Talking about Brazil with Lilia Schwarcz

Robert Darnton – The New York Review of Books, 08/17/2010

On a recent trip to Brazil, I struck up a conversation with Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, one of Brazil’s finest historians and anthropologists. The talk turned to the two subjects she has studied most—racism and national identity.

I first visited Brazil in 1989, when hyperinflation had nearly paralyzed the economy, favelas erupted in shoot-outs, and Lula, a hero of the union movement but still unsure of himself as a politician, was undertaking his first campaign for the presidency. I found it all fascinating and frightening. On my second trip, a few years later, I met Lilia and her husband, Luiz Schwarcz, who was beginning to build the company he had founded, Companhia das Letras, into one of the finest publishing houses in Latin America. They treated me to a day so packed with Braziliana that I remember it as one of the happiest experiences of my life: in the morning a stroll with their children through São Paulo’s main park, where families of all shades of color were picnicking and playing in dazzling sunlight; lunch, a tour of Brazilian specialties undreamt of in my culinary philosophy (but no pig’s ears or tails, it not being feijoada day); an international soccer match (Brazil beat Venezuela, and the stands exploded with joy); then countless caipirinhas and a cabaret-concert by Caetano Veloso at his most lyrical and politically provocative.

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The race docket: Should Brazil use discrimination against deprivation?

The Economist, 08/05/2010

BRAZIL’S Supreme Court is wrestling with one of the toughest dilemmas in politics: which is preferable, absolute equality before the law or discrimination in favour of disadvantaged races? This is a surprise, for until recently Brazil liked to see itself as a true melting pot.

Like America, it has significant minorities of blacks, indigenous peoples and European immigrants; it even has the world’s biggest populations of Japanese outside Japan and Lebanese anywhere. Unlike Americans, Brazilians rarely classify themselves by race. One survey listed 136 sample skin colours. At the last census, 38% simply said they were mixed.

Although Brazil’s races are not separate, they are not equal, either. Blacks earn about half as much as whites, and have five years of education, compared with whites’ eight. In June Congress passed a “statute of racial equality”; but it steered clear of positive discrimination.

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