Escalation in racial violence coexists with the more subtle and silent systemic racism, scholars say
November 02, 2022
By José Tadeu Arantes | Agência FAPESP – The world is experiencing a kind of “racial schizophrenia”. On one hand, there are more and more cases of crude and violent racism in political discourse, hate speech on social media and extremely aggressive individual behavior. On the other, there is systemic racism, which is mainly silent, subtle and hard to identify but permeates all instances of social life and is hidden behind the mask of racial democracy. We live in societies that are structurally racist, and therefore we are all “racialized actors”.
This is the gist of a presentation by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva to the 15th FAPESP 60 Years Conference on October 19, 2022. The event was entitled “Research on racism and its challenges in contemporary society”.
Bonilla-Silva is an Afro-Puerto Rican political sociologist and professor of sociology at Duke University in the United States. He is a former President of the American Sociological Association and author of Racism Without Racists – Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Inequality in America. The book has been translated into Brazilian Portuguese (Editora Perspectiva, 2020).
The other speaker, sociologist Márcia Lima, pointed to flaws in Brazil’s legislation on hate crimes. The law treats extreme manifestations of racism in single acts with the utmost rigor and yet does nothing to combat systemic or structural racism, she argued.
Lima is a professor in the Sociology Department of the University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP) and an associate researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), where she heads the Race, Gender and Racial Justice Research and Training Unit (Núcleo Afro).
According to Bonilla-Silva, who was born in Pennsylvania but grew up and graduated in Puerto Rico, a society is systemically or structurally racist if social, economic, political and psychological rewards are apportioned partly by race, with advantages for the dominant white race and disadvantages for the subordinate non-white races. Systemic racism is historical (linked to slavery, among other historical phenomena), structural (involving social mechanisms and practices) and collective (we all participate in racism, wittingly or unwittingly). Moreover, it has a material foundation and is reproduced because the dominant actors (whites) benefit from the system and fight to defend it, “It’s in the normative, mundane, everyday behavior expressive of the white habitus that we can see the mechanics of racism,” said Bonilla-Silva, referring to the term habitus to express a “system of internalized structures, schemes of perception, conception and action common to all members of the same group or class”, as defined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.
In the US, he continued, after the advances won by the civil rights movement, a “new racism” crystallized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, characterized by “an aggregate of subtle public practices apparently ‘beyond race’ that help maintain white privilege and non-white disadvantages.” As examples of new racism, he referred to reports of everyday incidents embodying racial discrimination in stores, restaurants and the property market.
Like the US, Brazil and other Latin American countries suffer from what he called color-blind racism. “By color-blind racism, I mean the post-civil rights dominant racial ideology anchored in an abstract and decontextualized extension of the principles of liberalism, and which furnishes apparently non-racial explanations for all sorts of race-related issues,” he said.
Lima developed this theme in the Brazilian context, recalling a remark by sociologist Antonio Sérgio Guimarães, a senior professor at FFLCH-USP, that racism is a taboo subject in Brazil. “Racism has always been treated here as episodic,” she said, citing as an example the frequently expressed opinion that “there’s no racism in Brazil because money whitens” and calling it a scandalous expression of the systemic or color-blind racism under discussion.
In the second part of her talk, Lima, who has authored a vast body of research focusing on the links between racial and social inequality, discussed the challenges faced by scholars who set out to study racism in Brazil. “It’s hard to investigate the phenomenon in a society whose hallmark or heritage is denying racism,” she said, proceeding to consider three levels of racism, which she termed structural, institutional and everyday, with their respective research lines.
The 15th FAPESP 60 Years Conference was opened by Professor Luiz Eugênio Mello, Scientific Director of FAPESP. Noting the difference between opinion and evidence, he highlighted the role of evidence in the construction of scientific knowledge. The event was chaired by Angela Alonso, also a professor of sociology at FFLCH-USP and a researcher at CEBRAP. Alonso is a member of FAPESP’s Adjunct Panel on Human and Social Sciences, Architecture, Economics and Administration.
Alonso recalled that some 6 million Africans were brought to Brazil as slaves, that the slave trade only ended because of outside pressure, and that the Abolitionist movement in Brazil involved more than 300 associations, lasted more than two decades and held over 2,000 protests across the nation.
“It was only under the threat of civil war that sectors of the elites agreed to put an end to slavery in 1888. The result of this compromise was an extremely brief law establishing the end of slavery without saying how this was to be done or what was to happen to the former slaves,” she noted. “Thus, the Empire bequeathed racial inequality to the Republic, and governments of the Republic bequeathed it to one another. The descendants of Africans are now living in worse conditions than the white population by any measure whatsoever.”
A recording of the event can be watched on Agência FAPESP’s YouTube channel.
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