January 4, 2010

Legacies of Race, by Stanley Bailey - A Review

Legacies of Race

Identities, Attitudes, and Politics in Brazil

Stanley R. Bailey

2009, Available Now

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Table of Contents


In Legacies of Race, Stanley Bailey sets out to uncover how everyday Brazilians view and interpret the Brazilian racial reality. Bailey uses data from public opinion research to move our understanding of Brazilian race and color dynamics beyond the realm of narrowly defined ethnographies and analyses of elite discourses. He spent a year conducting focus groups to design a unique survey of racial attitudes in Rio de Janeiro, and uses data from that survey as well as national data to make his case.

Bailey points out that in the US, most people believe in the existence of races – the idea that people can be divided into groups on the basis of their skin color and ancestry. He calls this worldview “racialism,” and contrasts it with Brazil’s “anti-racialism.” Anti-racialism entails “a rejection of viewing race as dividing the Brazilian population into discrete subgroups of the national population at the same time that it recognizes color variation” (23). By using the concepts of racialism and anti-racialism, Bailey points to a fundamental difference between the US and Brazil as well as makes the crucial point that color distinctions can exist in an anti-racialist worldview. In other words, seeing and talking about color differences does not mean that people have adopted a racialist standpoint.

Bailey explores the extent to which Brazilian census categories represent color categories rather than racialized social groups. Color categories are descriptive of people’s skin color, whereas racialized social groups involve recognition of groupness. This groupness must be recognized by oneself as well as by others. For example, in the US, most people agree about who is black and who is white. Moreover, most people in the US express affinity for their own racial group, and those who transgress those lines can be referred to as “race traitors.”

Bailey posits that the Brazilian census terms – white, brown, and black – “may in fact represent primarily color categories rather than robust racial groups” (60). This is similar to what I found in an African-descended community in Peru. In my forthcoming book, Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru, I argue that Peruvians who self-identify as black often see this identification as primarily a description of their skin color, and not as indicative of their membership in a black group that shares African ancestry and black cultural traditions.

Scholars of race in Latin America often argue that there is ambiguity in race and color classifications in the region. Bailey’s research confirms this, to a certain extent. Bailey found some lack of agreement as to who is white, brown, or black. In the three surveys he examined, only between half and three-quarters of the interviewer classifications matched with the self classifications. In the remaining cases, people identified themselves differently from how the interviewer classified them. In contrast, in the US, in surveys, 99% of people racially identified by interviewers as black or white self-identify in the same fashion. Bailey argues that these findings show that the Brazilian census categories do not fit the racial commonsense of most Brazililans.

Bailey also used another technique – that of showing photographs of Brazilians and asking people to identify who is white, brown, or black. For the lightest and darkest photos, there was very high agreement as to who was white or black. In fact, of all the photos, there was only one where 25% of respondents identified the photographed man as white and 73% as brown. For the remaining photos, there was at least 85% agreement as to whether the person in the photograph was white, pardo (brown) or preto (black). Bailey contends that this experiment shows the salience of color classifications, and the lack of robustness of racial groups in Brazil.

One of Bailey’s most interesting findings is that there are no cultural forms in Brazil associated exclusively with blackness. Whites, browns, and blacks were generally equally likely to claim that axé, pagoda, samba, orixá, capoeira, and carnaval were important to them. Although we can trace the African roots of capoeira or orixá, these cultural forms are no longer understood as belonging to blacks. This is quite similar to what I found in Peru, where criollo culture, which has African roots, is embraced by most coastal Peruvians, be they black, mestizo, or white. The lack of a shared culture points to the lack of a black ethnicity in Brazil, something that Livio Sansone has posited on the basis of his research in Salvador. For the Peruvian case, in “The Politics of Difference and Sameness in Peru,” I argue that the lack of a shared culture unique to blacks has important implications for the implementation of multicultural reforms.

Another revealing finding that Bailey points out is that most Brazilians recognize the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination. In the United States, most blacks recognize the prevalence of racism, whereas most whites deny it. In Brazil, in contrast, whites, browns, and blacks recognize the pervasiveness of racism in fairly similar proportions. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, on 7% of whites and 3% of blacks reported that they thought there was no racial prejudice in Brazil. These findings show that the racial democracy myth is not as widespread as some have proclaimed.

These results parallel my findings in Peru. In 2007, I carried out 30 interviews with people in Lima about their racial attitudes. I found that all of my interviewees recognized that racism is prevalent in Peru. In my paper, “Had They Been Polite and Civilized, None of This Would Have Happened: Racial Discourses in Multicultural Lima,” I ask how it is possible that most people in Lima deplore racism and claim racism is ubiquitous, yet do not consider themselves to be perpetrators of racism. I argue that, in Peru, this happens through people using a very narrow definition of racism that ensures that their own discriminatory actions are excluded from this definition. I would have liked to have seen Bailey explore how Brazilians explain the prevalence of discrimination in a society where most people uphold the ideals of a racial democracy. If everyone thinks racism is deplorable, how is racial inequality reproduced?

Overall, Legacies of Race is a systematic, well-researched analysis of contemporary racial attitudes in Brazil that deserves the attention of students, scholars, policy makers, and social movement activists.


  1. This was very interesting for me to read as I am working on my dissertation project on the same topic in Cuba. From everything that I have read on Brazil I am finding that Cuba is much different from Brazil, and possibly Peru, in that racial categories are quite clear and there is a high level of agreement on who is black, white and mulatto. Color is rarely ambiguous and this is partly due to the racial categories given on identification cards, but I believe that there is also a clear presence of racial categories that correspond to people's common sense notions of race.

    Also, unlike your findings in Peru, there is a notion of african ancestry and black cultural tradition in Cuba. While all races may participate in african derived religion, for example, there is a clear feeling or belief among blacks that this is their heritage and their music. The notion doesn't involve exclusion, but it recognizes the importance of blackness and its culture. For example at a rumba in Havana, it was announced that just as jazz is the music of US blacks, rumba is the music of black Cubans. They then played some jazz to create the connection between the two - a diasporic experience :-)

    Anyway I could go on and on with this....just wanted to say that this was a pertinent read for me - thanks!

  2. Danielle,
    Thanks for your comments. Your work on Cuba sounds fascinating. I am actually in the middle of reading "A Nation for All" by de la Fuente, and it is interesting to think about how Cuba is distinct from Brazil and Peru. In fact, the more I think about it, the idea of a "Latin American model" of race relations is less and less possible. Perhaps there is more of a "Brazilian" model, and then a "US" model, and these have come to be the paradimatic cases.

    Also, I wanted to point out that, in Peru, there are cultural forms associated with blackness - festejo, for example. And, it would not be surprising to be at a pen~a and for the musicians to claim that music as "black" (even if all of the musicians are not black). However, the flip side of this is that festejo is a very regional manifestation of black culture in Peru. So, blacks from northern Peru do not see festejo as part of their culture. So, you can have black cultural forms without all blacks seeing them as their own. The question, then, is in Cuba, do most blacks see rumba as part of their unique culture?