Racial Mixture and Affirmative Action: The Cases of Brazil and the United States

For me, as a historian of Brazil, North America’s “one-drop rule” has always seemed odd. No other society in this hemisphere has defined its racial types in such absolutist terms. David Hollinger, like many American historians before him, is clearly intrigued by this apparently unique “approach to the question of ethnoracial mixture.”[1] How can we account for it? How could such a different racial classification have arisen in North America and not in any of the many other European colonial experiments in the New World?[2]

Hollinger cites three features that in combination allegedly made U.S. racial evolution different. The first is a regime that tolerated slavery and thereby produced a significant population of slave descent. The second is massive immigration that enriched American society. The third is survival of an Indian population, even if only in token numbers.

But Hollinger examines the influence of these three factors on racial attitudes and behavior in the United States alone. If we add one other country, Brazil, to the picture, we find something rather startling.[3] All three of Hollinger’s conditions also obtained in Brazil. Yet they did not produce the one-drop rule. Something else must have been at work.

If I had been writing this commentary a half century ago, I would have stressed the enormous difference between the two countries in the racial status given to the offspring of mixed unions.[4] Throughout the United States (multi-racial societies emerged in Charleston and New Orleans, but only temporarily), the one-drop rule defined mixed bloods (even the lightest mulattos) as black. In Brazil, by contrast, racial attribution depended on how the person looked and on the particular circumstances of that person, which led to the racial fluidity for which Brazil is famous.[5]

My account would have given several reasons for this, based on a strong consensus of scholarly opinion in both countries, epitomized by Charles Wagley (the dean of U.S. anthropologists specializing in Brazil) and Gilberto Freyre (Brazil’s most famous articulator of his country’s racial identity). Both men argued that the milder race relations in Brazil reflected contrasting historical, social, cultural, and moral traditions in the two countries.[6] These were the days—the 1950s—when both Brazilians and Americans believed that Brazil had “solved” its race problem. The explanations were several. One argument was that Brazil had achieved abolition in the 1870s and 1880s, not through the chaos and destruction of a civil war but by negotiation and successive legislative compromises (with legislation in 1871, 1885, and 1888). If, by the twentieth century, those of color seemed to be at the bottom, the standard explanation was lack of education.

Carl Degler, in his pioneering comparative analysis of race relations in Brazil and the United States—which argued that the greater mobility of the mulatto in Brazil was central—reasoned that the differing status of women in the two cultures was crucial in explaining why the free mulatto did not appear in numbers in the United States. The Anglo-American white wife, who allegedly enjoyed higher social status than her Luso-Brazilian counterpart, was enabled by her status to prevent her philandering husband from legitimizing his mixed-blood offspring.[7]

Another possible explanation emphasized social values, especially the English colonists’ attitude toward sexual behavior. This was expressed as a fierce defense of the sanctity of marriage, especially when accompanied by racial endogamy.[8] What was the basis of this early racial preference in marriage? Winthrop Jordan has documented Elizabethan England’s phobia about all things black.[9] Could this racial preference in marriage have combined with the family nature of English settlement of North America? To facilitate racial endogamy, English colonists came with their wives, whereas the Spanish and Portuguese colonists arrived without wives or other family. Thus Anglo-American wives were in a better position to enforce racial endogamy.

A third possible explanation was demography. Brazil had a smaller percentage of Europeans than Anglo America. Fifty years before abolition, Brazilian free coloreds already outnumbered the slave population. The Brazilian mixed bloods could therefore find more “economic space” in which to emerge as a free colored class.[10] According to this explanation, Brazil had generated a de facto multi-racial society before the campaign to abolish slavery even began.

As of the 1940s and 1950s, both nations—but especially Brazil—defined their race-relations system in terms of what it was not. The Brazilians pointed to the United States, with its segregation and anti-intermarriage, as an example of the institutional extremes to which white Americans carried their Negrophobia (with lynching a violent manifestation of the same). The hypocrisy of the U.S. claim to be a model democracy was much criticized from abroad—especially from France, still the spiritual home of the Brazilian elite. This critical stance was reinforced by the worldwide anti-American campaign unleashed in the early Cold War—a climate that helped give the Brazilian elite a feeling of moral superiority toward the United States. Brazil may have imported more African slaves than America, the feeling went, but it had not created a society that created excuses (political belief as well as race) for dehumanizing measures of exclusion. E. Franklin Frazier, the noted African-American sociologist trained at the University of Chicago and expert on the U.S. African-American family, described this contrast in 1942: “Whereas in Brazil white, Brown, and black people know each other as individual human beings, white people in the United States only know the Negro as a symbol or stereotype … While we may provide Brazil with technical skill and capital, Brazil has something to teach us in regard to race relations.”[11]

The Brazilian elite’s favorable view of their country’s race relations was strengthened in the international world by several events in the cultural history of the 1950s. The first was the publication in English of Gilberto Freyre’s classic The Masters and the Slaves (1956, originally published in Portuguese in 1933), which had become the bible for those who attributed to the Portuguese a uniquely benevolent system of race relations. For the next decade or so, Freyre was feted and praised in academic circles in the United States and Western Europe.

