Latin American Policy Series (3): Racism and Responses to Racism in Latin America

This article is a continuation of the Latin American Public Policy Series and briefly introducing the topic “Racism and Responses to Racism in Latin America”, building upon Tanya Hernández´s thoughts, whose book: “Racial Subordination in Latin America – The Role of the State, Customary Law, and the New Civil Rights Response” (Cambridge Press, 2012) which I just translated into Portuguese. This analysis seeks to intrigue Latin Americans to think more deeply about the way people of African descent in their respective countries were (and still are) mistreated based on the arguments presented by Tanya Hernandez.

Approximately 150 million people of African descent, members of one of the largest African Diasporas over time, live in Latin America. Even though, we people of African descent make up around 1/3 of total population in Latin American, members of the African diaspora make up more than 40 percent of the poor in Latin America and have been marginalized as undesirable to society since the abolition of slavery across the Americas.

The idea that “racism does not exist” is hegemonic in Latin America, despite the increasing number of black social movements across the region. The “myth of racial democracy”, which supports that the racial mixture (mestizaje in Castellano and mestiçagem in Portuguese) in a population is a symptom of racial harmony and absence of inequalities based in race is still influential even among scholars and well-educated citizens.

Latin Americans embrace the idea that the absence of Jim Crow racial segregation laws, which were U.S. state-mandated (not customary) laws, is such a marked contrast to the United States racial history that the region views itself as what the author named “racially innocent.” Hernández analyses this claim and found out that some facts about the historical role of the state in Latin America in regulating race were overlooked, specifically, restrictive immigration laws and racially biased customary laws.

After the abolition of slavery, Latin American nations enacted restrictive immigration laws and provided state funding explicitly focused on whitening the population and outlawing the immigration of persons of African descent. Through the operation of immigration laws, persons of African descent were recast into their pre-emancipation status of marginalized peoples. Moreover, customary law (that is, the enforcement of unwritten laws established by long usage rather than legislative enactment) was also used as a tool of racial exclusion in Latin America after the abolition of slavery.

Before the reader assumes that his or her own home country did not take any racist action, I offer some information from the many documents brought by Tanya Hernández as a counter argument. Costa Rica banned blacks to enter the country, Dominican Republic ordered to kill (sic!) persons of African descent, Uruguayans refused to enroll black children in elementary schools and Colombians denied (and still deny) access to land to Blacks.

Brazilians and Argentineans provided European immigrants with so much money and resources that southern Brazilian populations and Argentineans are the perfect example of a successful policy of whitening in the region. Therefore, the inhabitants of those regions look just like white Europeans. Fortunately, some countries already started doing something to tackle the challenge. For example, affirmative action policies in Brazil and legislative changes in Colombia.

After reading “Racial Subordination in Latin America”, it becomes clear that Latin American States did play a role in regulating race, for example through immigration law and customary law, in the last century. This disrupts the picture of Latin America as “racially innocent.” In this regard, the region’s homework now is to assess (the already implemented policies) and develop more public policies to promote racial equality and eradicate the legacy of racial inequality wrought by the historic racism of Latin American States.

Latin American States and the U.S. followed historically two different courses of action in dealing with race. It is hard to claim that racial policies in both the U.S. and Latin America influenced each other. However, as already said, Latin Americans often claimed that there is no racism in the region. One of the main arguments to support such claim is that racism is what the U.S. used to do by enforcing Jim Crow laws.

The U.S. now faces a challenge similar to Latin America in dealing with racial equality. On the one hand, Jim Crow laws are no longer in place. On the other hand, formal mechanisms for addressing racial inequality have for decades been in place. Therefore, there is a belief that the government should no longer be proactively engaged in ensuring racial equality.

A racial hierarchy continues to exist alongside a deteriorated social commitment to race-based programs. Even though the U.S. civil rights movements were somehow successful and the country even had a Black President, the U.S. have still no ground to present themselves as a “racially innocent” country and could learn a lot from the Latin American experience. Mostly if the region stops acting as “racially innocent”.

Disclaimer: The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.


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Arivaldo de Souza was trained as a lawyer and a legal researcher in both Brazil and the USA. After holding appointments in the non-profit sector, academia/think tank and government in Argentina, Brazil and the USA, de Souza joined the Brandt School as Master of Public Policy student. He is specializing in European Public Policy and International Affairs and contributes to "The Bulletin" as an editor for the Alumni and Career and Policy Analysis categories.