THE OBAMA PHENOMENON IN BRAZIL AND IN AMERICA

THE PROMISE OF NORMATIVE RESTORATIVE JUSTICE IN 21ST CENTURY “EX”-SLAVE SOCIETIES

Public lecture delivered on October 24, 2008 at Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama. Tuskegee University, formerly Tuskegee Institute, founded by world renowned African American educator Booker T. Washington in the late 19th century remains as one of America’s most well respected and extraordinary universities. Some call Tuskegee, “The Black M.I.T.”

 

I first became interested in the comparative studies of race, racism, and anti-racism in Brazil and in the United States as an undergraduate student in California State University Fresno in the early 1970s. I had the good fortune to being required to take Professor William Beatty’s minority relations course.  As mundane as the course title was, it was a fascinating and demanding course the sociology department faculty used as a litmus test to determine whether or not a sociology major aspiring to pursue doctoral studies had what it took to enter the race to compete for admission into high quality sociology graduate programs. Besides his bald head and his twinkling fiery though kind eyes, what else made Dr. Beatty’s class both so fascinating and so hard is that he was an anthropologist who taught his subject matter from a cross-national perspective enriched with his own world travels. Not only his heavy reading assignments and essay exams would cause a great number of students to  decide to enroll elsewhere but also, how could you possibly take notes from a man who could tell such great stories about world travels, particularly to most of us who  were from poor and working class families and thus barely been anywhere except  Sears and Roebuck in the next town over?

One of Dr. Beatty’s readings was Race and Racism by Pierre van den Berghe, which is still a classic in the comparative and contrasting study of race and racism.  Van de Berghe organizes the text around the different  national case studies  histories and styles of racism. Besides the United States, The three other case studies were Mexico, Brazil, South Africa. I had heard of Mexico before since after my family moved from upstate New York to northern California when I was 16, I attended high school with several classmates of Mexican origin. I had heard of Brazil nuts before but knew nothing about the country and knew nothing at all about South Africa. Over the years, as a historically grounded sociologist of knowledge concerned about the  human construction of meanings which dehumanize such as race, I would transform over time from being an American scholar just concerned about how it is that race as  a form of dehumanization is used in the United States with only theoretical reference to countries such as Brazil and South Africa to in more recent years, actually becoming much more empirically and experientially grounded as a comparative social scientist who, in other words, has begun to visit and live for short periods of time in other countries.

About my presentation today, I thought I would focus on some of my emerging thoughts about Brazil and about the United States and about my deepening interest in restorative justice thinking and living based upon my recent travels to Brazil during the course of this extraordinary election year in American and in world history, hence the topic, the Obama Phenomenon in America and Brazil : The Promise of Normative Restorative Justice in 21st Century “Ex”-Slave Societies. I think due to the scarcity of time and my desire for discussion on this most fascinating matter, I am going to focus mostly  on  some of the interesting reasons for the Obama craze in Brazil which I sort of fell right in the middle of when I was in Brazil March-June of this year, as a Fulbrighter based in Rio de Janeiro in the Catholic University Rio, the foremost private university in Brazil,  just when Senator Obama was securing his stunning  primary season victory over favored Senator Hillary Clinton. I would  clock over 7,000 miles in Brazil in about two months  becoming without any effort on my part, sort of the American on the spot to explain the extraordinary rise of  Senator Obama as the probable and then definite candidate for the U.S. Presidency on the Democratic Party ticket.

 

Brazilian slavers at a plantation by
Rugendas

 

