Racial Trends and Scapegoating: Bringing in a Comparative Focus
Racism, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a belief that “race” is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. Put into practice, racism refers to relationships in which one group, supposedly distinguished by physical differences, has more power (political, economic, military, etc.) than another, and can and does use that power to act on or against a similarly distinguished oppressed group. Such relations generally build on and reinforce prejudice, but are distinct from prejudice in that prejudice is not necessarily acted on with power and authority. Harms inflicted in accordance with racism range from day-to-day socioeconomic discrimination, or local rules enforcing such discrimination, to national rules of exclusion from all social, civil, or political rights. How many, who, and how those people are so harmed makes a good deal of difference. Also important is whether harm is imposed by an individual, by a local official in a contained area, or by national authority. There is, then, within the arena of racism, a large continuum of tragic outcomes, providing some analytic leverage. If we can account for different outcomes along the continuum—from informal discrimination to national and formal exclusion—we may find clues as to the causes of racism. In other words, explaining the outcomes of racism may suggest its more general root.
Adding historical comparison to an analysis of racial trends in the United States requires looking at different countries’ experiences. In so doing, we can more clearly identify distinct forms of racism, and, within
each case, we can better assess why that form of racism emerged. Putting together such analyses, we may find a pattern more revealing of the fundamental causes of racism than would be apparent by just looking at one country. The pay-off would be a better understanding of each country’s case, including our own, which better equips us to redress or to undermine racism more generally. That aim justifies the abuse and simplifications inherent in generalized comparisons—the kind that can so anger specialists, political partisans, or exceptionalists. In the process we should, of course, try to minimize distortions in each case.
Comparing the United States with South Africa and Brazil creates a particularly powerful tool for understanding racism. These three case studies of relations between African and European descendants present well-known examples of outcomes within the continuum of possible forms of racism. South Africa encoded pervasive discrimination and nationwide political and economic exclusion against a Black majority population. The United States encoded such policies of racial domination more unevenly, and amid significant social discrimination, against a minority Black population. Although Brazil legally encoded neither apartheid nor Jim Crow laws,1 Afro-Brazilians are nevertheless subject to pervasive, if informal, discrimination and prejudice. In all three cases, race relations were significantly contested, provoking consideration of the enactment of rules of relations (or debates thereof) focusing on the treatment of Blacks by Whites.
My focus is on the legal enactment of racism, itself requiring justification, given that race relations are much broader than their legal enforcement. For instance, social discrimination is often as harmful as legal discrimination, whether it is overt or covert, deliberate or inadvertent, and whether it occurs before, during, or after legal repression. But the legal buttress—i.e., whether racism is encoded and in what form—makes a huge difference in the scale and form of harms so inflicted.
Legal racial domination has proven to be an effective, powerful, and hurtful tool of social control, as made most evident by the most extreme case, apartheid. That set of policies effectively contained—socially, politically, economically, and developmentally—the majority of South Africa’s population for close to half a century, inflicting great costs and attracting the disgust and eventual disapproval of much of the world. Legal structures of racism, however, also generate conflict by reinforcing the cohe
sion and antagonism of its victims. Eventually such laws demarcating and depriving a specified racial group become the target of domestic protest against the state, evidenced by the Antiapartheid Movement in South Africa, particularly in the 1950s and the 1980s, and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1960s.
In the absence of apartheid or Jim Crow laws, Brazil has had much less, and no comparable, mass-based social movements or conflict over race per se. Thus, in some ways, Afro-Brazilians are better off than Black Americans or Black South Africans, in not having been subjected to nationally or regionally encoded discrimination; on the other hand, it may be that Afro-Brazilians are worse off, not having a legal target to provoke and direct protest toward, which might have produced more effective social policies against discrimination.
So, the legal structures are important and worth explaining. This is not to suggest that legal structures are all that need to be explained or that they are, in themselves, the single cause of conflict. In fact, given the significance of legal racial domination, we are pushed back analytically to accounting for the emergence of such policies in their varying forms.
