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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What's Your Label--Brazilian Style

Brazil is one of the world's most diverse societies, built on a history of Portuguese taking over land from the indigenous population, Africans imported as slaves, Japanese immigrants, and many others arriving over time, especially from various parts of Europe. People are, of course, conscious of skin color. Indeed, the question on the 2010 Brazilian census asked "Your color or race is: (1) white (2) black (3) yellow (4) brown," and color charts exist if you aren't sure where you fit into the rainbow. The country has prided itself in recent years as a "racial democracy" but the Economist reports on recent cracks in that perception.

In the 2010 census some 51% of Brazilians defined themselves as black or brown. On average, the income of whites is slightly more than double that of black or brown Brazilians, according to IPEA, a government-linked think-tank. It finds that blacks are relatively disadvantaged in their level of education and in their access to health and other services. For example, more than half the people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas(slums) are black. The comparable figure in the city’s richer districts is just 7%.
Brazilians have long argued that blacks are poor only because they are at the bottom of the social pyramid—in other words, that society is stratified by class, not race. But a growing number disagree. These “clamorous” differences can only be explained by racism, according to M├írio Theodoro of the federal government’s secretariat for racial equality. In a passionate and sometimes angry debate, black Brazilian activists insist that slavery’s legacy of injustice and inequality can only be reversed by affirmative-action policies, of the kind found in the United States.
Their opponents argue that the history of race relations in Brazil is very different, and that such policies risk creating new racial problems. Unlike in the United States, slavery in Brazil never meant segregation. Mixing was the norm, and Brazil had many more free blacks. The result is a spectrum of skin colour rather than a dichotomy.
That doesn't mean that skin color doesn't matter. It seems to matter less in Brazil than in the United States, but it seems still to influence a person's life chances.
Many Brazilians simply assume blacks belong at the bottom of the pile. Supporters of affirmative action are right to say that the country turned its back on the problem. But American-style policies might not be the way to combat Brazil’s specific forms of racism. A combination of stronger legal action against discrimination and quotas for social class in higher education to compensate for weak public schools may work better.

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