Journal of Latin American Studies

Commentary

Rethinking Race in Brazil*

Howard Winanta1

a1 Howard Winant is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Latin American Studies Center, Temple University, Philadelphia.

Abstract

Introduction: the Repudiation of the Centenário

13 May 1988 was the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil. In honour of that date, various official celebrations and commemorations of the centenário, organised by the Brazilian government, church groups and cultural organisations, took place throughout the country, even including a speech by President José Sarney.

This celebration of the emancipation was not, however, universal. Many Afro—Brazilian groups staged actions and marches, issued denunciations and organised cultural events repudiating the ‘farce of abolition’. These were unprecedented efforts to draw national and international attention to the extensive racial inequality and discrimination which Brazilian blacks – by far the largest concentration of people of African descent in any country in the western hemisphere – continue to confront. Particular interventions had such titles as ‘100 Years of Lies’, ‘One Hundred Years Without Abolition’, ‘March for the Real Liberation of the Race’, ‘Symbolic Burial of the 13th of May’, ‘March in Protest of the Farce of Abolition’, and ‘Discommemoration (Descomemoraçāo) of the Centenary of Abolition’.1 The repudiation of the centenário suggests that Brazilian racial dynamics, traditionally quiescent, are emerging with the rest of society from the extended twilight of military dictatorship. Racial conflict and mobilisation, long almost entirely absent from the Brazilian scene, are reappearing. New racial patterns and processes – political, cultural, economic, social and psychological – are emerging, while racial inequalities of course continue as well. How much do we know about race in contemporary Brazil? How effectively does the extensive literature explain the present situation?