CSWAC Blog

Things That Don’t Work: What Anti-racists Can Learn from Latin America, Part 1 of 2

People working for anti-racist change in the United States, whether it be in organizational settings or as activists, seldom look at the experience of other countries for guidance. Yet, valuable insights may be gleaned if we broaden our perspective. Or so says Jonathan Warren, a sociologist at the University of Washington. In a series of three articles between 2011 and 2016 (the first co-authored with Christiana A. Sue), Warren examines race and anti-racism in Latin America and draws comparisons to conditions in the US. For those such as ourselves, who have been unfamiliar with this international perspective, Warren’s work is remarkably rich and enlightening.

The following begins a 2-part review of this work. This first part draws primarily on the work of Warren and Sue (2011).

The condition of race in Latin America

Latin America purports to be a racially enlightened society. It’s not uncommon for people from Latin America to claim that a history of race-mixing and respect for cultural differences have mitigated against racism in their societies. Indeed, this perspective has been longstanding:

Immediately after the Second World War it was widely believed that Latin America had more successfully navigated race and thus offered lessons that could be adopted elsewhere. Consequently, UNESCO, in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, sent out a team of social scientists to Brazil in search of anti-racist solutions. Ironically, this research ultimately laid the foundation for overturning the notion that Latin America, and Brazil in particular, was a racial paradise.

Subsequent scholarship has documented that race, racism, and white supremacy operate in Latin American. While the authors do not dwell on this state of affairs – they take it more as a given consensus among scholars – they do provide some specifics.

Throughout Latin America, racist stereotypes are ubiquitous. Blackness and Indianness, and those mixed-race subjects whose bodies signify such ancestry, are associated with criminality, laziness, inferior intelligence, primitiveness, ugliness, hyper-sexuality and immorality …. Institutional racism is equally, if not more, entrenched than in the USA …. According to official Brazilian census data, race has a significant independent effect on infant mortality, life expectancy, education, occupation, housing and income …. In addition, non-whites disproportionately suffer from excessive crime and violence, abuse by police and government officials, lack of basic infrastructural services and an absence of basic human rights …. In the media, politics and among the economically well-to-do, whites are over-represented.

…[Disparities exist in Brazil] with regard to infant mortality (e.g., 37 per 1,000 for Whites versus 62 per 1,000 for non-Whites in 1997), homicide rates (non-Whites are 126% more likely to be killed by homicide in 2013), political representations (e.g., only two of the 81 senators are Black in 2013), and income (e.g. non-Whites have an income level half that of Whites in 2013…). [Warren, 2016]

…most Whites [in Brazil] attend private schools while the vast majority of non-White students attend public schools, which have been neglected and sorely underfunded due to racist attitudes …Whites still continue to be three times more likely to attend college or university than Blacks. [Warren, 2016]. In fact, the educational gap between blacks and whites is far greater in Brazil than in the USA….

Given that white supremacy continues to operate in Latin American to a degree equal to, or exceeding, that of the US, Warren and Sue identify several approaches to race that have been ineffective in bringing about racial equity and justice. Specifically, they look at 1) the development of mixed-race identity, 2) the de-emphasis of black and Indian experience, 3) colorblindness, and 4) power-evasive multiculturalism. Each of these four strategies have been deployed in Latin America for a century or longer, often with official support of the state apparatus. Not to be missed, these strategies have also been promoted in the US, albeit more recently and naively, as pathways to anti-racist societal change.

Race mixing and mixed-race identity

It’s a commonly held belief in the US that race-mixing and intermarriage will diminish, if not eliminate, racism. Latin America has well over a century of popular and governmental support for race mixing, also known as mestizaje. The authors cite examples from Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba.

For example, early 20th-century Mexican social scientists and policy makers vigorously advocated for race mixing in order to erode racial divisions which they viewed as impeding national cohesion and development.

In the 1930s, Brazil made mestiҫo (mixed-race) nationalism official government policy, and in current times, white Brazilian politicians allude to their mixed-race heritage.

Race mixing has become an accomplished and acknowledged fact in Latin America, with the percentage of people of mixed-race heritage ranging from 45% in Brazil, to 70% in Venezuela, and an estimated 90% in Mexico. Public acknowledgement of mixed-race identity is supported and approved.

On the level of personal identity, whites in Latin America tend to assert a mixed-race heritage. Regarding national rhetoric, whites also tend to include Africanness and/or Indianness, albeit it in very paternalistic ways, in narratives of national heritage.

The foregoing quote hints at a shadow side of whites’ acceptance of mixed-race heritage. The authors cite scholars’ claims that acceptance allows whites to avoid addressing matters of racism and racial disparities, and diminishes demands for black and indigenous rights. Furthermore, the movement to mixed-race identity acts, for many, as an escape from blackness and/or Indianness. In the words of an Afro-Cuban doctor:

Race is a problem here. Race mixture only creates other categories and a means to whiten your children. But everyone knows it is best to be white and worst to be black.

Undercutting monoracial identities of people of color

Many pundits and intellectuals have criticized black identity and portrayed it as problematic for the intellectual and individual development of black people. They claim that non-national collective identities are dysfunctional. The authors cite as an example a prominent study in the 1990s that identified fear of “acting white” as an impediment to black children striving to achieve academically.