Allow me to begin to say some things about Brazil, a nation which most Americans, including African Americans, know little to nothing about except for the tourist images of Rio beaches and gorgeous women and of the wild jungles of the Amazon. Which is a tragic shame since Brazil and Brazilians are not only strikingly different from the United States and from Americans but also uniquely similar in simplistically obvious and much more complex subtle ways. More concretely, in terms of differences, it  is indeed the case that while Brazil is a pre-eighteenth century country with dominating  Portuguese settlement and exploitation roots, the  United States is a pre-eighteenth century country with dominating English settlement and exploitation roots. While both colonial based national elites engaged in extensive exportation of slaves from Africa to build and sustain their crop based plantations, the importation of slaves in Brazil, about 6 million enslaved souls, was about ten times the size of the slave importation into the United States. This has the predicable demographic and cultural consequence of the African descent ancestry count to be much more higher in Brazil, some 48-51% of the Brazilian population has by self definition one or more African descent ancestors but it is hard to compare that to the United States since American whites tend to be much more reluctant to self report having a Black ancestor than Brazilians who define themselves to be white. And we should acknowledge that the land mass of Brazil is slightly smaller than the United States as the vast spread of a nation-state with a population a bit more than half of that of the United States. As well, while most of the Brazilian population resides to the south and especially along northeastern coastal areas such as Sao Paulo, Rio de Janiero, Salvador Bahia, Recife, and Fortaleza, with sparse settlement of the north and the largely Amazon, landlocked west, the United States population may have big cities and rural settlements in the east  but also is  populous relatively speaking, in all other regions, including along a far western coast line that Brazilians do not have. And the old centers of slavery and of regional white ethnic formations of both countries are geographically reversed with Bahia in the Northeast being the center of the Brazilian  African enslavement region with Salvador being the old colonial capital with the dominant  Brazilian white ethnic region being  in  the south beginning with Sao Paulo, the third largest city in the world and going down to the southern most tip of the country. Of course in the United States, we had the sustaining dominant slave holding center being in the deep southern and border state region with the bulk of the white European  immigration and settlement developing what would be called  white ethnics in all    northern regions—the east coast, Midwest, Great Plains, south,Moutain States, and Far west.

 

Paulista Avenue, São Paulo City

 

Different discrimitary responses

But the similarities are striking, especially when it comes to the complexities, dynamics, and quality of life outcomes of shall we say, anti-black bias in both nation-states. This is the case even though most  Brazilians will be quick to tell you that their nation-state is a racial democracy if not a racial paradise and that many Americans, mostly white Americans, will be quick to say that racism is not  the problem it used to be and many Americans irrespective of ancestry embrace a color blind ideology very similar to the dominant raceless ideology of Brazilians. But in both national cases, as Winthrop Jordan pointed out long ago about the staining anti-black bias sustained in America since colonial times, in both countries, there is a similar problem of discrimination if you have skin which is at least a tad bit brown and it gets worst the closer the skin color is to becoming dark. And because of this,  American and Brazilian elites may have had different discriminatory responses to slavery emancipation in their lands but with strikingly similar quality of life out-comes for African descent people with at least a tinge of brown in their skin and much more for those with dark black skins. Both of these national white elite responses had to do with developing public policies to whiten their  countries demographically and  terms of constructing national identities. For Americans, after emancipation and the Civil War in the mid-1860s, there was a concerted effort which lasted until World War I to design and maintain a cotton tenancy for Blacks in the south while creating European immigration opportunities to be workers in the emerging northern factories. By the time American industrialists began to encourage black migration from the rural south due to the drying up of white immigrant labor from Europe  due to World War I, there were major white ethnic populations well settled in east coast cities and Midwestern cities. When slavery emancipation occurred in Brazil in 1888, political and economic elites faced the more difficult problem of  being confronted with a demographically dominating visibly black and brown ex-slave population; a potential threat to their white purity. This stimulated the well documented effort to whiten the country, a trend which lasted well into the 20th century through elite encouragement of white European immigration into industrializing Sao Paulo and the highly under populated vast largely rural southern regions. And by the way, this effort at whitening even preceded the  Brazilian slave  emancipation of 1888 in the efforts of the last Brazilian King to encourage thousands of white American southerners to expatriate after their defeat in the American Civil War, resulting in confederate southern towns in Brazil  still standing such as Americano, where the likes of former U.S. first lady  Rosalynn Carter has ancestral roots as well as many  other contemporary Americans.

