15 January 2018

Professor Moraes Silva on Racism and More


In the aftermath of the Second World War, the refutation of scientific theories of race led to the disqualification of the category of race as applied to human populations. However, this disqualification has not entailed a universal ban on the notion of race itself, and world regions have contrasting understandings of the concept. Against this backdrop, “Global Race”, a multidisciplinary project, investigates the reconfigurations of racism and race. More details with Graziella Moraes Silva, Assistant Professor in Anthropology and Sociology, project member and author of an article on the race question in Brazil.

How does the “Global Race” project engage with the race question?

The project, which is coordinated by Patrick Simon at the Institut national d’études démographiques (INED, France), is based on dynamics of racial classification since the end of Second World War, with a focus on Europe and North and South America. In the aftermath of the Second World War, most countries abandoned the idea of race. This is evidenced by the exclusion of racial categories from state documents and practices like national censuses. In fact, during the second half of the 20th century only three countries consistently had a race question in their censuses: the US, South Africa and Brazil. But the final decades of the 20th century and the initial decades of the 21st century witnessed a return of race to the public debates, in different shapes and forms. So, the idea of the project is to understand how different countries make the decision to rely (or not) on racial categories and how they justify the use of different types of categorisation. We argue that this is related to global processes of understanding race mobilisation – for instance through the role of UNO and human rights – and how those global discourses are interpreted at local levels.

Given your long span of research in Brazil, how do you reckon its importance in the race question?

When you compare Brazil to the two other cases – the US and South Africa – that have classified their population according to race in censuses during the second half of the 20th century, it stands as an outlier in the sense that it did not have an official system of segregation like the Jim Crow laws and apartheid. Brazil has relied roughly on the same racial categories to classify its population since the late 19th century (it was the last country to abolish slavery in 1888) but it also adopted an ideology of inclusion and mixture that became widespread in Latin America after 1940. In fact, until the late 1960s, Brazil was largely perceived as a racial paradise, especially in contrast to the US – the usual suspect for comparisons in the race literature. In the 1950s, UNESCO even funded a series of studies, mostly ethnographies, to understand the Brazilian success in “solving” the race problem. Nevertheless, at least since the 1970s, social science research has shown that racial discrimination and prejudice have always been widespread in the country and still play a key role in the reproduction of broader socioeconomic inequalities. Census statistics have been crucial in making these racial inequalities visible.

Do you investigate census categories in Brazil in the article you published in the Journal of Latin American Studies?

Precisely so. “Technocrats’ Compromises: Defining Race and the Struggle for Equality in Brazil, 1970-2010” is a joint paper with Brenna Powell, from Stanford University. We look into how technocrats in the Brazilian Census Bureau negotiated the race categories with an authoritarian military government, academic experts and, especially since the 1980s, black movements. In 1970, the initial point of our analysis, the race question was not included in the census and has commonly been described in the literature as an imposition of the military dictatorship. But this explanation does not take into account a number of studies made within the Census Bureau during the 1970s as well as the re-inclusion of the race question in 1980, still under the authoritarian regime. We argue that technocrats within the institution played a key role and we analyse how they justified their choices in accordance with scientific debates, political pressures by international organisations like the UN and local social movements, and their own ideological understanding of the question. Empirically, we rely on archival material, survey and census data, as well as key informant interviews with senior technocrats from the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics, IBGE).

What did you find out from this research?

Our research has two main arguments that fill the gaps of the existing literature. First, we show that the inclusion of the race question in 1980 had much to do with the political stands of the Census Bureau. The technocrats (civil servants working in the bureau) actually pushed the agenda. The fact that they were perceived as technocrats allowed them to be insulated and empowered to push for such an agenda. Second, we show that even if the racial categories remained roughly stable since the 19th century, the analysis and interpretation of those categories changed a lot, as well as the political implications of the usage. Therefore, our findings show the central role of technocratic actors in shaping and giving meaning to these categories in a context of uncertainty about the most valid approach to measurement and its consequences. Their role is particularly evident in IBGE’s early application of the negro category to the non-white population and repeated rejection of the moreno category. Beyond technical expertise, these census officials navigated various professional, political and ideological motivations. We develop the concept of technocratic compromise to capture census officials’ decision-making processes and underscore its importance to explaining census policy outcomes. More broadly, we show that their role was central to the acknowledgment of racial inequalities in Brazil and argue for the importance of racial visibility to pursue antiracism initiatives.

Can you tell us about the project’s further outputs (conferences, papers…)?

While the interviews with IBGE technocrats were conducted not long ago, in 2010 and 2011, much has changed since then. For instance, affirmative actions, in the form of racial quotas in universities and civil service jobs, have become mandatory at the federal level. Following international conventions, racial classification for the inclusion in quotas was based on self-classification; in other words, to be included in a racial quota one had just to say that one was is black or brown. In a country that has historically adopted a discourse of racial mixture, and where more than 40 percent of the population identifies as brown or mixed (pardo or moreno), this has caused many debates about who was entitled to claim a black identification and benefit from quotas. The issue of classification actually caused a backlash against the way racial quotas were being implemented. Surprisingly it did not come from the white population, but from black movements leaders. They argued that because the affirmative action policies rely on self-identification, without any monitoring by the state or Institutions, there is a lot of fraud, that is, people who are not black or brown are claiming to be black or brown to get benefits from affirmative actions. Therefore they demanded, and were able to pass, a new law in which state institutions need to create commissions to validate the self-identification of candidates who apply to universities or jobs relying on racial quotas. Interestingly, it is the first time since the Second World War that state institutions will officially classify the population, and their classification is supposed to be more valid than self-classification. I am working on another paper – with Veronica Toste, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – that will explore these emerging classification practices and their tensions. I have already presented the ideas of this new paper in a conference organised by the “Global Race” project last June.

I will also present the article on technocrats at the congress of the Latin American Studies Association in May 2018.



Visit the “Global Race” project >
Read Prof. Moraes Silva’s article >

Full citation of the article:
Powell, Brenna Marea, and Graziella Moraes Silva. “Technocrats’ Compromises: Defining Race and the Struggle for Equality in Brazil, 1970–2010.” Journal of Latin American Studies, 2017, 1–29. doi:10.1017/S0022216X17000797.

Interview by Sucharita Sengupta, PhD student in Anthropology and Sociology.
Front picture: Lady in litter being carried by her slaves, province of São Paulo in Brazil, ca.1860. By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons