Race and Ethnicity in Latin America

Different countries and societies are made up of people with diverse cultural or even linguistic backgrounds. This makes them plural societies. However, because of this plural nature certain issues with regards to race and ethnicity are bound to arise.

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According to Knight, (1996) race and ethnicity are essentially historical and intellectual constructs. They were coined at a specific period in time and place in particular circumstances. Mccallum posits that it, therefore, becomes impossible to understand the concepts of race and ethnicity without first understanding their history (1999). But, depending on political and intellectual forces, they evolve and their definitions change. Consequently, Knight posits that for this reason, it could be that how race and ethnicity are defined in modern-day times is probably not how they were defined when they were initially coined (1996).

Accordingly, Knight opines that race and ethnicity are closely related to identity, power,psycho-cultural and psycho-cultural needs. They are used by particular groups in society as a way through which they can define others or themselves. The issues of race and ethnicity gained ideological importance back in the enlightenment period in the 18th century. By the 19th century, political discussions were connoted with the language of race. Ethnic plurality and state formation seemed to be conflicting. To the nationalists, a political state was supposed to represent people who not only lived in one locality but also shared a common identifiable ethnicity. This European definition of nationalism was not only racist but also exclusionary. It sought to deny political independence to people who had a non-European, background. This had important ramifications. To the Latin American countries that wanted to secure their independence, the non-European ethnic groups that were part of them proved to be major hurdles. To this effect, it was not surprising that the Afro American and the indigenous Americans were not considered to be part of the newly independent states, despite their large numbers. They were eventually included in the new states but only because there was no other way out. Also, because the positivists thought they would ultimately be eliminated by the technical age being what they referred to as inferior while the Social Darwinists were convinced that they would naturally fail to survive. By mid 19th century, ideas on race were already hardened. Moreover, the Europeans now had a different perception of the world. According to Knight, this was best illustrated in the writings of the Cuban nationalist who was at the forefront in the agitation of political independence. While the majority of the population was comprised of African slaves, the Europeans though few were still more influential (1996).

Issues on race and ethnicity are different in Latin America compared to say North America. In Northern America, people from different races and diverse ethnicity have been assimilated thus the formation of one complete Northern American society. The reverse is true for Latin America. According to Knight, although some assimilation has taken place in Latin American society, to a large extent, people are still distinguished socially from each other based on their appearance. Thus, in Latin American countries, social divisions have been based on the ethnic pluralism therein. This has had important social and political ramifications in particular countries. For instance, for years Brazil has been characterized by discrimination based on one’s race and ethnicity. However, it is important to note that despite race and ethnicity issues being of concern in countries such as Brazil resulting in the ethnic consciousness of those affected, there has been no political instability. This is because the politics of the country do not play the race or the ethnicity card to gain popularity and ultimately power (1996).

By all standards, Brazil is considered to be a successful economy. It is a country that is rich in resources. Still, Brazil also experiences what Hamilton, Huntley, Alexander, Guimaraes, James, and Rienner consider as ‘backwardness’. Racial inequality is widespread in Brazil, even though by law there is the absence of racial segregation (2001).

Hamilton et al, opine that there are two distinct racial groups in Brazil. The black African dark-skinned Brazilians and the Mulatto. This then forms the basis of racial separation. For instance, the black Brazilians live in the urban shantytowns known as the favelas or Mocambo where they lack the most basic social amenities. The native Brazilians are even worse off with some falling victim to activities that can only be considered as genocide carried out by the white Brazilians in an attempt to make Brazil an all-white society. What sets Brazil apart from other countries does not lie like the social injustices therein, rather in what is referred to as the ‘ideological dance of deception’. On the surface, the different races in Brazil seem to be living in harmony, that racial inequality seems inexistent. As far as inequality is concerned, race and ethnicity are the major determining factors. There are wide differences among the various racial and ethnic groups. Case in point. Blacks are three times poorer compared to whites in the regions of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. Also, blacks earn way much less than whites, with 26% earning less than minimum wage. The African (black) Brazilian women represent the feminization of poverty. While black men earn more than their black female counterparts, white women on average earn more than the black men in Brazil. The same goes for education, with frequent dropouts from school so that they can work, black Brazilian children end up less educated than their white counterparts. The implication of this is that their literacy levels are much lower than those of the white. Only about two-thirds of the African Brazilian children are fortunate enough to get a basic education. Thus, the black African Brazilians seem to be experiencing the brunt of racial and ethnic discrimination. The problem could lie in the fact that Brazil was the last Christian country to abolish slavery back in 1888. Conversely, steps were never taken to integrate the former slaves and their descendants into mainstream society. (2001) This is the major factor in their exclusion from society. Hamilton et al, opine that African Brazilians were many which proved to be a threat to the political elite. To curb the threat, the elite in the talk of national unity established Africanity and blackness to be anti-Brazil. These sentiments are still widespread which is why African black Brazil experience racial and ethnic discrimination (2001). Black men are excluded from well-paying gainful employment since they were termed as incompetent, unruly, and dangerous. All this serves as the setting of the inequality and discrimination that affects African Brazilians to date.

According to Telles, Latin America’s indigenous, black and mulatto (mixture of white and black) citizens are the most affected by the problems of underdevelopment. Consequently, he opines that Latin governments should incorporate the race and ethnicity factors in their millennium development goals. This is a sure way of reducing their social exclusion in Latin America by the year 2015. The problem however lies in the fact that the Latin American countries do not have the necessary data owing to their failure to collect it appropriately, sometimes failing to collect it at all. What Latin America needs is for census and national surveys to be carried out that will provide the necessary data (2007).

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History and especially migration, colonialism, and even slave trade can be said to be responsible for the formation of plural societies throughout the world. That is, of people with diverse backgrounds living together, for instance in Brazil. This is supposed to be a good thing. However, it has led to the segregation of people based on their origin and even their skin color. the result is that race and ethnicity have become a major issue. Race and ethnicity in Brazil have been used to exclude certain groups of people especially the black Brazilians from mainstream society. It is based on race and ethnicity that the black Brazilians earn less, have access to little or no social amenities. It is also the reason why they cannot access well-paying jobs and their children are school dropouts. The only way out is for the Brazilian and other Latin American governments to include the race and ethnicity factors in the Millennium Development goals. This is the only way that the exclusion of black Brazilians can be reduced by the year 2015. Without this, race and ethnicity will continue to be serious issues.


  1. Hamilton, Charles V., Huntley, Lynn, Alexander, Neville, Guimaraes, Antonio S.E., James, Wilmot & Reinner, Lynne. Beyond racism: race and inequality in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States. Boulder CO, 2001.
  2. Knight, Franklin W. Race, ethnicity and class: Forging the plural society in Latin America and the Caribbean. Waco TX: Baylor University Press, 1996.
  3. Mccallum, Cecilia. ‘Race and ethnicity in Latin America’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5.1 (1999).
  4. Telles, Edward E. ‘Race and ethnicity and Latin America’s United Nations Millennium Development Goals’. Latin American and Caribbean studies 2.2 (2007): 185-200.
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