The first thing to note is that racial prejudice is the bedrock on which legal racial proscriptions were built, and its significance cannot be over-estimated in explaining why Blacks were singled out for the more heinous and persistent forms of ill treatment. At the same time, differences in legal racist practices cannot be fully explained by prejudice, which was (and is) evident in all three countries. In social science, a constant cannot alone explain variation. Pervasive prejudice cannot explain the differences between apartheid and Jim Crow and Brazil’s racism despite the lack of encoded proscriptions—i.e., cannot explicate nuances of Blacks’ legal exclusion throughout South Africa, in the South in the United States, or nowhere comparably in Brazil. Indeed, if racial prejudice is as pervasive as it seems to be, then it is a necessity—though not a sufficient cause by itself—of legal racist practice, which is less pervasive and more varied. Variations of legal outcomes, however, have significant effects.
I have more fully explored, elsewhere, the historical bases for differences in the racist practices of South Africa, the United States, and Brazil (Marx, 1998). Here, for purposes of historical summary, an overview indicates the multicausality of racism, while revising and building on prior efforts at monocausal explanation.
The long-established demographic differences between the three countries have an important effect on the differences in outcomes. Blacks are a minority population in the United States, now representing roughly 13 percent of the total population. South Africa has the reverse demographic—Whites represent roughly 13 percent of the total population. Approximately half of Brazil’s population is people who have some mea-
sure of African ancestry, though specification is more complex, given Brazil’s different categories. These differences are highly relevant; for example, South Africa’s indigenous Black majority has long reinforced the White minority’s perceptions of insecurity and need for protection. But it is problematic to suggest that the legal racial outcomes ranging along the continuum are based solely on demographics. Notably Brazil, with its half-Black population, is at the opposite extreme in having had no postabolition, encoded racial segregation. Put more positively, the effect of demography may be curvilinear, with Brazil’s close-to-even mix contributing to its unique lack of legal racism.
Legal racist practice was shaped, if not strictly preordained, by slavery. Certainly enslavement powerfully reinforced prejudice; White slave owners needed to justify and defend their heinous form of exploitation, so claimed it reflected the natural order of Blacks’ inferiority and, therefore, subjugation by Whites (Fredrickson, 1981). Thus rationalized, slavery helped build the bedrock of prejudice, on which legally encoded racism would also be built, and without which neither would have been constructed. No doubt such prejudice in the United States informed postabolition forms of exploitation and the enactment of Jim Crow legislation.
However, we should not be too quick to describe racism as a direct outcome of slavery. Though described as more “humanitarian” than slavery elsewhere, and thereby supposedly prefiguring the later lack of encoded racial segregation (Tannenbaum, 1946), bondage in Brazil was at least as extensive as in the United States—nationwide, deadly, and exploitative. The high mortality rate among Brazilian slaves was the result of tropical diseases, which also devastated the White population. But that fact does not diminish the heinousness of White slave owners forcibly bringing Blacks into a situation in which they knew there were deadly conditions. Certainly Brazilian slavery fed prejudice, but it did not produce apartheid. Apartheid, in fact, emerged in a country with a significant, though relatively limited and contained, history of slavery (Shell, 1994). So, slavery reinforced prejudice in all three countries, but did not in itself determine the enactment or specific forms of postabolition legal racial domination.
An important reason for the different outcomes is cultural. Inasmuch as Brazil is the only Catholic country in this three-country comparison, it is arguable that the universality of the Catholic church, together with a general notion of an intact social hierarchy in which Blacks could be included (albeit at the bottom), fits with the lack of legal racism in Brazil (Tannenbaum, 1946; Freyre, 1945). Such cultural explanations are as hard to disprove as to prove, and social scientists tend to resist them; yet, there is something distinctive about Latin American race relations that may indeed be cultural. However, there are elements of cultural explanations
that should give us pause. For example, the Catholic Church in Brazil was not all that inclusive in its own practices or preachings (do Nascimento, 1979:69; Hoetink, 1967:5, 21); and the Protestantisms of South Africans and Americans did not produce unanimity on issues of race among cobelieving English or Afrikaners in South Africa, or Northerners or Southerners in the United States. As powerful as they remain, cultural explanations also remain difficult to pin down. Practices vary within supposed cultural units, and culture itself changes in its symbolic meanings and interpretations over time and place.
