited considerable strengths in the past: it has been particularly effective in dismantling the myth of a non-racist national culture, in which ‘racial democracy’ flourished, and in challenging the role of various elites in maintaining these myths. These achievements, appreciable in the context of the analytical horizon imposed on critical social science by an anti-democratic (and indeed often dictatorial and brutal) regime, now exhibit some serious inadequacies when employed to explain current developments.

This article accepts many of the insights of the existing literature but rejects its limitations. Such a reinterpretation, I argue, sets the stage for a new approach, based on racial formation theory. This theory is outlined below, and it is suggested that it offers a more accurate view of the changing racial order in contemporary Brazil. Racial formation theory can respond both to ongoing racial inequalities and to the persistence of racial difference, as well as the new possibilities opened up by the transition to democracy; it can do this in ways in which the established approaches, despite their considerable merits, cannot…

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