 

Marina da Silva former Secretary
of Environmental Protection of
Lula da Silva administration

 

Brazil: dark skinned living in the slums

So, even though in Brazil, national ideology with regional variations claims that you can choose what ever you prefer to be in terms of racial status identity, there are still negative consequences for being a tinge of brown to being dark with discriminatory outcomes similar to the United States. As we know in the United States, the one drop of so called black blood holds, just one black ancestor , no matter  how far  up in the branches of the family tree, defines you as being black no matter how white you may appear . It is true that whites in Brazil are much more willing than whites in America to proclaim that they have African descent ancestry but those who look white are quick to add that they are white now. Meanwhile those who are tinged brown or brown may or may not still experience discrimination depending upon where they are situationally and in terms of status. And those who are dark skinned, are , no wonder, dominate amongst those who are poor,living in the slums, and who are the Afro-Brazilians who tend not to be in school and in college and most are not. Also, telling blatant racist jokes about dark skinned people is not unheard of in Brazil in public places  as well as presumptive stereotypical jokes which have become viewed as distasteful public and even private behavior in many areas of American life related to the public. But with this said, as discriminatory against black people as both societies tend to be, there is paradoxically, a widespread public  embracing and co-opting of so called African descent culture in both countries be it popular dance styles, music, cuisine, language, hair styles, and religious practices.

Now about the Obama Phenomenon. There are first the similarities between Americans and Brazilians about the shock of the rather sudden emergence of Senator  Obama and about his accelerating success in electoral politics. First, I put the quotation marks around the phrase ex as in ex-slave societies since   Brazil and the United States are both still unrepentant slave societies in great need of restorative justice processes in the legal realm—remembering the diversity of memories of the atrocities of slavery from the standpoint of the perpetrators and the victims, confessing and apologizing from the voices of the perpetrators and victims, forgiveness, meaning mutual understanding on the part of perpetrators and victims, reparations on the part of perpetrators giving back dignity to victims, and sustaining the rehumanization of all through policies and incentives for former perpetrators and victims to live sustained new open private and public lives as unified human beings. Restorative justice is a new way of becoming human again through regaining our humanity through embracing the humanity of those we have degraded due to our identities of being perpetrators and of victims. It is the belief in keeping with Bishop Desmond Tutu’s widely known declaration that if I dehumanize you, I dehumanize my self and adding to that, when I rehumanize by embracing your humanity, then that becomes the first step in restoring community  and society and the humane order of the world and therefore working together to restore  King’s notion of the beloved community, that is,what is publicly good for all of us unrecognized when we are focused more on the tragic  superficialities  of our differences than the more central things which really bind us as human beings  belonging to the same community and to the same sovereign state and  being  global citizens such as our desire to have schools which educate our children, air which we can really breath, water we can safely drink, having secure streets to walk on and having decent food to eat and roofs over our heads and floors in good shape to walk on and adequate employment and fair treatment we all deserve to have as members of the human family.

Even though slavery ended legally and historically in both Brazil and the United States many decades ago, the absence of a deep abiding and labor intensive restorative justice process, the kind oversimplified a few moments ago,  has resulted in the continued social, cultural, emotional, and psychoanalytical  dynamics of  continued slave based societies which  dehumanize the entire societies in so many ways  which social scientists have yet to fully study or understand since we are not used to approaching contemporary issues such as the various forms of violence from street violence to domestic violence to war and inequalities against the disabled, women, and others and  psychiatric problems such as psychosis and schizophrenia and sustained poverty rates among Americans and Brazilians of all ancestries, especially those who are usually multigenerationally impoverished, especially and most consistently  those  noticeably African descent and indigenous peoples  as being the consequence of the long surviving arms of slavery as four hundred year old institutional systems in both colonial based nation-states which continues to dehumanize not just particular victimized populations but the entire societies.