Miscegenation also had an effect on the encoding of racism. In Brazil, because there were few women among the Portuguese colonials, there was a good deal of sex between White men and Black women. The not-surprising result was a large mulatto population, which, arguably, made it harder for Brazil to draw a biracial color line. Discrimination in Brazil remained informal and loose rather than legal and bifurcated (Degler, 1971), but it remained nevertheless (do Valle Silva, 1985). In the United States and South Africa there was also a good deal of sexual mixing across color lines, albeit in somewhat smaller proportions than in Brazil. Yet, such mixing did not prevent the United States or South Africa from drawing varying but rigid artificial lines of race and allocating rights accordingly. Indeed, mixing in the United States and South Africa was used to justify the need for stricter racial categories. Biology, then, does not determine racial encoding; the continuum of skin color has been divided into two groups in the United States, into three or four groups in South Africa, and without the legal use and enforcement of categorical racial inequalities in Brazil. The key is how racial categories are socially constructed, which is not fully reducible to physical distinctions.
There remains Karl Marx’s formulation for explaining the use of race to differentiate classes. There is no denying that racist practice has been profitable for business owners, who pay Blacks less, and for Whites, who get paid relatively more. But White Brazilians also profited from racial discrimination, absent legal enforcements. Indeed, discrimination against Blacks may be the one thing capitalists and White laborers agreed on in all three of the countries, forging the basis of a class compromise that benefits Whites (Bonacich, 1972). White economic gains from racism were a powerful part of the incentives for Jim Crow laws and apartheid, with racism also shaping industrialization and urbanization. But here again, the commonality of Whites’ economic incentives for racism cannot fully explain the variations in legal outcomes.
Where does this leave us? Looking at these three examples of racist practice, we can test or refine arguments accounting for differences of such practice. Not everyone will agree with how to interpret such comparison; and complex historical analyses do not lend themselves to neat
social science results. Demography, the legacies of slavery, miscegenation, culture, class interests—all are important but none wholly determines later outcomes, reaffirming the multicausality of racism.
But racial discrimination—resulting from slavery, culture, or economic interests—did not always exist and need not continue to exist. Racist practices differ by place and change over time; and historical legacies and interests are interpreted accordingly. And where there is such indeterminacy—where people can chose the form of harms they inflict on others—there is sure to be politics, in terms of both intra-White conflict over oppression and discrimination, and Black resistance to repression, thus forcing reform.
To explain resolutions to such indeterminacy, we need to back up and look briefly at the history of the three countries, focusing particularly on those moments when postslavery, racist legal practice was relatively uncertain, debated, and in formation. At those moments we can see what determined the outcomes. Building on demography, culture, economic interests, and historical experiences of slavery and mixing, we must examine whether and how racial prejudice, pervasive in all three cases, was or was not used as a basis for varying forms of legal treatment. Put differently, as suggested in this volume by Michael Omi, race is scientifically meaningless but socially meaningful, though how and why it is so meaningful requires analysis, refined through comparison.
Discrimination (and worse) practiced by Afrikaners and British against the majority Black population in South Africa was as long standing as European settlement and colonialism. If there was a moment when future official treatment of Black Africans was relatively uncertain, it was immediately after the Boer War (1899 to 1902). The British colonials had discriminated against Blacks, but had promised enfranchisement and other reforms if they won the war and gained control of all of South Africa. Those promises won them much Black support in the war effort. The Afrikaners had resisted both reforms and British rule, but after a drawn-out conflict, they lost to overwhelming imperial force. After their victory, however, the British agreed to indefinitely postpone reforms to appease the Afrikaners and, thereby, diminish further conflict and unify White support (Denoon, 1973:14, 242). During the next half century, British and Afrikaners competed for political power, with the British reinforcing racial domination to win Afrikaner support, and Afrikaner nationalists pushing for even further enforcement. The result was a repeated agreement to increasingly subordinate Blacks, which was fully entrenched with the Afrikaner National Party’s victory in 1948 and the enactment of more complete apartheid.