In Latin America, the prominent “cast-like minorities” are blacks and Indians. There black and Indian identity are avoided by those who might claim such for their own. Rather, monoracial people of color aspire to whiten their heritage, and whiteness is held up as the standard to which one aspires. The authors cite the words of an Afro-Brazilian woman as typical:

Okay, let me marry a person lighter than myself, because if I marry a person dark like myself, it’s going to be all dark – the little children….So let me marry a lighter one so then my children will come out cuter.

Researchers have also found in Mexico that Indians prefer to identify as mixed-race and “openly express preference for light skin, blue eyes, and blond hair…”

Despite an unabashed preference for white values and status, people of color in Latin America still fail to achieve academically. Aspiring to whiteness is not sufficient, and may even be counter-productive, to achievement when structural and institutional racism, as cited earlier, continue to operate.

Colorblindness

Although colorblind ideology has been dominant in the USA for several decades, it has a much longer history in Latin America. Proponents of colorblindness claim that talking about race creates racial problems and reinforces racism. Differences in social standing are attributed to class, and interventions directed to alleviating poverty and racial and economic disparities tend to be class-based in their focus.

The impact of race is ignored. In fact, many countries in Latin America failed to collect census information on race until recently. The official view has been that race is not a problem. In the 1970s, both Peru and Venezuela reported to the United Nations that racism did not exist in their countries.

Race, racism, and the history of slavery are avoided or shunned as topics of discussion even among those who have been directly impacted by these historical and current circumstances, and not just publicly, but also when in the presence of their own family.

The authors sum it up:

Latin America has, for at least a century, [used] a colorblind ideology, manifesting weak to non-existent race-based collective identities and low, if any, emphasis on race matters in everyday discussions, public policy or social analysis. Anti-race consciousness and colorblind social policy have not led to greater racial equality. De-emphasizing racism, present or past, has not borne the end of race. In fact, when comparing racial inequality trends in the USA versus Brazil from 1960 to 1996 (the time of race-based affirmative action in the USA), racial inequality in occupation dramatically declined in the USA, while significantly increasing in Brazil.

Power-evasive multiculturalism

A power-evasive multiculturalism is one in which cultural differences are recognized and celebrated, but where social hierarchies of power and privilege are ignored or disavowed. So, discussion and celebration of heroes, holidays, food, art, music, and festivals is embraced, but discussion and action directed toward addressing historical and current racial disparities, and structural advantages and disadvantages, is not.

Multiculturalism has been on the rise in the US since the 1980s. Some proponents have called for an anti-racist multiculturalism that examines race as a mediator of power and privilege, but the power-evasive version of multiculturalism is still the dominant force. A similar situation exists in Latin America, but with a longer history.

Since the 1920s a liberal, power-evasive multiculturalism, which treats culture in shallow, folkloric terms, has existed in much of Latin America as part of corporate, government and education policy. Throughout the region, intellectuals and political activists began to realize that the theretofore Europhile, eugenics emphasis on whiteness was not up to the task of nation building because it was unlikely to resonate with the general population, which was of predominant African and indigenous descent.

Latin American countries took pride in black and Indian music, food, and folk tales, and competed with one another to be seen as the most diverse. Even as these cultures were celebrated, however, the political and social pressures encouraged the development of mixed-race identity with the ultimate aim of creating a unified citizenry at the erosion and expense of black and Indian communities. Racism was consigned to the past in the public imagination, and the past itself was scrubbed and sanitized to fit the picture of a harmonious racial present. At the same time, the common acknowledgement and valuing of select features of diversity promoted a widely-held belief that racism had been eliminated.

Reflections

Warren and Sue examine four approaches to race that are presently being used in the United States, and review their much longer use in Latin America. The findings, as the authors intended, are instructive. They also touch on a fifth point, regarding racial literacy, that we’ll discuss in our next post.

The four approaches (1) the development of mixed-race identity, 2) the de-emphasis of black and Indian experience, 3) colorblindness, and 4) power-evasive multiculturalism) work in concert with one another, although occasionally they come into conflict. Their overall impact is to give an appearance of a racially just and inclusive society, while still leaving whiteness centered.

On the surface, these approaches have an appeal. Interracial marriage, for instance, would seem to both indicate a diminishment of racism, and offer a means to its demise. But inter-gender marriage has been around since recoded time, and sexism still thrives. Something more than marriage across lines of privilege and oppression is needed.

The authors note that these four approaches may have a different outcome in the US than in Latin America. Certainly, the US and Latin America have distinctly different histories in some respects regarding race and racism. But if this is the case, the authors call upon:

…the defenders of race mixing, colorblindness and liberal multiculturalism to explain and justify why the conditions in the USA or elsewhere are unique or so distinct from those in Latin America that practices and policies that have proven ineffective in dismantling racism in Latin America are apt to produce more positive outcomes in other national or regional contexts.

The authors also note that Latin America is beginning to move away from these approaches to more race-conscious approaches that directly acknowledge racism and create structural interventions designed to support black and Indian communities. It’s ironic that, as noted earlier, the United States was for a time engaged in a similar approach through the use of affirmative action programs, and that these programs proved very effective. Ultimately these programs were undermined by the very same approaches that have proven to be ineffective in Latin America.


Warren, J., & Sue, C. A. (2011). Comparative racisms: What anti-racists can learn from Latin America. Ethnicities, 11(1), 32–58.

Warren, J. (2016). An international perspective on color consciousness: Brazil and the universalization of antiracist counter-publics. In H. A. Neville, M. E. Gallardo, & D. W. Sue (Eds.), The myth of racial color blindness: Manifestations, dynamics, and impact. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.