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Brazzil - People - June 2003

Out of Africa: Race in Brazil and the US

In Portuguese, the word for "race", raça, is not surprisingly the same
as the word used for "breed", and the word raça is used for both
animals and humans. The subtext of the word "race" is still
inherently imbued in eugenic ideology, otherwise known as
"social Darwinism." There is only one human "race."

Alan P. Marcus


The politics of "race" has currently been part of an intensely emotional discourse, described as either "political-correctness-gone-astray" or "extreme-right-wing-racism". Recently there has been a heated controversy over "affirmative action" in the USA and in Brazil. The controversial issue has again propelled the word "race" into the limelight.

The word "race" has emerged with a self-revealing past, perpetuated by its current popular use and political context. If one forgets for just one moment, the political context of "affirmative action", or whether it is right or wrong, the idea that "affirmative action" presupposes a plurality of so-called human "races" is interesting in itself.

It is interesting because the premise here is that there is actually more than one human "race". Furthermore, most interesting is the confusion, hatred and misrepresentations generated from a word such as "race". Recently, "race" has been used in political parlance for various political maneuvers and has become embedded in contemporary usage as a pseudo-scientific term.

The word "race" has traveled, particularly in the past 500 years, through a troubled historical road, shrouded at best, in European and North American ethnocentrism, and overtly at its worst, filled with violence and hatred. At the end of the nineteenth century, racist, sexist and ethnocentric ideologies that focused on human phenotypes to justify human intellectual and social rank, such as eugenic ideology (from the Greek Eugenes: "of good stock"), and made headway into popular culture.

The word "race" is furthermore interesting because of its semantics and the popular sub textual connection with the word "breed", used to describe animals (i.e.; beagle, poodle, collie). In the Portuguese language, the word for "race", raça, is not surprisingly the same as the word used for "breed", and the word raça is used for both animals and humans.

The subtext of the word "race" is still inherently imbued in eugenic ideology, otherwise known as "social Darwinism" (not from Charles Darwin's work, but a misrepresentation of it). That is, the belief of how and why humans are "hard-wired" to pursue success or failure, based on ancestry alone, however, always used to justify "success" of certain populations and thus shamefully tipped in favor of populations of "Nordic-European" ancestry. The idea that popular and political perception applies the understanding of animal behavior to the understanding of human behavior is not only flawed, but also invalid.

We may imagine that human genes are figuratively, the bullets in a gun, and social environment is the trigger. Popular thinking addresses the different "breeds" of dogs with their respective stereotypical behavior and personality traits (i.e.; pit bulls are aggressive and poodles are meek) and political thinking addresses human "races" within its respective social paradigms.

However, humans are the least "hard-wired" beings on this planet and the least physically well-suited for the "natural" world. The idea of eugenics or "social Darwinism" presupposing humans are "hard-wired" or "adapted" for success or failure, as if humans were "adaptable" for modern life like a polar bear for the Artic cold or a mountain goat for high altitudes, is nonsense, as is eugenics itself (i.e.; "of good stock").

The American Association of Physical Anthropologists has in fact called for the eradication of the term "race", on the basis of it having no scientific validity. The more appropriate and scientific term is "ethnicity", which denotes cultural as well as genetic dynamic complexities among humans. There is only one human "race" but several different human ethnicities.

The word "race" has become entirely political in nature, with significant repercussions in the social, the educational and the political realms. The politics of "race" has been used in the past for political agendas under the guise to justify certain human differences. To explain human differences, is not the same as to justify these differences.

The social, income and educational differences in the USA and Brazil are tipped on a vertical level, not on a horizontal level, and to attempt to address this "verticality" is to try to explain certain differences not based on one variable alone (i.e.; "race"), but on several variables (i.e.; access to education and healthcare) and cultural complexities. Oversimplifying complicated issues is always intellectually dangerous, and to reduce and isolate "race" matters as "political-correctness-run-amuck" only illustrates shortsightedness.

The recent archaeological findings in the Afar region in Ethiopia, Africa, help us to understand how our ancient ancestors from millions of years ago (Austrolopithecus Afarensis), as well as our modern ancestors from a few thousands of years ago, (only recently "discovered"), came from the African continent. The human migrations that left Africa and eventually settled in various places around the world shaped the differences we currently "see" as diversity. "Race" is an unfortunate and exclusionary fundamental in the understanding (or misunderstanding) of modern politics, popular culture and history.

However, despite its fundamental political importance, its relevance in scientific understanding and its contemporary popular semantics, the word "race" is in serious need of a patchwork to mend its structure. This structure, rather than excluding, binds humanity to a unique common past, to the universals rather than the particulars, and to a marvelous history we all share.


Alan P. Marcus is a Brazilian living in the USA. He is currently working on his Master's of Science at the Department of Geosciences, Human Geography, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Contact e-mail: amarcus@geo.umass.edu


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