Assumptions about race relations derived from U.S. experience don't hold for Brazil, Edward Telles announced in 'Race in Another America,' judged best contribution to sociology in three years.
The career of UCLA Sociology Professor Edward E. Telles contains lessons for students and writers. The version for undergraduates: if you're an idealist, be patient and flexible, because it often takes time to get comfortable with a job. Telles did a five-year stint in Los Angeles as a community organizer, city employee, and ESL instructor before realizing that none of these roles, all rewarding in their way, was sustaining his interest. He entered UCLA's urban planning graduate program with the notion that a master's degree would be useful whether he ultimately chose an academic career or returned to work for the LA Community Development Department. At UCLA, he got excited by puzzles contained in demographic data and perceived that the solutions could have social and political significance, then went on to earn a PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. Later, he worked as a Ford Foundation officer in Brazil, developing relationships with activists in the country and new perspectives on attitudes about race.
There's also a lesson for scholars and other writers: often, the thing you'd most like to express—but can't, or can't yet—is downright simple.
The simple insight that has won high accolades for Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (2004, Princeton University Press), and that Telles backs up with reams of the government's data, is that have-not racial groups in Brazil do not achieve the status of haves through integration and intermarriage. This is rather a starting-point for thinking about social policy, he explains, than some paradox that defies analysis and explanation.
In a way this basic picture, Telles says, has been apparent to Brazilianists for some time. Although the country is far less segregated than the United States or South Africa, Brazilian blacks rarely achieve even middle-class economic status. Indeed, the country has one of the world's most unequal income distributions, a phenomenon that happens to be linked to race. Still, Telles's point about the weak relationship between social discrimination and material inequality has been a hard one for his colleagues to state because prevailing theory—much of it derived from the U.S. case, which he says is too readily accepted as a paradigm—teaches that racial mixing cures many ills. Conveniently, according to Telles, Brazilian elites agree that racism can hardly exist where brown, black, and white people (categories used in the census) come together easily.
"In Latin America, the whole idea of mixture has been part of the narrative of the nation," he says, citing the cases of Venezuela and of Mexico, the country his ancestors hailed from. "These ideas are created by elites," he adds.
After encountering classic studies that credited Brazil with racial tolerance and later work that focused on economic inequities among races, Telles saw that two generations of academics had fallen into a habit of talking past one another. According to reviews by peers, Race in Another America succeeded in peeling away questions about racial mixing in families, neighborhoods, and social circles from concerns about unequal attainments among races in income, education, life expectancy, and other indicators of material well-being. Telles fashions the two types of concerns as largely independent "horizontal" (social and interpersonal) and "vertical" (economic and material) dimensions of race relations in Brazil.
Although Telles is too cautious to apply his scheme beyond Brazil, he suggests that racially mixed societies like Brazil are far more common than the segregated ones: "the Jim Crow U.S. and apartheid South Africa." Integration in the United States and the U.S. South, he says, represents this country's "becoming more like the rest of the world."
Winner in 2005 of the American Sociological Association's Otis Dudley Duncan Prize for the best book on population issues, Race in Another America this year has won the ASA Distinguished Scholarly Publication award for the single best English-language book in sociology over the past three years.
False analogies with the United States are also part of what enables Brazilians to claim, as Telles says they characteristically do, that racial matters have little importance in their country. "If you bring up the idea that there might be racism, then you're racist yourself," he says, describing a prevalent view.
Racism and the use of racial categories themselves developed in drastically different ways in the two largest countries in the Americas, Telles says. Whereas whole English families arrived in North America fleeing religious persecution, the Portuguese and others who traveled to the South American coast were usually young men seeking fortunes and, in the meantime, mates. Unequal and coercive sexual relations between white men and black female slaves and servants resulted in mixed Afro-European offspring on both continents, of course, but the indigenous or African roots of proportionally more Brazilian babies prevented Europeans there from making racial purity a fetish. Brazil never had a one-drop rule.
Instead of enforced separation, the racist ideologies of the nineteenth-century Brazil led to a policy of "whitening." Turn-of-the-century prognosticators believed that stimulated European immigration would make nearly all Brazilians white within another century or so.
Nothing of the sort occurred, but Brazil's vision of itself as a country with a single race or even without race has endured, Telles says. This is so in spite of the rich vocabularies of racial qualifiers employed by government census-takers and the general public. The popular terms range from narrow ones like preto, for blacks with the darkest skin, to moreno, a word that means something like "brunet" and can apply to "almost any Brazilian." Telles explains that a key difference between U.S. and Brazilian racial categories is that Brazilians sort their fellows by appearance, not ancestry. There is no stigma attached to black ancestry in itself, and politicians with white skin often claim their own, he observes.
Since 2001, Brazil for the first time has been pursuing affirmative action in university admissions. Telles says that such initiatives are sorely needed but at the same time could move officials to firm up rules about racial classification. Above all, they might have to "decide who's black." This is a tall order given that, in practice, Brazilians apply racial labels very inconsistently, especially along the imaginary line that divides black from brown, Telles says.
A small black movement has long sought changes and now has acquired limited political influence, including some from within the ruling Worker's Party (PT). In politics, Telles says, "there's a recognition of race for the first time in Latin America in the last five years or so. That's new."
Published: Thursday, June 01, 2006
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