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The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870-1940

The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870-1940
With chapters by Thomas E. Skidmore, Aline Helg, and Alan Knight

While Latin American leaders wanted a closer connection with Europe and North America, these regions' views on nonwhites came in conflict with Latin America's heterogenous racial makeup; this book examines how some countries navigated this dilemma.

Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies University of Texas at Austin
April 1990
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143 pages | 6 x 9 | 10 b&w illus. |

From the mid-nineteenth century until the 1930s, many Latin American leaders faced a difficult dilemma regarding the idea of race. On the one hand, they aspired to an ever-closer connection to Europe and North America, where, during much of this period, "scientific" thought condemned nonwhite races to an inferior category. Yet, with the heterogeneous racial makeup of their societies clearly before them and a growing sense of national identity impelling consideration of national futures, Latin American leaders hesitated. What to do? Whom to believe?

Latin American political and intellectual leaders' sometimes anguished responses to these dilemmas form the subject of The Idea of Race in Latin America. Thomas Skidmore, Aline Helg, and Alan Knight have each contributed chapters that succinctly explore various aspects of the story in Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, and Mexico. While keenly alert to the social and economic differences that distinguish one Latin American society from another, each author has also addressed common issues that Richard Graham ably draws together in a brief introduction. Written in a style that will make it accessible to the undergraduate, this book will appeal as well to the sophisticated scholar.

  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction (Richard Graham)
  • 2. Racial Ideas and Social Policy in Brazil, 1870-1940 (Thomas E. Skidmore)
  • 3. Race in Argentina and Cuba, 1880-1930: Theory, Policies, and Popular Reaction (Aline Helg)
  • 4. Racism, Revolution, and Indigenismo: Mexico, 1910-1940 (Alan Knight)
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Richard Graham is Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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The racial theories prevailing in European, North American, and Latin American thought from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1920s (and even to 1945) decidedly shaped public policies on a number of important issues. Initiated in Europe, the classification and ranking of humankind into inferior and superior races profoundly influenced the development, indeed, the very creation of the sciences. Biology, medicine, psychology, anthropology, ethnology, and sociology were all to some degree shaped by an evolutionary paradigm. The spread of European colonialism and the rapid growth of the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century brought additional and supposedly irrefutable proof of the validity of a scheme that placed the so-called primitive African or Indian at the bottom of the scale and at its top the "civilized" white European. Many social policies regarding education, crime, health, and immigration were informed by these dominant racial theories. Although the racialist conception of human beings began to lose its credibility from the early twentieth century, it was not until the Nazis began to apply those concepts to eugenics and to undertake massive extermination of the "inferior" races that most scientists firmly denounced the, by then, pseudo-scientific character of racial theories.

It is now a commonplace among historians to refer to hegemonic ideologies through which, it is argued, dominant classes shape the entire culture of their society, creating the predominant intellectual categories and limiting the possible range of any challenge. These ideologies are accepted (at least for awhile) by the very groups who are thereby controlled. The idea of race as it was formulated in the nineteenth century seems to have served that function both within particular countries and in maintaining or at least in justifying the economic and political power exercised by some nations over others. Within colonial and neo-colonial regions of the world it often legitimated rule by the metropolis. The idea of race also made it possible, paradoxically, for mestizos and mulattoes—by identifying themselves with white elites as against Indian orblack majorities—to accept theories that justified white domination over "colored" populations. It is to explore some aspects of this process within Latin America that the chapters of this book have been assembled.

The period chosen for study, running more or less from 1870 to 1940, was the one in which the idea of race had its fullest development and received the imprimatur of science. To be sure, the belief in the superiority of one human group over another—groups that were often defined somatically—is perhaps as old as humankind itself. In European thought the identification of Africans with inferiority was already common at the time of the Renaissance. With the discovery of America, an intense debate erupted regarding the nature of the Amerindians; but the practice of subjugating them soon overrode any theoretical objections. Eighteenth-century developments in science and the continuing spread of a world economic system centered on northern Europe stimulated the impulse toward classifying all people according to some sort of scientific schema. That tendency is apparent in Carl von Linnaeus' Systema naturae (10th ed.,1758), and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, De generis humani varietate nativa (1775)—who coined the word "Caucasian." But it was the work of Charles Darwin or, more exactly, interpretations and extensions by others of his The Origin of the Species (1859) and, especially, his The Descent of Man (1871) that established a supposed scientific basis for racism.

As a successful propagandist of the new truth, no one exceeded Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). He was unmistakably the most imaginative nineteenth-century thinker to apply Darwin's theory to human society. He first named that theory "evolution," first used the phrase "survival of the fittest," and firmly linked biology to the idea ofprogress, so powerfully attractive at that time: "Evolution can end only in the establishment of the greatest perfection and most complete happiness." Human societies, he argued, developed according to the same rules of differentiation and organization as did living organisms, and, as society "grows, its parts become unlike: it exhibits increase of structure." Or again, "The change from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous is displayed in the progress of civilization as a whole, as well as in the progress of every nation." It followed that natural selection and the survival of the fittest were inevitably the guiding principles both within particular societies and of race relations generally. Just as in the animal world "the struggle for existence has been an indispensable means to evolution," just so with "social organisms." And differing races exhibited differential abilities to survive and dominate, so that some were destined to triumph over others. Other popularizers of what has come to be called "Social Darwinism" did not delay in appearing, but its spread in Latin America may be largely ascribed to the influence of Spencer.

