Historical Legacies

The transatlantic slave trade had a massive impact on Brazil. For decades, Brazilian social theorists promoted the work of sociologist Gilberto Freyre, who in the 1930s popularized the notion of “racial democracy” positing that Brazilian race relations and slavery were more benign than in other countries. As evidence, they pointed to Brazil’s wide ranging racial categories and the normalcy of miscegenation; whereas in the United States races were categorized as either “white” or “black,” in Brazil, race falls along a spectrum that officially includes branco [white], pardo [brown], preto [black], amarilo [yellow]—but unofficially includes dozens of other terms that have arisen to describe skin color, the most popular being moreno [tan]. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the Brazilian government promoted the idea that Brazil was “de‐racialized,” and legally restricted public discussions of race and poverty, effectively silencing Brazilians with African roots.[1]

A return to democracy in the 1980s and growing criticism of Freyre’s ideas dismantled the myth of racial democracy, resulting in an acknowledgement by many of the devastating history of violence enacted upon Africans, Afro‐Brazilians, and indigenous peoples. This dismantling has also entailed recognition of the existence and persistence of long‐denied racism in Brazil, which leaves the majority of dark‐skinned Brazilians in the social and economic margins. Whereas before the “spectrum” of colors was used as proof of harmony, many now point to the socioeconomic weight of various labels and the tendency to interpret skin color according to class, summed up by the saying “money whitens.”[2] Racial intermingling has been celebrated—though less so among the elite—in large part because it denies the possibility of ethnic individualism, and masks the real disparities that mark ethnicity in Brazil.[3]

These articulations of racial identity are profoundly interconnected with religious expression, whether in the rituals of African‐derived religions as authentic spaces of personal liberation, in the social justice activism of the Catholic Church, or in the breaking down of boundaries and an emphasis on upward social mobility among many Pentecostals.


[1] Robert M. Levine, The History of Brazil (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 114; Peggy A. Lovell, “Gender, Race, and the Struggle for Social Justice in Brazil,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 27, No. 6 (2000), pp. 85–102.

[2] Robin E. Sheriff, Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), p. 5; Livio Sansone, Blackness Without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 48.

[3] Sansone, Blackness Without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil, p. 159.

Image Credits:

"Craftswoman Elizabete Gonçalves Soares shows her handiwork," Worldbank Photo Collection (2012), Flickr Creative Commons.