Brazil’s Debt to the Ford Foundation: E Unum Pluribus

Black and white The United States of America has long been recognized as a beacon of race relations, a shining city on a hill where ebony and ivory have long lived in harmony. Conscious that to whom much is given much is expected, conscientious Americans have not been content to sit back and enjoy the manifold blessings providence has conferred on their racial relations and have instead been keenly aware of their obligation to realize their manifest destiny and go forth and share with others the blessings that their much-celebrated President Barack Obama is a testimony to.

Given the formidable assignment of making the world safe for Dr Dre, the Ford Foundation has set about its noble task with missionary zeal. Not content to rest on its laurels, having already made a valuable contribution to America’s race relations by funding such groups as the Black Panthers and La Raza, the Foundation’s first major port of call has been Brazil, that country so often compared with America on racial matters.

Here was a country that would require the Foundation to pool all its experience in bringing people together to surmount the monumental challenge it posed; a country that was so steeped in racism, for whom racism had become such a normal and unremarkable part of life, that all too many of its people had become so accustomed to it as to not to be able to see it when an outsider happened to point it out to them.

They had become so blind to their own racism that some charlatan among them had even been able to suggest that their country was a “racial democracy”, this bald-faced lie somehow able to go unchallenged for many years (as if such an Edenic paradise, where people of and not of color sit down together at a table of brotherhood to eat arroz e feijão (rice and bean), could even be possible without the Ford Foundation’s involvement!).

Into such an unreal world, a world of a collective flight from reality, stepped the Foundation. And it dispatched Thomas Skidmore to start setting things aright, starting the process of patiently instructing the natives on how to recognize and appreciate the beauty and fine texture of the Emperor’s clothes.

It would be unfair to the Foundation’s magnanimous nature to believe that it would limit its commitment to protecting human rights to African-Brazilians and Indian-Brazilians. No, the Foundation’s outlook is colorblind, and toward this end it is committed to social change and combating inequalities and exclusion wherever it may be found, in all directions.

While African-Brazilians and Indigenous-Brazilians are of course under-represented, and therefore excluded, from the middle and upper classes, and so the prestige and standard of living associated with those classes, European-Brazilians and Asian-Brazilians are similarly excluded from such highly lucrative careers as, for example, soccer stars.

For kicking a ball around a field, African-Brazilians (who make the overwhelming majority of Brazilian soccer stars) are over-represented in Brazil’s domestic soccer teams as well as in the national soccer teams, making European-Brazilians a vulnerable and excluded social group when it comes to the soccer field, soccer being a major part of the nation’s psyche.

The remuneration received by these stars dwarfs whatever pittance the European-Brazilians may receive in their middle-class salaried employment. For the upper-class Brazilians, a similar income to that received by these African-Brazilian soccer stars is usually only attainable through a much more torturous path of education or entrepreneurship, thus constituting their unjust exclusion from one of the most highly remunerative career paths available in the country.

The Ford Foundation, after consolidating the position of African-Brazilians through quotas and so forth, will follow up with urgent initiatives aimed at redressing the imbalance on the soccer field, advocating for quotas for European-Brazilians on domestic soccer teams as well as the world-renowned national soccer team.

In the same way that the centuries of miscegenation and apparent absence of overt, institutionalized racism in Brazil actually served to fiendishly hide and disguise the deep and pronounced racism actually existent in the country, the putatively higher standard of living enjoyed by European-Brazilians serves to cleverly mask the oppression and discrimination they actually face at the hands of African-Brazilians.

You see, such is the Brazilian way, such is its people’s wily jeitinho, that what appears to be the case is all too often only a sneaky way of hiding the opposite which is in fact the case. In such a way was a decades-long myth able to be created and sustained, namely the one associated with charlatans like Gilberto Freyre and Darcy Ribeiro that held miscegenation not only to be common but to never having been considered a crime or a sin.

And this was somehow meant to paint Brazil in a better light than countries like the United States, where miscegenation was supposedly rare and sometimes forbidden, such as during Jim Crow. It is this type of deception that the African-Brazilians have been unfairly perpetrating against European-Brazilians, and the Foundation has set its sites on combating this human rights infraction.

You see, while the European-Brazilians are deceived into believing that their nominally higher standard of living leaves them better off than their African-Brazilian counterparts, they forget that they have been suckered into paying not only their own utilities, but the electricity, running water and Internet of the favelados, who themselves pay nothing in this regard, not to mention taxes. The deceptions the Foundation seeks to counteract are not only of the racial (democracy) variety but of the class variety as well.

While much progress has been made by the Foundation over the years in helping overcome Brazil’s extreme racism (which makes the alleged racism of Apartheid South Africa and Jim Crow America pale into insignificance in comparison), surprisingly little focus has been given to one of the country’s most striking examples of inequality, and therefore of discrimination and exclusion.

