White Supremacy in Brazil

Brazil is one of the largest multiracial societies in the Americas. She possesses a history of plantation slavery which extends into the second half of the 1800s. And over the course of the 1900s Brazil has confronted the legacy of slavery in the form of deeply entrenched racial inequality. Not only is Brazil among the poorer countries in the Americas; it is also one in which such wealth as there is badly maldistributed. (Wood and Carvalho, 1988) The roots of that maldistribution can be traced back to Brazil’s colonial-period and nineteenth-century reliance on slave-based plantation agriculture.

But in recent decades wealth and income have become even more concentrated as Brazil has experienced the effects of the Kuznets curve. (Kuznets, 1955; Ahluwalia, 1976; Lindert and Williamson, 1985) Economists and economic historians have noted a tendency for growth in less developed economies, and particularly those in the early-to-intermediate stages of industrialization, to increase income inequality; income data from 1960-1980 show this process taking place. The greater overall inequality of Brazilian society and the worsening of that inequality since 1960 have struck particularly hard at the Afro-Brazilian population.

It is important to note two important differences between the Afro-American and Afro-Brazilian racial groups. First, people of African ancestry have historically formed a much significant proportion of the total population, while Whites were a minority. Strong European migration between 1880 and 1930 resulted in the white population of the country peaking, as a proportion of the total, in 1940, at which point whites comprised 64 percent. The white representation then declined markedly between 1960 and 1980. (New York Times, 1991)

One of the major factors obstructing black upward mobility has been the black population’s concentration in less economically dynamic geographic locales: in the former plantation zones of the Brazilian Northeast; in rural areas as opposed to cities; and within cities, in racially segregated neighborhoods. These data also reflect the patterns of internal migration in the country. The dominant tendency has been migration out of the Northeast and into other regions, but migration in which whites apparently participated at a higher rate than browns and blacks.

By 1980 the center of pardo settlement was still in the Northeast, while the center of white settlement had moved southward. Another obstacle to Afro-Brazilians’ upward mobility is their concentration in rural areas, where incomes, educational opportunities, and material living conditions are much poorer than in the cities. (IBGE, 1983) Only since World War II, however, have Brazilian governments assumed extensive responsibility for educating the nation’s citizenry. The result, when combined with lower levels of economic development, has been that Brazilians have had much more restricted access to classroom instruction.

(Havighurst and Moreira, 1965; Castro, 1989) The average white adult Brazilian has completed less than four years of schooling, and the average nonwhite less than two. Achievement of basic literacy remained a serious problem. Until 1950, forty percent of the white population, and the great majority of nonwhites (69 percent of pardos and 73 percent of pretos), were illiterate. By 1987 literacy rates had improved substantially for both groups, but brown and black illiteracy was still about 30 percent, more than double the rate for whites.

Most Brazilians, however, regardless of race, never get as far as high school. Education for most stops in the fourth grade or before, though even at this level whites receive on average twice as many years of schooling as nonwhites. Rates of enrollment were much lower, especially at the high school and college levels. And a discouraging forecast of the future was the fact that racial disparities between the white and pardo groups were even greater among students currently enrolled than among past graduates (Table 01).

While whites aged 25 or over were 74 percent more likely than pardos to have graduated from high school, and 4. 6 times more likely to have graduated from college, whites under the age of 25 were 88 percent more likely than pardos to be enrolled in high school, and 4. 8 times more likely to be enrolled in college. The preto population had achieved relatively higher rates of representation among students currently enrolled than among past graduates. But their rates of matriculation still lagged behind those of the pardos, which were already quite low.