The story in the United States is more complex, yet follows a similar pattern. Joined a century earlier in a loosely controlled single polity, the
North increasingly resisted slavery and pushed for reforms resisted by the South. The conflict over regional autonomy versus central control came to a head with the Civil War, and slavery became a strategic cause. As in South Africa, the more liberal and industrial reformers won, but unlike in South Africa, the U.S. North proceeded to fulfill its promised reforms with Congressional Reconstruction, also serving Republicans’ electoral interests in gaining Black votes at the time. The South resisted, and eventually even the Northern Republicans decided that appeasement of Southern Whites was more important than reforms for the Black minority. Though few Southern Whites would abandon the more explicitly racist Democratic Party, the possibility of gaining White voters in the South (outnumbering newly enfranchised Black voters) gradually altered the direction of the Republican party (Foner, 1988; Du Bois, 1992; DeSantis, 1959). Rather than impose racial domination from the center, as in South Africa, Northern Republicans instead allowed the South to encode its own order. The result was Jim Crow laws. Superimposed regional tensions and party and economic competition continued, but, as in South Africa, both sides were gradually reconciled by the mutual benefit to White society.
Brazil followed a dramatically different historical trajectory. The same Portuguese descendant elite consistently ruled the country and managed relatively peaceful transitions from slavery to abolition, and from colonialism to empire to republic to democracy, to authoritarianism, and back to democracy. There was no internal war on the scale of the United States’ or South Africa’s. This is not to suggest there were no conflicts or regional competition—just no overriding violent conflict among Whites by ethnicity or region. Whereas such intra-White conflict in South Africa and the United States was gradually contained by unifying Whites against Blacks, no comparable intra-White conflict in Brazil existed to be so managed. Instead Blacks were officially included in the nation projecting itself as a “racial democracy,” though the reality remained one of Black impoverishment and ongoing White discrimination (Roett, 1984; Skidmore, 1974).
The pattern that emerges from this overview can be stated schematically, albeit in somewhat simplified form. Where Whites were in major violent conflict with each other—regionally or nationally—their common racial prejudice against Blacks could be and was used as the basis for eventually restoring White unity, leading to greater codification of that prejudice. Prior prejudice provided the historical raw material or bedrock on which White unity could be built, singling out Blacks as victims to be sacrificed toward that end, though that unity was actually built and shaped by ongoing White tensions and problems. Where Whites were not so divided, there was no need for reconciliation via a scapegoat, and
racial domination was not legally encoded—i.e., Brazil. The implication is the centrality of the goal—national solidarity, or efforts by elites to unify a core constituency of loyal supporters to diminish internal conflicts threatening the polity or economy and shared White interests therein. Where such threats exploded and threatened to again, racial exclusion was the glue for White nationalism; and where the threat of disunity was less, racial division itself was diluted by rhetorical inclusion. Either way, nationalism was gradually consolidated.
In South Africa and the United States, codification of racial domination served to preserve and gradually solidify the White nation-state, or, more precisely, a racially defined, cross-ethnic or cross-regional allegiance to the polity. Once established, political parties often built platforms on “the race card,” in various forms and guises, to win and maintain support and power. Race was a powerful tool toward that end because of the culture of prejudice forged in conquest and slavery. Blacks were singled out as victims sacrificed for White unity because of the salience of past prejudice, and because they fulfilled the criteria of scapegoats: visible and vulnerable for displacing conflict (Ashmore, 1970). In terms of multicausality, we have the explicit combination of the status issues of prejudice with class interests, and party concerns for power, following a Weberian model.
The first thing to note at this point is the implication that legal racial domination was likely not an artifact of social dysfunction after all. We tend to see such segregation as an unfortunate but inescapable legacy from past prejudice. I suggest, instead, that racist practices were deliberate and ongoing choices designed to address a more pressing problem— White conflict threatening a unified nation-state and functioning economy. Indeed, these racist policies were repeatedly refined and heightened precisely because they worked at resolving the problem of intra-White conflict, thereby serving the interests of those who sought national unity and development, and profited from them. Segregation, later apartheid, helped ease the English-Afrikaner conflict because exclusion of Blacks was the one thing Whites agreed upon. Similarly, in the United States, although tensions between North and South did not disappear, they diminished enough for the Union to be stabilized, and the exclusion of Blacks appeased the South enough to make this possible.