So, for different national reasons, there is similar bi-national-Brazilian and American awe about how this could happen, a black man running for the U.S. Presidency not in novels and not in the movies who just might win. A man who comes not from the American experience of slavery but who nonetheless comes from the same stigmatized genetically apparent legacy of being obviously black unlike in other cases of men who became U.S. Presidents or in one case Vice President  who have been suspected or in one case, actually admitted to  having  black ancestors but who had the appearance and the culture of being white. (Hannibal Hamlin)

 

Police raid at a Favela

 

In the U.S. context, the amazement about the rise of Senator Obama is couched in a slaved based society with a dominant media and intelligentsia which over the past fifty years has been so fixated on racial disparities and racial prejudices as routines of American life that most completely missed the profound changes which have been occurring in the United States particularly when it comes to those Americans  45 years and younger. As much as it is true we have a long way to go in America  when it comes to the dehumanizing presence and outcomes of race, we have also come  very long ways in the uneven though still profoundly influential deracializing  spaces desegregation processes have been producing here and there in schools, workplaces, consumer markets, the military and especially the media. While the mainstream media remains quite adamant in racial typing and searching for the negative effects of racism on Senator Obama’s chances to win the U. S. Presidency,  there is this cognitive dissonance since  in recent decades,  the mainstream media has been legitimizing the presence of eminent blacks such as Ophrey Winfrey and Denzel Washington and high political appointees such as  General Colin Powell and Dr. Condoleezza Rice, and the few blacks who lead major businesses such as  American Express and Time Warner and played a major role in bringing attention to the need to   apartheid  in South Africa. And there seems to this interesting not getting it on the part of the mainstream media that there were reasons why some 300 friends of the University of Michigan affirmative case to the Supreme Court in the mid-1990s, which was won, claimed that if any thing was apparent about diversity and inclusion is that it was good for big business both for the board room and for consumer markets and it was good for the enrichment of school and university administrations, faculties, and class rooms to have cultural pluralism around the table and at the selling and buying counter. And in some very interesting ways, the deepening economic crisis is peeling off or at least compartmentalizing the racial prejudices of whites who, as polls are finding may harbor  racial prejudices but are willing to vote their economic interests or vent their frustrations regarding the present administration and the Republican Party, points  highlighted by the  recent  General  Colin Powell endorsement of Senator Obama for President. It has been, thus far, a great lesson about how complex and contradictory  social prejudice can be, but we have  been learning in other places and times in American history, that is, people have the propensity to compartmentalize their prejudices  when their human interests are threatened be it their lives, financial well being, or their mobility privileges. Something    social scientists around  the world who study the nature of prejudice rarely examine but certainly will be from now on in what is becoming very much during this profound election year  a post-Bradley effect  society  with persisting wide spread racial prejudices on all sides of deeply racialized fences.

 

África/Brasil, by Jorge Benjor

 

Obama: deracializion and rehumanization for Brazil and US

But, in Thomas Kuhnian terms about paradigms, which we can apply to daily life as meaning the taken for granted norms, beliefs , values, and language we all are socialized to learn and embrace, it is understandable as to the reason why what Senator  Barak Obama stands for symbolically is a new emerging, rather normative restorative justice paradigm, a way of speaking and living which we have yet to have the language for—which is one of the reasons why his talk about civic unity seems to some ears and minds  to be just eloquent fantasy talk and why his going beyond race speech was all at once insightful and unprecedented and linguistically misunderstood even for the progressive for a mainstream politician to articulate who is  so close to the possibility of getting elected to the highest prize in American and some would say, world politics. It was  a normative restorative justice  speech unifying without compromising the views of the victimized and without accommodating to the views of historical perpetrators. His  speech on race , like his general perspective in speeches and debates emphasizes the rediscovery of ourselves and therefore civic community and restoring the moral respect of America abroad in a linguistic style which his opponents and indeed the mainstream media have difficulty responding to and effectively countering.

