Home Be Informed Race, Class and Education in Brazil

Race, Class and Education in Brazil


Race in Brazil

The history of slavery in Brazil is considerably different from the history of slavery in the US. While it was equally cruel and inhuman, blacks in Brazil were allowed to purchase their freedom—and many did. Freed blacks would collect money to free other slaves. In the town of Ouro Preto (Black Gold), an extremely wealthy town in the late 1800s, successful gold miners and merchants showed off their wealth by building expensive baroque churches to ‘thank God for their good fortune’. One of the most impressive examples of these churches was built by a black brotherhood.

Further, the most famous architect and artist not only of Ouro Preto, but of the entire Brazilian baroque was Antonio Francisco Lisboa (Aleijadinho—The Little Cripple), a product of a Portuguese builder and black slave. Clearly, one difference between the US and Brazil regarding slavery and mating of whites and slaves is that in Brazil this was open and even ‘accepted’. Finally, Brazil passed a law requiring children of slaves—including mixed-race children—to be freed: the opposite of our one-drop rule.

Brazilian scholars who study Brazil’s ethnic and racial populations today divide the population into these broad groups: European—including Portuguese and Spanish (they believe Hispanic is a US made-up category), British, Italian and Germans; African; Amerindian; Asian (primarily Japanese), and mixed-race, or pardos.

One of my most interesting observations is that in Brazil almost every group I observed—early childhood programs, school groups, choirs and instrumental groups, Lions Clubs, kids sitting in shopping centers and eating or just socializing, and dance groups, were all made up of people who ranges in color from what the Brazilians consider black to what they consider white, with every color of brown in between.

I never saw students, youth groups, or adults voluntarily segregate themselves by color; I never heard any discussion from the young people I was around that certain things are a “black thing”, “Asian thing”, “white thing”, etc.—largely because most of these youths did not fit any of these single-race categories.

Classism & Education

While racial divisions in Brazil are not clearly defined, class lines are. There are the very wealthy, the middle class, and the very poor. And in Brazil the very poor make up a large percentage of the population. You see them on the streets trying to sell food and trinkets when you stop at a traffic light; they descend on you when you park your car, offering ‘protection’ for a price (and, if you don’t pay, your car will not be protected); and, you see them along the highways in miserable shacks trying to sell all sorts of things to drivers speeding by.

Clearly this class structure overlaps into race; but it is categorically untrue to say all the wealthy are white, and all the poor, nonwhite. It is also inaccurate to look at Brazilian society as if it were a society with the same potential for upward mobility as exists in our society, and then to blame poverty of people of color on racism. In Brazil it is extremely difficult for anyone to advance social levels, regardless of race.

This is due to a complex set of societal factors, but anchored in the educational system that only works for families with money. Children must attend private secondary schools to be able to pass the vestibular entrance exam to get into the free universities; if they fail they can go to private universities that cost money to attend. In both cases the poor are shut out.

However,. for socio-economic level, whites and Asians are more likely to be in the higher socio-economic stratum, compared to whites, pardos and Indians. For education of head of household, whites and Asians are more likely to be university graduates.

… Sociological scholarship on “race” provides scientific evidence in the current scientific and civic debate over the social consequences of the existing categorizations and perceptions of race; allows scholars to document how race shapes social ranking, access to resources, and life experiences; and advances understanding of this important dimension of social life, which in turn advances social justice. Refusing to acknowledge the fact of racial classification, feelings, and actions, and refusing to measure their consequences will not eliminate racial inequalities. At best, it will preserve the status quo.