The power of racism was that it proved so effective at meeting the most pressing challenges of the day, at least for a time. In South Africa, peace forged among Whites at the expense of Blacks allowed for the expansion of tremendous centralized state power and economic development initially based on mineral wealth. In the United States, peace forged among Whites at the expense of Blacks allowed for central-state consolidation and more rapid industrial expansion. In both the United States
and South Africa, encoding racism delivered stability, control over a unified state, and economic development less hindered by regional or ethnic intra-White conflict.
If the use of race was so successful for Whites, why did its legal codification end? Here, too, the reasons are multicausal. A major part of the answer, however, is the cost of Black protest. The more segregation was reinforced, the more it forced its victims into a common identity, a recognition of joined fate, which became the basis for rising protest provoked by and targeted against legal Black exclusion. At some point—the 1960s in the United States and the 1990s in South Africa—the benefits of racial domination had been sufficiently locked in for Whites and the costs of protest become close to intolerable. No doubt, international pressures and leadership played huge parts in ushering in the end of legal racism, but it was mass protests that played the leading role in eventually forcing these transitions.
But transition to what? The demarcation from a Jim Crow or apartheid regime to not is pretty explicit. Just as we can specify when those legal edifices were built, we can specify when they are ended—with the passing of legislation or signing of executive orders. But not everything changed, of course. The legal edifices of racism were built on foundations of prior prejudice and discrimination. When the legal structure or scaf-folding was dismantled, the prejudice, discrimination, and inequality remained freestanding. The most notable arena of such continuity is economics, with racial discrimination continuing to serve the interests of business profiting from paying lower wages to Black workers, and loyalty of White workers who benefit by being paid more because they are White.
In a sense, the removal of legal structures created a convergence of the three cases discussed here—the United States and South Africa have been “Brazilianized.” Post Jim Crow and apartheid, the United States and South Africa can, like Brazil, claim to be “racial democracies,” where there is no longer a legal basis for racial discrimination or exclusion from rights. Both countries can, and do, proudly claim to have progressed beyond the bad old days, and to hail the legal equality of opportunity. Proclaiming “racial democracy” does not mean equality of outcome or social equality, or the lack of discrimination or prejudice. But it has produced situations in the United States and South Africa that are, in some respects, similar to situations in Brazil, and as troubling in all three cases.
The first thing to notice about increasing “Brazilianization” is the rise of a rhetoric about color-blindness. The argument now common in the United States is that since legal racial discrimination is over, and has been off the books long enough for its prior effects to have been overcome, then so should any positive legal discrimination be ended. Public opinion polls show growing support of Whites for this position (for poll results,
see Jaynes and Williams, 1989:148–156; for the conservative position, see D’Souza, 1995; Steele, 1990). Such color-blindness is defended as just, and also, less abstractly, as a way to move toward a society in which race is truly irrelevant. The implication is that race is no longer a barrier to advancement, and therefore should not be used to redress prior constraints. This is a vision that guides much of the debate and policy in the United States today. It is a vision apparently shared by a majority of the Supreme Court justices. It is a vision projected as fundamentally liberal in its aspiration to treat all people as individuals rather than as members of a group.
A more clearly focused vision shows that even if the legal constraints of racism have been removed in the United States, informal constraints remain. The legacies of the past live on in continued discrimination and inequality (well documented by the studies collected here). The state may be legally color-blind; society is not. For the state then to position itself on the supposed high ground of color-blindness may actually mean it is unwilling to act on the grounds of reality. A color-blind social policy in a color-consciousness society is a form of vision impairment, leaving unchallenged or unregulated racially shaped practices and outcomes. And this result is not the abstract choice of some anthropomorphized unit called “the state”; it is, instead, the purposeful aim of those groups and individuals interested in leaving inequality unchallenged and themselves better off.
The appeal of color-blindness is that it projects as moral what is not; by refusing to see and act on the reality of continued discrimination, the color-blind can project themselves as above the fray, unsullied by manipulations of color. This, of course, leaves the problem unsolved, and, even worse, ensures that the problem will be ignored. As with child or spousal abuse, or so many other harms, recognition of a problem is the first and necessary step toward resolution. The color-blind argument removes that step. It also has the effect of bolstering arguments that remaining Black deprivation is the fault of Blacks and an indication of their inferiority (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994). Ignoring ongoing discrimination encourages a blaming of the victim of and for that discrimination.
