op-ed: miscegenation in brazil as a state policy to whiten its population

February 16, 2016

A little more than 100 years ago, pseudo-scientific theories arrived in Brazil from Europe trying to establish a supposed superiority of the white race and influence Brazilian intellectuals. The miscegenation (producing interracial children) that was once seen as bad, started to be considered a solution that, in 100 years, could extinguish the black population from the country. Thus, the alliance between the pseudo-scientific racists, intellectuals, and politicians formed the foundation for the emergence of a national whitening policy.

By Robin Batista*, AFROPUNK contributor

These theories argue, first, that Brazil could not develop if the majority of its population was made up of black and mixed people. But the Brazilian intellectuals found miscegenation in the country as a tool to eliminate, after some generations, the population carrying African genetics. The basic idea was that the mixture of white and black races would prove the superiority of the white, which would be stronger than African genes. Silvio Romero, an intellectual from the abolitionist period said that “By natural selection […] white kind will take predominance until it shows itself pure and beautiful as in the old world” (SKIDMORE, Thomas E. Preto no branco: raça e nacionalidade no pensamento brasileiro. RJ: Paz e Terra, 1976).

According to historian Thomas Elliot Skidmore, Brazilian miscegenation that approximated the white and black was a way to keep a hierarchy between the two races, placing white as the ideal through a supposed weakening of the blackness of mixed-race person marked by the disappearance of negro phenotype across generations, producing a lighter-skinned population. In part because, according to these racist theories, the white gene was stronger, and also because people would always seek lighter-skinned partners. João Batista de Lacerda, Brazilian scientist, presented at the First Universal Congress of Races in London, in 1911, a report saying that, “in Brazil, it has been found that mixed people’s children show, by the third generation, all the physical characteristics of the white race […] because of this ethnic reduction process, it is logical to expect that in the course of a century, mixed people will have disappeared from Brazil. This will coincide with the parallel extinction of the black race in our midst.” It generated deep problems in Brazil, such as the difficulty of the existence of a sense of community among black people, who have very different physical characteristics, and the development of a particular phenotypic racism, which is not based on the origin or ancestry to discriminate someone against, but in his African descent phenotype, such as dark skin, wide nose and Afro-textured hair.

That racist whitening ideology was implemented by the Brazilian government and National Congress through laws that defined rules for immigration, facilitating and rewarding European immigration and preventing the entry of Africans in the country. The Article 2 of the Presidential Decree n° 7967, of 1945, signed by President Getulio Vargas, says, ” We shall be answering, in the admission of immigrants, the need to preserve and develop in the ethnic composition of the population, the most convenient features of its European ancestry.” But already in 1921, the congressmen Andrade Bezerra and Cincinnatus Braga sent to National Congress a project that in its Article 1 determined “It stays prohibited in Brazil human immigration of individuals of black races”. Two years later, the congressman Fidelis Reis had another project whose fifth article read: ‘It stays prohibited the entry of settlers of black race in Brazil and, as for yellow, it will be allowed annually in number corresponding to 5% of all individuals in the country.” Usually, the Europeans who came here received land from the government as an incentive to stay. Thus, the 1800s immigration flow intensified in the early 1900s in ways not seen before, with the massive arrival of Europeans—mainly Portuguese, Italians, Spanish, and Germans.

The number of European immigrants who came to Brazil in that period compared to the number of enslaved Africans brought to the country, proves the desperate government attempt to whiten the population. According to Slavevoyages.org research, from the Emory University, in nearly 400 years about 4.8 million enslaved Africans were brought to Brazil. On the other hand, in a short period between 1880 and 1924, encouraged and rewarded by the Brazilian government, more than 3.6 million European immigrants came to Brazil.

The whitening theory, despite failing to exterminate the black population, created a racism with very particular characteristics which violently keeps whiteness as the social, physical and cultural ideal in Brazil. In addition, it causes the majority of the black and mixed race people in the country to reject their blackness, reproducing the false idea of an alleged racial democracy that for all that has been presented above always served to keep the ideal of white supremacy, which reigns intact today in Brazil.

Photo: ‘Ham’s Redemption’ (Painter Modesto Brocos, 1895) – It shows a black grandmother thanking god for the phenotypical whitening of her grandchild.

* Robin Batista is a Brazilian designer, student in Afro-diasporic Visual Arts, editor at AFROGUERRILHA and AFROPUNK contributor.