Brazil Race and Ethnicity
Race and Ethnicity
The first European immigrants to Brazil were of Iberian origin,
primarily Portuguese. Some Portuguese settlers were of Jewish or
Moorish origin but most of them had converted to Christianity. There
were also some Dutch immigrants to the Northeast in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries. The Portuguese intermarried with the
Amerindian population, which was decimated by conflict and disease.
During the colonial period, after Indian slavery proved difficult
to enforce, the colonists imported hundreds of thousands of slaves
from Africa for labor on the sugar plantations, in the mines, and
later on coffee plantations. At first, slaves outnumbered the white
settlers in many areas, but the balance eventually changed because
of their high mortality and low fertility. However, as slavery became
economically and politically less feasible after 1850 and the British
blocked the slave trade, Italian immigrants began replacing the
slaves on coffee plantations in São Paulo. During the same
period, settlers from Europe, primarily Germany, Italy, and Poland,
established farming colonies in parts of the South.
Brazil's racial mix was made more diverse with the arrival of Japanese
and Middle Eastern immigrants in the early twentieth century. At
first, the Japanese worked in agriculture in São Paulo and
the Amazon, while the Lebanese, Turks, and Syrians became involved
in commerce in many parts of the country. During the 1900s, the
Japanese descendants, who constitute the largest community of Japanese
outside of Japan, except for Hawaii, became primarily urban residents,
especially in São Paulo. In the 1970s, intermarriage with
non-Japanese became common.
As emphasized by anthropologists such as Gilberto Freyre and Darcy
Ribeiro, all the racial and ethnic groups that arrived in Brazil
intermingled and intermarried, with few exceptions. This led to
increasing mixtures of all possible combinations and degrees. Many
individuals are, therefore, difficult to classify in racial terms.
Questions on color were included in the demographic censuses of
1940, 1950, 1980, and 1991. Although the answers involved self-classification
and may not have been objective, it was clear that the proportion
of blacks decreased while that of mulattoes increased. There was
a simultaneous process of "whitening." The self-declared
proportions in 1991 were 55.3 percent white, 39.3 percent mulatto,
4.9 percent black, and 0.6 percent Asian.
Because of the lack of a clear color distinction and a strong cultural
tradition of tolerance and cordiality, as well as longstanding explicit
laws against racial discrimination, Brazil has been touted as a
"racial democracy." However, "racial democracy"
is a myth. There is a very strong correlation between light color
and higher income, education, and social status. Few blacks reach
positions of wealth, prestige, and power, except in the arts and
sports. Although discrimination is usually not explicit, it appears
in subtle forms: unwritten rules, unspoken attitudes, references
to "good appearance" rather than color, or simply placing
higher value on individuals who are white or nearly white.
In the 1960s, black consciousness began to grow, although the very
lack of a clear color line in biological or social terms weakened
racial solidarity of the nonwhite population. The prevailing notion
that Brazil was a "racial democracy" also made it easy
to dismiss black movements as un-Brazilian. For the most part, the
movements did not press for changes in government policy, which
was already officially against racial discrimination. Instead, they
emphasized racial pride and the struggle against subtle forms of
discrimination and the often covert violence to which blacks were
Estimates of the original Amerindian population of Brazil range
from 2 to 5 million at the time of first contact with Europeans
in the early sixteenth century. There were hundreds of tribes and
languages. Now there are 230 tribes that speak more than ninety
languages and 300 dialects.
Because of violence and disease, the original Amerindian population
was reduced to about 150,000 by the early twentieth century. In
1910 the Indian Protection Service (Serviço de Proteção
aos Indios--SPI) was established. Its leader, Marechal Cândido
Rondon, was famous for stating that "one should die, if necessary,
but never kill an Indian." In 1968 the National Indian Foundation
(Fundação Nacional do índio--Funai) replaced
SPI, which was charged with corruption. The Indian Statute went
into effect in 1973. The 1988 constitution provides that Indians
are entitled to the lands that they traditionally occupy.
Despite the difficulties it faced, the Amerindian population began
to recover its numbers and increased to 330,000 by the mid-1990s.
In genetic terms, millions of Brazilians have some Amerindian ancestry,
usually on the side of their grandmothers or great-grandmothers.
The ancestry is especially strong in the Amazon region, where the
inhabitants of mixed Indian and white descent are called caboclos
. Because of such widespread miscegenation and acculturation, objective
definitions of "Indian" are practically impossible in
Brazil. The most useful definition, also used for official purposes,
is subjective but pragmatic: Indians are those who consider themselves
Indians and are considered by others as such. They include groups
that are officially classified as isolated, in the process of integration,
or integrated (although "integration" involves entry into
the lowest ranks of Brazilian society).
Most of the Amerindian population is in the Amazon region, where
Amerindian lands account for about 15 percent of the territory.
Some of the largest areas were set aside during the Collor administration
in 1992. The best known and largest of these is the 9.6-million-hectare
Yanomami Indigenous Park, located in the northern states of Amazonas
and Roraima, along Brazil's border with Venezuela. Gold miners and
their diseases have had an adverse impact on the Yanomami. The Caiapó
in southeastern Pará became widely known both for their traditional
environmental management and their controversial concessions to
gold miners and lumber companies. Other indigenous areas include
the Xingu Indigenous Park and other parts of Amazônia, including
the western section of the Amazon along the Rio Solimões,
Roraima, northern Amazonas, Rondônia, Acre, Amapá,
and northern and southeastern Pará. The Northeast (Maranhão)
and Center-West (western Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Goiás)
regions also have large indigenous areas.
Data as of April 1997