Fixing the Race Problem:
Race & Assimilation in the United States & Brazil
Since the French Revolution heralded ideals such as liberty, equality, and fraternity, scholars have asserted that all societies would gradually perpetuate such values within their cultural context. Additionally, some argue, civilizations would continue on a path toward the attainment of such principles. Such a realization would mean the decline of racial prejudice, and the universal acceptance of cultures. Under this guise, the world is moving towards assimilation of all individuals and the fulfillment of each individual potential will be possible. If such a theory is accepted, Brazil and the United States , two democracies noted for their cultural pluralism, are making headway in the eradication of race as an indicator of worth. Through academic research, and personal observations, this article seeks to determine the validity of the assimilation theory as it applies to the United States and Brazil .
Both Brazil and the United States are similar in their histories and their social diversity, but in the treatment of race they vary greatly. Americans treat race in terms of black and white, with little allowance for those of mixed blood. Brazilians, however, recognize a wide range of racial classifications, some of which are based on more than the color of an individual's skin. Such classifications can be defined by physical characteristics such as hair texture, or eye color. Brazilians have also proclaimed their mixed society as an indication of their national character, a uniqueness which is distinctly Brazilian. The United States , on the other hand, has been criticized for the discrepancy between the values decreed in the Constitution such as liberty and equality, and the rampant practice of racial discrimination. Scholar G. Myrdal, in his novel, “An American Dilemma,” further defines this phenomenon as an interaction of three variables: “first, the cultural creed honored in cultural tradition and partly enacted into law; second the beliefs and attitudes of individuals regarding the principles of the creed; and third, the actual practices of individuals with reference to it.”
At initial evaluation one might infer that the United States is the least racially assimilated culture of the two countries. After analysis, however, one can affirm that both countries social hierarchy's promote racial prejudice, just in two very different manners. On the most basic level, in the United States social mobility is restricted by the color of your skin. This racial discourse is marked by its rigidity and limitations.
In opposition, the Brazilian racial taxonomy is characterized by flexibility as evident in its multitude of racial classifications. The racial prejudice lies not in the dichotomy between black and white, as in the United States , but in socioeconomic status and education level. In Brazil , social desirability is achieved through the “whitening” of one's skin, which in itself implies a preference for European ancestry. For example and individual may appear to be black, but a college education can “advance” their racial classification to mulatto. World famous soccer player Pele demonstrated this Brazilian paradigm when he classified his daughter as white despite the fact that she was of mixed blood. It confirms an overwhelming desire to be white, or have white tendencies within Brazilian society.
As an American visiting Brazil , one can draw on personal observations and knowledge of both systems in assessing the validity of assimilation in both countries. It was my experience that a system of racial prejudice reinforced by socioeconomic factors is pervasive in Brazil . I draw this conclusion from my observations of the Favelas in Rio de Janeiro , and the beggars in both Salvador and Rio . One might also notice that it is not entirely uncommon to see an impoverished Brazilian with lighter skin, but it is rare to see a wealthy Brazilian with very dark skin. Such observations would verify the former conclusions.
In conclusion, both countries have significant barriers in the realization of full cultural and racial assimilation. It remains that unrestricted assimilation and full equality cannot be fulfilled without unobstructed access to quality education and the professional work force.
Penha-Lopes, V. (1996) What next? On race and assimilation in the United States and Brazil . Journal of Black studies , 26(6), 809-826.
Toplin, R. (1971). Reinterpreting comparative race relations: the Untied States and Brazil . Journal of Black Studies , 2(2), 135-155.