The convergence with Brazil is evident. There, racial discrimination is illegal, and its existence widely denied. Nevertheless, Afro Brazilians are much more likely to be poor in a country with the second highest recorded overall income inequality (do Valle Silva, 1985). The widespread assumption in Brazil is that Blacks are poorer because they are less well educated or less well equipped to function in society. Whites and even Afro-Brazilians are encouraged to believe that remaining Black deprivation is the fault of Blacks themselves, diminishing any incentive for public policy intervention. And many argue that race-based policies cannot be
used to redress this inequality because, they argue, there is no clear racial demarcation on which to base such policy. In fact, they say, such policies would themselves violate the constitutional guarantee against discrimination of any sort.
Another area of convergence is that of multiculturalism. The United States has long maintained some ambivalence between allowing for cultural diversity and encouraging greater uniformity. Immigrants kept much of their cultural practice and language, but also became assimilated (Glazer and Moynihan, 1970). This ambivalence has not disappeared, although the power of American culture to assimilate has grown, now reaching easily across international borders. But within the United States the growing trend is to give greater weight to cultural autonomy. Now in large part this remains rhetorical—to most Americans there may be some bowing toward Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, but Christmas remains the norm. And certainly a rhetoric of cultural tolerance has not diminished discrimination against Blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic minorities. Still, there is a sense that everyone is free do as they please—observe any holiday or speak any language, at least in the privacy of their home. Many avowed advocates for the rights of minorities hail such permissiveness as a sign of tolerance.
In Brazil, such multiculturalism has long been so hailed as a signal of tolerance, though the reality may be just the reverse. Brazilians point to the inclusion of African religions and cultural practices in the mainstream as an indication of “racial democracy.” If Brazilians were racist, the argument goes, they would have crushed all such belief and activity under European hegemony. Instead, Europeans learn and practice condomble, samba, and capuera. But we know that such respect for African traditions has not implied or brought respect for Africans, and such cultural tolerance takes place within a larger context of projected homogeneity and assimilation toward the mean. Perhaps cultural inclusion provides a useful cover for continued exploitation. The semblance of tolerance and inclusion is maintained, but so is the reality of social exclusion. Everyone dances, sometimes even together, but afterward the Whites still go home to their mansions and the Blacks to their shanties.
A similar implication of multiculturalism may be evident in the United States. Here we have few remaining African religions per se, but African and other group contributions to mainstream U.S. culture are clearly evident in music and religion. Acceptance of these contributions is celebrated by many Americans as indications of tolerance and opportunity, but they remain more symbolic than real. That does not necessarily make such symbols any less powerful as a means of giving people a sense of pride and belonging that might offset or contain potential conflict. I am not suggesting a conscious policy or conspiracy; the fact is, cultural diver-
sity and tolerance is always two edged: it allows contributions from outside the mainstream but it also gives the margins a greater sense of being in that mainstream than more objective measures suggest.
Perhaps most provocatively, Black Americans may possibly be “Brazilianized” in terms of the increasingly limited or disparate collective opposition to their ongoing discrimination. Afro-Brazilians have protested their lower status during this century, most notably with the Frente Negra in the 1930s, and the Movimento Negro Unificado from the 1970s on (Hanchard, 1994). But these movements have remained relatively small and elitist. In fact, the majority of Afro-Brazilians deny that there is any racial discrimination or need for protest as Blacks. In general, they often do not even identify themselves racially. Despite their poverty and social ostracism, discrimination and inequality have not been sufficient to engender a mass collective response, at least thus far.
Black Americans’ social movements may be described as increasingly suffering from the travails of Brazilianization. With the end of Jim Crow laws, Blacks are no longer forced together by law, face no explicit legal constraints that could be so challenged. Some Blacks have even joined conservatives in turning the blame for continued deprivation on Blacks themselves. For many Blacks in the United States, continued social inequality and discrimination have not served as a comparably strong unifying or mobilizing force as when discrimination was legal. The result has been, since the 1960s, some diminishment in the unity and level of mass protest of Blacks. This is not to suggest that there was ever unanimity of purpose in the Black community, just, arguably, more than now. Nor am I suggesting that the end of Jim Crow should not be celebrated; what I am suggesting is that the end of legal discrimination perhaps contains opportunities to press for ongoing redress of the ongoing effects of discrimination.
