Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

click on ISBN to order book through Indigo

Rebecca Reichmann, editor.
Race in Contemporary Brazil: From Indifference to Inequality.
Pennsylvania State University Press. 1999. 290pp. $US 19.95 paper (0271019069) $US 57.50 cloth (0271019050)

This volume brings together research of Brazil's leading social scientists and activists, most of which is published here for the first time in English. Editor Rebecca Reichmann describes the volume's aim as to give "an international voice to Brazilian scholars' own interpretations of racial dynamics in their country" (p. 35) and to contribute to increasing international solidarity with Afro-Brazilian struggles to open up public debate on racial discrimination in Brazil. The volume succeeds admirably in its goals. The fourteen contributions represent a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches and political stances. They dialogue provocatively with one another so that readers are drawn into the intensity and complexity of local debates on race in Brazil. The articles are all empirically grounded, providing the evidence for the cases they argue. They are well written and impeccably translated. Each author locates his or her research in the Brazilian scholarship on race; thus, the volume as a whole guides non-Brazilian readers to Brazilian literature and resources on race. Topics include, in the first section, empirical studies of racial discrimination in educational opportunities, income, the labour market and workplace, and the criminal justice system. The second set of articles explores the history of racial mobilization and the "black movement." And, the third section treats the intersection of gender and race in issues of reproductive health, political representation and work.

One of the main goals of the volume is to distinguish the new debates on race from the class analysis that "managed" racial discourse in Brazil throughout most of the 20th century. That is, the authors seek to establish some autonomy for 'race' in the analysis of social relations in Brazil. The authors trace the conventional paradigm to Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre who, in his Sobrados e Mucambos (The Mansions and the Shanties: The Making of Modern Brazil, 1936) characterized Brazilian society as a "racial democracy" -- a concept that both neatly encapsuled for his American colleagues an alternative to the racial segregation that defined race relations in the United States and offered to Brazilians an imaginary social landscape on which to unify and modernize a nation. Indeed, as the authors here argue, it is this myth, now firmly entrenched in Afro-Brazilian society, that poses the main obstacle to mobilizing black social movements in Brazil. As sociologist Luis Claudio Barcelos notes in his article "Struggling in Paradise: Racial Mobilization and the Contemporary Black Movement in Brazil": "The myth of 'racial democracy' is one link, perhaps the strongest one in a chain of idealizations involving the Brazilian sense of nationality. This self-representation of Brazilian society thwarts the black movement's ability to mobilize the black community as well as other sectors of civil society" (p. 156).

The São Paulo school of sociology in the 1960s and 70s had initiated the break from the ideology of racial democracy but theoretically subordinated 'race' to 'class'. Their model rested on the assumption that racial prejudice decreases with industrial development. Empirical evidence, however, documents the reverse: racial inequality increased and expanded in Brazilian society during growth in the 1970s and 80s and worsened further during the economic crisis of the late 1980s. Nelson do Valle Silva and Carlos A. Hasenbalg, both professors at the Instituto Universitário de Pesquisas do Rio de Janeiro, were among the first Brazilian sociologists who, in the 1980s, began to document statistically how Brazil's nonwhite population is disdvantaged as measured by demographic and socioeconomic indicators such as infant mortality, life expectancy, social mobility, labor force participation and income distribution, and to argue that racial differences could not be attributed to class factors. In their article in this volume, "Race and Educational Opportunity in Brazil," they document a clear difference in levels of access to education between white and nonwhite children even at the highest levels of per capita family income.

Several articles in the volume outline the history of the black movement in Brazil: the emergence in the 1930s of Afro-Brazilian cultural, religious and recreational associations and the first political organization, the Frente Negra Brasileira founded in 1931; the abolition of the FNB in 1937 by the government; and the reemergence of a black political voice in the 1970s influenced by both the U.S. civil rights movement and African independence movements.

Afro-Brazilian activist Sueli Carneiro in her article "Black Women's Identity in Brazil" describes the complex relations between the Brazilian women's movement (that has strong links with feminist movements in Europe and North America); Brazil's black movement; and the national organizing of black women in Brazil. Carneiro acknowledges essentialism as a necessary political strategy for black women in Brazil. She describes how the issues of the women's movement are not necessarily those of poor Afro-Brazilian women and how the black movement is, at present, largely a vehicle for black men who retain a strong ambivalence to black women precisely because of the miscegenation that is at the foundation of the myth of racial democracy. Importantly, however, Carneiro notes that links of Brazilian feminists with international (largely white) feminist networks has created an elite context for gender debates in Brazil and resulted in greater openness to gender issues in mainstream society. This is reflected, for example, in public debates on sterilization: two opposing views are offered by Edna Rolan and Elza Berquó in their articles in this volume "The Soda Cracker Dilemma: Reproductive Rights and Racism in Brazil" and "Sterilization and Race in Brazil" respectively. Carneiro further argues that, in contrast to the elite context within which debates on gender take place, the black movement encounters the taboo of race: "The movement is an advocate for a black population still imprisoned in the myth of racial democracy and the ideology of whitening, and it must confront stubborn resistance to racial issues even in so-called progressive sectors of society" (p. 221). Carneiro describes four different perspectives that currently coexist within the black women's movement, allying herself with the view that a black women's movement must exist as an independent political force to "sensitize the two [the women's and the black] movements to take on racism and sexism as fundamental, not peripheral, to any project seeking a just and egalitarian society" (p. 227).

The final article is a brilliant example of the success of narrative as a form of social analysis. In "Women Workers in Rio: Laborious Interpretations of the Racial Condition," anthropologist Caetana Maria Damasceno presents the life histories of four women -- two black women in high status occupations and two less successful white women, none of whom hold "militant views on race or gender" (p. 237). Damasceno builds on Edward Telles argument that "industrialization reduces, maintains and even increases racial inequality depending on the level of occupational structure analyzed" and argues that "in Brazil racism tends to increase with level of wages" (p. 233). The narratives of the two professional black women reveal that education is relevant only when supportive social relations (including patronage) also play a role in social ascent and that, in the workplace, black women must be systematically and explicitly strategic to overcome racism. They mobilize a situational, multiple and not ambivalent identity. This strategic identity combines, for example, the apparently contradictory self-presentation of boa aparência (good appearance) required for success in Brazil's hierarchical society (that, for blacks, means "whitening" in speech, posture, gestures, dress and taste) and a strong, articulate and aggressive sense of self that comes from affirming a black identity and that ensures that they will respond to institutionalized racism (especially, in these cases, from junior employees). Damasceno documents how "the production of 'good' appearance combined with the production of 'black' identity occurs not only in contexts of politicizing identity such as in the black movement but also in work situations associated with 'progress and modernity'" (p. 248).

This volume will be important for students and scholars interested in transnational social movements, social science and advocacy, the integrated analysis of gender, race and class, Brazil and African American Studies, and the history of sociology.

Sally Cole
Concordia University
March-April 2000
© CJS Online