Freyre’s image of Brazil as the polar opposite of the racist United States was reinforced when UNESCO, the de facto official arbiter of culture in the Third World, chose Brazil for a case study in how a thoroughly mixed racial population could live in harmony. The researchers were French, American, and Brazilian, thus underlining the project’s international flavor.

Such argumentation seems much less conclusive when viewed through today’s lens.[12] It is certainly true that Brazil lacks the history of racial hatred that characterizes the United States. But lack of racial hatred does not turn out to have led to lack of racial discrimination. That part of the story was first revealed by the UNESCO study. Begun as an investigation of an ideal environment for racial relations, its findings in fact documented the presence of racism in differing forms throughout most of the country.[13]

Beginning in the 1960s, a consensus grew among a small number of Brazilian academics and writers that the conventional explanations for Brazil’s race relations were no longer convincing.[14] But none of these writers made much of an impact on Brazilian elite opinion. Leading cultural spokesmen, almost invariably white, simply ignored attempts to enlarge the space for Africans in Brazilian consciousness. The nation’s most prominent sociology department, at the University of São Paulo, devoted virtually no effort to research and teaching on Brazilian race relations during the 1970s or 1980s. The same could be said of the sociology departments throughout the country. Discussion of the subject was generally limited to departments of anthropology, and then only approached in qualitative terms rather than quantitative measurement of discrimination.

In the 1990s, however, opinion began to shift in Brazilian universities, with debates about the lack of Brazilians of color among the student bodies and about possible measures to compensate Afro-Brazilians for past discrimination.[15] In the mid-1990s, the president of the country, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, officially acknowledged the existence of racial discrimination in Brazil, which he followed up by appointing a national commission to propose remedies.[16] Most dramatic of all, the federal government of Brazil adopted racial quotas. Several universities, such as the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, have also set quotas for minority admissions. In looking for some mechanism to decide which candidates are eligible for a system like Affirmative Action, they have actually adopted the one-drop rule! Brazilian specialists in race relations have found themselves lost in the crossfire of these debates. As two organizers of a 2000 conference on race confessed, “either we are totally alienated or we are living in a social paradise.”[17]

Recent trends in the United States have been dramatically different, with the one-drop rule losing its grip. Although ethnic and racial prejudices persist and discrimination still mars American democracy, non-white Americans have experienced significant upward mobility since the 1950s. Previous lines of racial and ethnic distinction have blurred, as identities, particularly of the younger generation, have been created anew.[18] Affirmative Action as a redress of previous injustice is out, disallowed by the federal courts. And Affirmative Action to promote diversity is under serious legal siege. Incidentally, this distinction among differing rationales for Affirmative Action has not been appreciated in most Brazilian discussions of this subject.

By 1992, one American specialist on Brazil had written that a comparison of Brazil and the United States based on official data showed the United States to be the more racially equal of the two: “While most measures of racial inequality had declined markedly in the United States, the same measures in Brazil had tended either to remain stable, or in some cases—most notably vocational distribution—actually to increase. As a result, by 1980 the two countries had reversed position, with the United States now ranking as the more racially equal of the two societies.” The same scholar noted elsewhere that “Brazilian race relations thus appear far more bi-polar than has traditionally been thought; conversely, black/white dichotomy in the United States is breaking down in the face of both massive emigration from Latin America and Asia and of new multi-racial identities.”[19] Race relations are still more conflictive in the United States and, at least on the surface, more humane in Brazil. But it is not unusual to hear Afro-Brazilians saying they prefer the situation as they now see it in the United States to the frustrating ambiguities they still face in Brazil.

Present-day African-American scholarly opinion is represented in a book by an African-American sociologist who spent ten months of field research in a relatively small Brazilian community in 1992–1994. The title of her book is revealing: Racism in a Racial Democracy. The subtitle is even more revealing: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil.[20] It could not be farther from E. Franklin Frazier’s enthusiastic endorsement of the traditional Gilberto Freyre view in the 1940s.

How far Brazil will go down the road of quotas is impossible to say. Obviously, many conditions—social, cultural, ideological, economic—in Brazil differ sharply from those in the United States. But it is also worth remembering that quota systems—of whatever content—are now widely used in India and other nations of Latin America—even as they have become illegal here.

Has Brazil come full circle in its racial practice? Are Brazilians now beginning to embrace the very measures they once denounced as inappropriate for Brazil’s “racial democracy”?[21] It is too soon to say. As a foreign observer, I would guess that white guilt over past discrimination is weaker in Brazil than in the United States. This may mean there will be stronger resistance to racially oriented remedial action than has proved the case in North America.

