A troublesome miscegenation

Why the idea of ‘ethnic miscegenation’ is an obstacle in the debate about racism in Brazil

Brazil is well known for its mix of cultures, religions, colors and races. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), there are 305 officially recognized indigenous ethnicities, in addition to those brought in by historical, regular migratory waves from Europe, Asia, Africa and, more recently, from Latin America. More than numerous, these groups are so tightly mingled such that Brazilians perceive their own country as a place of ‘ethnic miscegenation’, meaning ethnicities and races are blended to the point they cannot be distinguished anymore.

The socially accepted idea of ‘ethnic miscegenation’ was established in Brazil at the end of the 19th and in the 20th Century, when the country’s national identity was starting to be constructed. In the academic realm, ‘ethnic miscegenation’ was reinforced by the Brazilian essayist Gilberto Freyre (1900 – 1987) and the publication of his sociological classic Casa Grande & Senzala, in which he argues against the whitening doctrines that existed in Brazil in the 1930s. Since then, Brazil has internalized the idea of ‘ethnic miscegenation’, avoiding any conversation about racial issues, denying any suspicion of racism in the country, and as a result, not implementing any policies to address the issue. However, an increasing number of Brazilians classify themselves as pardos, meaning mixed-raced, instead of white, black, indigenous or Asian. According to Brazil’s 2010 census, 43.1% of individuals self-reported as pardos, a significant increase from 21.2% in 1940.

During Brazil’s colonization by Portugal, and during its first century and a half of independence, slavery constituted the basis of Brazil’s economic and social structure. During those approximately 350 years, Brazil received the largest number of slaves from Africa, totaling almost 1.7 million, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Brazil’s first census revealed that 15% of the Brazilian population was composed of black slaves in 1872, even after the prohibition of the African slave trade in 1850.

The history of slavery and oppression against black people continues to shape modern-day Brazil. It is deeply reflected in the current social conditions of the country’s black population, as compared to other ethnicities. According to IBGE, a black Brazilian earns about 80% of the earnings of a non-black Brazilian, despite having the same educational level and job position. Further, 76% of the poorest decile of the Brazilian population self-reported as black in 2014, and the percentage of black people living in poverty was almost double that of non-black Brazilians. Data from the Brazilian Household Survey Data (PNAD) shows that the rate of illiteracy among the black population is almost double that of the average observed for the total Brazilian population; also, a black Brazilian lives an average of 1.73 years less than a non-black Brazilian.

The main reason why black Brazilians live fewer years than their counterparts has to do with living in one of the countries with the highest homicide rate in the worldAccording to the Map Of Violence project, the number of homicides of black Brazilians is almost 3 times higher than that of non-black Brazilians. Among individuals between the ages of 16 and 17, the number of murdered black Brazilians totaled 2.5 million in 2015. In other words, a young black Brazilian was murdered every 23 minutes. Moreover, 61.6% of Brazil’s prison population, the fourth largest in the world, is composed of black individuals, according to the country’s Ministry of Justice.

The idea of ‘ethnic miscegenation’ prevents Brazil from tackling this issue head-on, as if racism was protected by a type of ideological shield: Whenever racism emerges as a hurdle to be overcome, the argument of ‘ethnic miscegenation’ appears as a pretext that does not allow Brazil to question its very real racial issues. An example of this is the debate surrounding racial quotas in public universities, which the Brazilian government has tried to implement since 2003 to deal with the fact that still only 12.8% of the students in the higher education system self-reported as black in 2015 (IBGE). Although already implemented in many universities, the continuation of this policy is constantly challenged by the idea of ‘ethnic miscegenation’, either direct or indirectly. The arguments are typically that racial quotas break the principle of equality before the law, and that even they are a sort of “reverse racism” against non-white individuals (including other racial minorities, such as indigenous peoples). Beyond that, a policy of racial quotas is especially difficult in a country where individuals increasingly self-report as mixed-raced and their ancestry is not well defined. This type of policy requires classification of the population according to their different ethnicities in order to be implemented. Apart from the fact that these arguments may be reasonable, they frequently make the conversation fall into the trap that there is no racial aspect behind Brazil’s social ills.

In order to better coexist with the racism in its society, Brazil needs to first reflect on itself in both past and present terms. Although certainly important for its national identity, Brazilian ‘ethnic miscegenation’ cannot continue to be an excuse for the country to avoid confronting its pressing racial issues.  To merely close its eyes, deny, and pretend that the issues do not exist will not transform Brazil into the proud mix of colors it believes itself to be.  

A troublesome miscegenation
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Diego da Silva Rodrigues

Diego is an applied economist interested in policy evaluation and quantitative methods. His main interests are around family issues, such as marriage, parenting, gender, fertility and children, being member of the International Network of Child Support Scholars (INCSS) and the Parenting Culture Studies Postgraduate Network. Diego has also publications in migration and health economics, and is currently involved with human rights and democracy activism in South America. At present, he is completing his PhD at the University of Kent, UK, and is lecturer in Economics at IESGO, Brazil.
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