Comparative analyses demonstrate the suggestiveness of comparison—i.e., by thinking about the United States in the context of Brazil, similarities emerge, perhaps even some convergence. In the process, we see some of the downsides of trajectories that might otherwise seem fully positive. Color-blindness may sound liberal, but the Brazilian experience of it suggests color-blindness may not be so liberal in effect. The same is true for multiculturalism. The ironic result of the end of legal racist practice has been a partial diminishment in the mobilization to challenge ongoing injustice.
But we should not be too quick to see the United States as akin to Brazil. History ensures that convergence will go only so far so fast. The United States long suffered from a major intra-White conflict gradually diminished by unifying Whites as such through official domination and exclusion of Blacks. That legal scapegoating solidified Black racial iden-
tity and protest. Both continue now outside the legal framework: Whites still displace their own tensions onto Blacks, and Black identity remains strong, as evident in such events as the Million Man March or such practices as distinctive voting patterns. The legacies of racial codification and protest are not so quickly wiped away. Racial identity is firmly entrenched and racial interpretations of conflict are most readily grasped. A generation after Jim Crow, race remains central to the U.S. experience, as reaffirmed in this report. Color-blindness does not come easily to Americans, nor does cultural tolerance. Thus, “Brazilianization” will be an uphill process. Assimilation across race has remained much more halting than across ethnicity, with the physical markers of race still strongly observed. The racially defined block of Black interests and protests remains evident, or at least can be invoked, and this protest remains the basis for possible change and progress.
Even less positively, the remaining salience of race in the United States means that the historical pattern of using denigration of Blacks to unify Whites may be, and still is, called upon. This has been apparent in the recent partisan squabbles about the federal deficit, where agreement on how to resolve this issue seemed to be paved by prior agreement to cut programs targeted to or perceived as benefiting Blacks. It is also evident in the maneuverings within and about other growing minority groups, such as Hispanics, who, arguably, may be increasingly invited to join in a coalition with Whites against Blacks in the long-standing tradition of immigrant absorption. This process will require an increasingly elastic definition of “Whiteness” (again as in the past, say with the absorption of Irish), but given the benefits of a coalition with Whites, will be very appealing to those groups that might otherwise align with Blacks in pressing for reform.
A more general example of continued racial scapegoating in the United States might be the reaction to growing class division among Whites. As the economic divide widens, and the potential for intra-White tension or conflict grows (World Bank, 1998), race remains a ready tool for conflict avoidance through scapegoating. Thus, it seems not coincidental that the rising class divide among Whites has come with a backlash against affirmative action for Blacks, as if that policy benefited primarily Blacks or was to blame for White impoverishment. Looked at realistically, the numbers make this argument ridiculous: Blacks remain too few to have such a determinant impact on the larger group of White poor, but the salience of race rhetoric overwhelms obvious facts. White politicians, perhaps, are not conscious that in attacking affirmative action (for Blacks), they unify their White support among embittered White poor and those of the wealthy fearing a backlash directed against them; but some politicians certainly appear conscious of the benefits of race baiting and aware
of the long American tradition of scapegoating Blacks. The majority population still harbors strong anti-Black prejudice, which gives even veiled anti-Black rhetoric great salience and torque. There remains a rich vein of hate to tap and powerful incentives to mine that vein.
Unlike South Africa or Brazil, America’s Black population is in the minority; deprivation and denigration of Blacks may be perceived by Whites to have little impact on economic markets or general social satisfaction. However, such arguments or assumptions of imposing harm with impunity are unrealistic in the longer term. The most obvious caveat is that racial domination in varying forms has provoked resistance over time. Legal racial repression has provoked such resistance most pointedly, but even in Brazil’s legal “racial democracy” there has been and is resistance. Certainly in the United States (and South Africa), given the legacy of racial identity and conflict, it is hard to imagine that continued discrimination and inequality would not still generate stability-shaking protests, challenging interests and forcing continued attention and possible reform efforts. Such pressure has been the most powerful force for change, and is likely to continue to be so. Black Americans in large numbers remain committed to group solidarity and action, as evident in their ongoing preference for the Democratic Party and its greater focus on social reforms.