As already mentioned, the Foundation does not discriminate in terms of the objects toward which it directs its correcting efforts, whether it is white elites or black elites excluding vulnerable social groups.

One of the most flagrant abusers in Brazil of the cherished principle of equality is the powerful social group known as Nippo-Brazilians. Constituting only 1% of the population, they have unfairly managed to reserve for themselves something like 20% of university spots in South America’s most prestigious university, the University of São Paulo.

The courses this racial coterie tends to retain for itself through influence and connections, withholding them from other equally deserving Brazilians, are the ones that lead to prestigious professions and well-paying careers, like those in medicine, engineering, etc.

Thus, other Brazilians like European-Brazilians and African-Brazilians, simply on the basis of their race or skin color, are excluded from enjoying an equitable representation in the most prestigious university in South America, and from there many of the prestigious professions that follow. All because of the greed of this tiny but ruthlessly oppressive racial elite.

The Ford Foundation will launch major initiatives in coming years to redress this imbalance, by advocating that quotas be set aside for European-Brazilians and African-Brazilians, and that Nippo-Brazilians be limited in university positions to an allocation that more fairly reflects their percentage of the population, which is to say 1% of available university spots.

Thus will an end be put to the vicious and offensive lies Foundation scholars have often come across in their research – that the undeniable evidence of Japanese racial discrimination and exclusion can better be explained by reference to cultural attributes exercised by the Nippo-Brazilians that lend themselves to academic and professional excellence, such as discipline and studiousness, rather than any racist discrimination as such practiced by them.

It is to counteract precisely such harmful denialist myth-making, selfishly employed to perpetuate inequality by those who benefit from it, that the Foundation directs much of its efforts.

Efforts are ongoing to correct other flagrant examples of racial exclusion, such as the over-representation of African-Brazilians in the Carnaval floats that every year parade in the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, the Foundation seeking to rectify the unacceptable under-representation of European-Brazilians, Nippo-Brazilians, Indigenous-Brazilians and Undocumented-Brazilians in what is an important example of Brazilian cultural expression.

Such a world-famous event as Rio’s Carnaval has evidently hitherto sought to show the world only one picture of Rio and Brazil, perhaps wishing to exclude and hide (no doubt out of racist-motivated embarrassment) the other important and valuable cultural contributions made by the aforementioned Brazilians equally deserving of participation.

A major method employed by the Foundation in bringing social change to redress inequality and assist vulnerable and disadvantaged social groups is the introduction into the Brazilian mindset of the notion of hypodescent, a concept that has enjoyed long currency in the United States and that has in fact been critical to the realization of that country’s exemplary race relations.

Historically Brazilians have labored under the mistaken notion that miscegenation does not render the offspring thereof automatic members of the ethnicity of the parent considered to be subordinate or inferior, Brazilians believing instead that such offspring can equally identify with the ethnicity of their mother as well as their father or simply identify as mixed-race or a color describing his physical appearance, like moreno.

Instead of doing the right thing and subscribing to the notion of hypodescent, the country’s elites have traditionally fed the African-Brazilian majority on a steady diet of lies, such as that there has always been a lot of miscegenation in Brazil (when research ever since Thomas Skidmore’s invaluable contribution has shown the opposite to be the case) and that this has somehow painted the country in a more positive light than other countries (the countries usually compared unfavorably with Brazil being Apartheid South Africa, Nazi Germany and Jim Crow America, as if such a comparison says anything) and that the country has not traditionally considered those with “one drop” of African blood to be black or African-Brazilian.

Instead, African-Brazilians have unjustly been kept from being conscious of their black identity by a dizzying array of racial categories thrown up by their oppressors to confuse them, allegedly employed to describe the range of physical appearances ranging from bem-branca to azul-marinho (very white to navy blue), reflecting the supposed historical miscegenation of the Brazilian people.

Foundation efforts have therefore been effective over the last few years in inculcating in Brazilians the American bifurcated understanding of race and ethnicity, so that they come to realize finally that whiteness is such an ineffable quality, so exquisitely undefiled and unblemished in its purity, that all it takes to sully its pristine and unspoilt beauty – is one drop of black blood.

It is from gaining this understanding that 90% of the Brazilian population – many of them acting out and living their lives on the assumption that they are somehow white or something in between white and black – will be gently brought back down to earth and helped to realize that there is nothing to be ashamed of in being unable to attain the rarefied status of white.

It is only by 90% of Brazilians realizing that the black blood coursing through their veins  makes them black that their society will be able to take the first step in the long journey toward racial reconciliation.

It is toward this city on a hill of racial harmony, its promising light shimmering in the distance, that the Ford Foundation seeks to direct its huddled Brazilian masses, who would otherwise be left to flounder around for lack of a racial identity or color consciousness.

Editor’s note: Those who know Latin might tell us that the E Unum Pluribus of the title should be Ex Uno Plura, but then the fun of the pun would have been lost.

Peter de Mambla is an Australian who resided in Brazil for one year until recently.

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