Latin Americans faced a difficult intellectual dilemma regarding race. On the one hand, racial heterogeneity characterized most of their societies. On the other, many Latin Americans aspired to an ever closer connection to Europe and sought to follow its leadership in every realm. From the time most of their countries gained political independence from Spain and Portugal in the early nineteenth century, Latin American elites strove for an ever closer integration with the northern European system, whether in trade or in finance, whether in politics or intellectual life. As the expanding forces of industrial capitalism penetrated ever deeper into the Latin American economies, so did accompanying social change and intellectual currents.

Political and intellectual leaders imagined themselves part of a European civilization. Nineteenth-century liberalism—which also had an overpowering influence upon their thought—emphasized the idea of the free individual struggling to survive and ascend. Scientific racism explained why some succeeded while others failed, seemed to make clear the reasons for contemporary realities in international relations, and justified the dominance domestically of the few (whites) over the many (colored). As the technological achievements of Europeans and North Americans clearly rested on science, its dictums took on a particular prestige. And the most eminent scientists then endorsed the view that the white race was superior and destined to triumph over blacks, Indians, mestizos, and mulattoes. Yet, with the mixed and varied racial composition of their societies clearly before them and a growing sense of national identity impelling consideration of national futures, these leaders also hesitated. What to believe? What to do?

Their sometimes anguished response forms the subject of this book. Some accepted European racist theory without question. Others picked and chose accordmg to what seemed to fit reality as they knew it. As Thomas Skidmore points out, Brazilian intellectuals ignored the "scientific" condemnation of race mixture and spoke instead of how Brazil would move toward progress through a steady "whitening" of its population. They simply ignored the fact that such a process must inevitably imply a "darkening" of some. Race, for them, was not immutable, and Brazil, far from being condemned to subservience, was destined for a bright future—only a bit later, after the continuous process of race mixture along with immigration from Europe and the alleged reproductive weakness of blacks had had time to work their magic. Similarly for Argentinean and Cuban thinkers, as Aline Helg shows, whitening offered an escape from the cul de sac posed by European theories of race. Yet in Argentina, where blacks had already seemed to disappear through race mixture and where Indians had been ruthlessly exterminated, it was possible to believe more wholeheartedly in scientific racism (without sacrificing nationalist hopes) than was the case in Brazil and Cuba. But even Argentines chose from the writings of Europeans what they wanted to believe and did not focus their attention on the alleged racial differences among Europeans themselves, differences that would have placed Italians, Spaniards, and their descendants at a competetive disadvantage vis-à-vis "Aryans."

Even those who later ostensibly opposed scientific racism accepted many of its premises, sometimes unconsciously. Alan Knight shows that in Mexico, where the Revolution of 1910 wrought so many drastic changes, political and intellectual elites set themselves the task of opposing the racist philosophy that had played so important a part in the discourse of the prerevolutionary regime. Yet these spokesmen for indigenismo more often than not failed to distinguish between race and ethnicity, often revealed a reverse racism every bit as intellectually flawed as that of those whom they opposed, and allowed anti-Chinese racism to flourish without criticism. Similarly, the Brazilian race-theories critic Gilberto Freyre fell back upon categories of thought initially formulated by those whom he attacked.

The mestizo and mulatto played an important part in the thinking both of racists and antiracists in Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba. José Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher, was only one of the writers, albeit the most eloquent one, to claim the mestizo as the apotheosis of human development. Freyre hailed race mixture as a national achievement for which Brazil should be proud. For all of these writers, genetically inherited characteristics continued to play a role inconsistent with a nonracist approach.

Everywhere, racialist thinking impelled policy decisions. In Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba (and in Mexico before 1910) it directly affected immigration laws. In Brazil and Cuba it was used to defend particular responses to criminal behavior. In Cuba it shaped policies toward "witchcraft," encouraged even some segregationist policies, affected legislation regarding elections, and fostered the bloody repression of a black political party. Argentine reaction to labor unrest was guided by a belief in the danger posed by Russian Jews because of their race. Prerevolutionary Mexico had drawn on racialist theories to justify the disappropriation of Indian communities, as well as a particular model of economic development and project for nation building. Mexican revolutionaries similarly drew on concepts about race to rationalize policies designed to advance the state while encouraging the formation of national consciousness. And everywhere in Latin America thinkers understood education to be a possible escape from racialist determinism, even as they partly accepted that determinism.

In all four countries a close link existed between racism and reform. It was José Ingenieros, who so vibrantly called for restructuring the Argentine university curriculum and the destruction of the outdated Spanish colonial educational system, who led in the advocacy of racist philosophies. It was Fernando Ortiz in Cuba and Nina Rodrigues in Brazil, pioneer students of Afro-Latin American culture, who endorsed the idea of innate black criminality. At first it was liberal reformers who provided the intellectual and political context for the introduction and acceptance of social Darwinism. Later, in the Mexican case especially, it was revolutionaries and reformers who perpetuated stereotypes and labels that justified or rationalized the treatment of Indians as objects of state intervention rather than historical actors in their own right. It is the tension between a racially complex reality all about them and the supposed logic of their thought that makes the idea of race in Latin America a particularly fascinating subject.


“ important contribution to the far too limited literature on race and racialist thinking in Latin America.”
Hispanic American Historical Review