In Brazil, the Obama Phenomenon has a different feel altogether as I found out through audience responses to my lectures this past spring in front of elite academic and think tank audiences and circles of Afro-Brazilian and white Brazilian activists and my interviews with the mainstream Brazilian media in Rio, Sao Paulo, and Londrina and as I encountered working Brazilians usually where I brought my chicken and in the markets where I brought my fruit and even as I talked with my bilingual cab driver who became my eyes and ears in so many places.  Brazilians have, I think for the most part, been quite horrified by American racial problems through the decades and have smugly come to assume that their nation did not have such problems and took pride in that presumption. The fact that Obama has been moving along in such an unprecedented way in the electoral process has confused many Brazilians I interacted with since most have only stereotypical knowledge of the United States,  except those who have actually lived in the United States and traveled around outside the elite insulation of campuses and Hyatt Regency Hotels. While most of the white Brazilians wanted their assumptions about America some how updated by me, Afro-Brazilian leaders tended to have another agenda. The Black civil rights movement in Brazil has a very long history as it does in the United States originating during antebellum decades. What is different is the lack of historical cultural infrastructure in Brazil  such as segregated middle class communities, historically black schools and colleges, and media amongst Afro-Brazilians to accumulate and otherwise build on past experiences of civil rights struggles to create and sustain ethnic identity. Ever since the ending of long military rule in Brazil in the early 1990s which had forbade open Afro-Brazilian civil rights movements, there has been the growing effective politicialization of such movements and since the recent election of President Lula, the Black civil rights  movement has become institutionalized into the apparatus of the federal government. The major outcomes of the institutionalization of the Black movement into the federal government has been the recent appointment of the first Afro-Brazilian to the Brazilian Supreme Court, the passing of federal court decisions and laws mandating affirmative action policies requiring public universities to set aside 20% quotas for Afro-Brazilian students and for public schools to integrate Afro-Brazilian issues into curricula for the first time in Brazilian history. The United States government and other American institutions are beginning to assist in this effort. In fact late next week, I am traveling to the national capital of Brazil, Brasilia as a member of a U.S. Secretary of State Official mission to launch a joint effort to eliminate racial discrimination in Brazil signed by Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Minister Ernesto Santos the Brazilian Minister with special portfolio to eliminate racial discrimination in the federal government of Brazil. Also, in a few cities, such as in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, we see a sprinkling of Afro-Brazilians leading local and state wide political systems. In that respect, it looks like what was going on with a rare handful of African Americans  in the 1970s through the 1990s making it to the top of local, state, and  national systems as leaders which would constitute the transforming societal launching pad of  Senator potentially future President  Obama. Well sort of since though a precious handful of Afro-Brazilians are becoming major politicians, it is against the backdrop of a virtually all white mass media, corporate leadership sector, and public and private university sector while the vast majority of Afro-Brazilians are poor, shut out of college education, and predominate in the prison population much more than in the United States. Being in contemporary Brazil, is like being in the post-1980s and the pre-196os in America all at once  when it comes to the state of Afro-Brazilians in 2008. But, what the presence of Presidential candidate Barak  Obama on the American and world wide scene does for Brazilians is three things. First, in convergence with the controversies surrounding affirmative action, Brazilians of all ancestries are, like Americans beginning in the 1950s, Brazilians are beginning to construct discourses about race and racism in the national public sphere and the Obama Phenomenon like mixing the orange juice into the Castrol fish oil is culturally massaging the entrance of discussions about race into the public sphere.  Second, given the demographics of the country, it is just a matter of time, though it may take a long time, maybe not, before Brazil will have a noticeably Black President, an observation I made to a startled Londrina  journalist who subsequently reprinted the interview with me over and over again. Third, the emergence of the Obama Phenomenon comes in a historical point in Brazilian time in which elites of that vast land are searching for a new national identity separate from other Latin Americans who are culturally Spanish speaking, separate from other Western Hemispheric nations and separated from Europe which is why there is such a renaissance going on in restoring the writings of the Brazilian  cultural anthropologist and writer Gilberto Freyre who generations ago urged Brazilians to be proud of their ethnic mixture, including that from Africa and of other  literary figures who also  wrote of the uniqueness of a multiethnic Brazil and of the value of recognizing and acknowledging the place of Afro-Brazilians over and  beyond their enslavement.  This movement is reinforced by the development of a Brazilian university sector no longer dependent upon the United States or Europe and through Brazil beginning to flex political and economic muscles in international affairs. But what the Obama Phenomenon reminds both Americans and Brazilians the most without most of us really realizing it is the promise of every day, that is normative restorative justice in opening up spaces for deracialization and rehumanization slowly chipping away at the institutionalized atrocities wrought by the persistence of  such deeply rooted  slave regimes we all need to start acknowledging , talking through, and acting through if we are going to be the humane communities and societies we deserve to have and  more importantly, deserve to be.

 

The old down town of São Paulo City