The embrace of Affirmative Action in Brazil will certainly generate a backlash, especially among many of the white elite. They will continue to argue that any racial preferences violate the merit-oriented standards (as validated by examination) that are needed to modernize their society. And they are already charging that advocates of Affirmative Action are servants “of cultural imperialism engaged in pitting Brazilians against Brazilians in order to destroy our confidence in the high value of our interracial culture.”[22] As one can see, much has changed, but not the penchant for comparative analysis.[23]

Thomas E. Skidmore did two BAs in philosophy (Denison and Magdalen College, Oxford) and a PhD in Modern European history at Harvard before turning to Latin American history in 1961. His mentors at Oxford were T. D. Weldon and G. D. N. Worswick and at Harvard Franklin Ford. He has published on the entire Latin American region (including with Peter H. Smith, the leading text in the field, Modern Latin America), but his specialty has been modern Brazil. His Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (1974) contributed significantly to the present ongoing revisionist reexamination of the history of Brazilian race relations. His Politics in Brazil (1967) and The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil (1988) became Brazilian bestsellers in Portuguese translation. He is currently the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Professor emeritus at Brown University and is a frequent commentator in the Brazilian media on that country’s history and politics.


1 David A. Hollinger, “Amalgamation and Hypodescent: The Question of Ethnoracial Mixture in the History of the United States,” AHR 108 (December 2003): 1365.

2 F. James Davis, Who Is Black? (University Park, Pa., 1991).

3 For a recent comparison, which includes two other countries, see Anthony W. Marx, Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa, and Brazil (New York, 1998).

4 The Portuguese Church even encouraged interracial marriages in order to solidify the colonial population. In the United States, by contrast, interracial marriages were illegal in many states and for a period illegal throughout the country. Ronaldo Vainfas, Trópico dos pecados: Moral, sexualidade e Inquisição no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, 1989), 98.

5 Thomas Skidmore, “Racial Ideas and Social Policy in Brazil, 1870–1940,” in Richard Graham, ed., The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870–1940 (Austin, Tex., 1990). In the last decade, the concept and place of the mulatto has been discussed at increasing length in the popular literature: Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall, The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color among African Americans (New York, 1992); Jon Michael Spencer, The New Colored People: The Mixed-Race Movement in America (New York, 1997); Stephan Talty, Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture, a Social History (New York, 2003). The pioneering work in this field was Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York, 1984).

6 Charles Wagley, Introduction to Brazil (New York, 1971); Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves (New York, 1956).

7 Carl N. Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York, 1971).

8 Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (Baltimore, 2002), 200–24. It should be noted that Godbeer’s analysis includes regional variations. My purpose here is to emphasize the national trends that gave birth to the one-drop rule.

9 Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes towards the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1968).

10 Marvin Harris, Patterns of Race in the Americas (New York, 1964).

11 E. Franklin Frazier, “Brazil Has No Race Problem,” Common Sense, November 11, 1942, cited in David J. Hellwig, ed., African American Perspectives on Brazil’s Racial Paradise (Philadelphia, 1992), 128–29.

12 Thomas Skidmore, “Estados Unidos Bi-racial versus Brasil Multiracial: O Contraste Ainda é Válido?” Novos estudos, no. 34 (1992).

13 Marco Ch. Maio, “O Brasil no Concerto das Nações: A Luta Contra o Racismo Nos Primórdios da Unesco,” História, ciências, saúde 2 (1998).

14 Abdias Do Nascimento, Mixture or Massacre? Essays in the Genocide of a Black People (Buffalo, N.Y., 1979); Clovis Moura, Rebeliões da Senzala (São Paulo, 1959).

15 For a highly useful survey of recent data on gender and racial discrimination in Brazil, see Rebecca Reichmann, ed., Race in Contemporary Brazil: From Indifference to Inequality (University Park, Pa., 1999). The most comprehensive discussion is in the forthcoming publication by Edward E. Telles, Race in Another America: Race Mixture, Exclusion and State in Brazil, 2003.

16 Jessé Souza, org., Multiculturalismo e racismo: Uma comparação Brasil–Estados Unidos (Brasilia, 1997).

17 Yvonne Maggie and Claudia Barcellos Rezende, eds., Raça como retórica: A construção da diferença (Rio de Janeiro, 2002), 15.

18 Joel Kotkin and Thomas Tseng, “Happy to Mix It All Up,” Washington Post (June 8, 2003): B1–B3.

19 George Reid Andrews, “Racial Inequality in Brazil and the United States: A Statistical Comparison,” Journal of Social History 26, no. 2 (1992): 254; Andrews, “Brazilian Racial Democracy, 1900–90: An American Counterpoint,” Journal of Contemporary History 31, no. 3 (1996): 499.

20 France Winddance Twine, Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil (New Brunswick, N.J., 1998).

21 Thomas E. Skidmore, “Temas e Metodologias Nos Estudos Das Relações Raciais Brasileiras,” Novos estudos, CEBRAP, no. 60 (July 2001): 63–76.

22 Olavo de Carvalho, “Só Preto, com Preconceito,” Républica, no. 32 (June 1999): 36.

23 The U.S.-Brazil comparison is used by numerous Brazilians who are responsible for social order in their country. One of the most striking examples is by former Rio de Janeiro police chief Jorge da Silva, Violência e racismo no Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro, 1998).