Beyond the issue of effective protest or electoral pressure, there are other real and direct costs to continued racism in the United States. Deprivation due to discrimination constrains markets for goods, skews labor markets, and fosters alienation and antisocial behavior requiring costly social policies of support and policing. Resulting tensions and conflict make life less pleasant for all, and sometimes considerably worse than that.
Yet there is another, perhaps more fundamental cost to continued racial scapegoating and discrimination. Using race to avoid or contain White tensions, conflicts, or issues, may be effective at just that. The result is, real issues of concern within the majority remain unaddressed. The most pressing example is again the rise of economic disparity among U.S. Whites. The costs of avoiding this issue are potentially huge. With politicians focusing on race and ignoring economic inequality, voters are increasingly becoming apathetic. Eventually, apathy may turn to anger among the less well off. And we are no longer talking about a small alienated group, but a large and potentially explosive social dislocation. If race is so manipulated to keep us from focusing on potential problems and conflicts, the cost will be high indeed.
Since race has long been used to avoid other conflicts and issues, then it arguably contributes to the festering of those conflicts and issues. If avoidance and scapegoating work for a time, as they have, when they
stop being so effective, the results can be devastating. Perhaps that is the lesson to be drawn from our comparison, which has revealed the extent to which race has been so used. Getting beyond racism is valuable in its own right, given the released potential of the people directly hurt by such practice. But getting beyond racism is of value to us all, in that it would allow us to focus on the issues otherwise hidden. Only if we see those issues for what they are, rather than hiding behind our fears or prejudice, do we have a hope of solving them.
This brings us back, finally, to the interaction of racism and nationalism. Historical comparison suggests that in the United States (and South Africa), racial exclusion has been reinforced and codified as a tool for building national loyalty and coherence among a core constituency of Whites otherwise divided. And even where nationalism has been officially inclusive of all, as in Brazil, Blacks were effectively excluded from much of the benefits of national development. The cost has been conflict and social dislocation. Only if we imagine and reinvigorate an inclusive image of civic nationalism, will the political units on which modern politics are built actually serve their populations, without excluded groups having to resort to protest as the only way to successfully seek redress. Only then will the economic and other divisions that still tear at our national fabric be addressed. Failing that, internal discord may continue to work away at the nation-state and undermine the prospects for truly just development.
Ashmore, R. 1970 The problem of intergroup prejudice. Pp. 248–296 in Social Psychology, B.Collins, ed. Reading: Addison-Wesley.
Bonacich, E. 1972 A theory of ethnic antagonism: The split labor market. American Sociological Review 37(October).
Degler, C. 1971 Neither Black Nor White. New York: Macmillan.
Denoon, D. 1973 A Grand Illusion. London: Longman.
DeSantis, V. 1959 Republicans Face the Southern Question. New York: Greenwood,
do Nascimento, A. 1979 Brazil: Mixture or Massacre? Dover: Majority Press,
do Valle Silva, N. 1985 Updating the cost of not being White in Brazil. Pp. 42–55 in Race, Class and Power in Brazil, P.Fontaine, ed. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California.
D’Souza, D. 1995 The End of Racism. New York: Free Press.
Du Bois, W. 1992 Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Atheneum.
Foner, E. 1988 Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Row.
Fredrickson, G. 1981 Chapter 2 in White Supremacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Freyre, G. 1945 Brazil: An Interpretation. New York: Knopf.
Glazer, N., and D.Moynihan 1970 Beyond the Melting Pot. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Hanchard, M. 1994 Orpheus and Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Herrnstein, R., and C.Murray 1994 The Bell Curve. New York: Free Press.
Hoetink, H. 1967 The Two Variants in Caribbean Race Relations. London: Oxford University Press.
Jaynes, G., and R.Williams, eds. 1989 A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Marx, A. 1998 Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa and Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Roett, R. 1984 Brazil: Politics in a Patrimonial Society. New York: Praeger.
Shell, R. 1994 Children of Bondage. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England.
Skidmore, T. 1974 Black Into White. New York: Oxford University Press.
Steele, S. 1990 Content of Our Characters. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Tannenbaum, F. 1946 Slave and Citizen. New York: Knopf.
World Bank 1998 World Development Indicators. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.