EVEN AS U.S. SOCIETY struggles to move beyond its confining binary view of race -- white versus black with nothing in between -- Brazil, a country where the celebration of racial mixture has long been a central part of the national self-image, may be heading in the opposite direction.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, this South American nation received more African slaves than any country in the Americas. But the shortage of white women, and a less rigid view of racial differences, led Portuguese settlers to mix more readily with nonwhite women than did their English counterparts in North America. The result was the creation of a large, racially mixed population. And unlike the Anglo Americans in the United States, who generally saw society in stark, bipolar racial terms and chose to deny the mixture that did occur, the Portuguese learned to view race on a continuum -- white and black with many shades in between.
This doesn't mean that there was no racism. Indeed, the array of terms used in Brazil to describe different shades of skin color speaks to the existence of a long-standing racial hierarchy in which whites were deemed to be on top and unmixed blacks on the bottom. But despite that, the recognition of gradations of mixture made the idea of race more fluid than it is in the U.S., where social convention has held that anyone with one drop of "African blood" is black. In Brazil, degrees of whiteness -- and social acceptance -- could be achieved through selective mating.
Indeed, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Brazil's immigration policy was largely based on an effort to "whiten" the population by adding more European immigrants to the mix. In 1912, Brazilian scientist Joao Batista de Lacerda predicted that by 2012, the ongoing process of mixture would produce a Brazilian population that was 80% white, 3% mixed race and 17% Indian.
In the 1930s, Brazil shifted direction slightly. It didn't so much reject the practice of "whitening" as superimpose a companion national ideology that boasted of the benefits of racial and cultural mixture. Thanks largely to the work of Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, Brazilians came to view widespread mixture as a sign of their cultural superiority and their society's lack of racism.
Both at home and abroad, Brazil came to be seen a model of racial tolerance. In 1942, prominent African American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier argued that Brazil could teach the U.S. a thing or two about race relations.
But by the 1960s, a small but savvy Brazilian "black movement," inspired in part by the U.S. civil rights movement, began to challenge the national consensus on race. For the next generation, activists called for more research on racial inequality in Brazil, and though they were ultimately incapable of creating an effective mass movement, they successfully influenced the debate. By 2001, their controversial demand for affirmative action in public universities became a reality.
For the last five years, a growing number of universities have adopted and experimented with different types of affirmative action quotas designed primarily to aid blacks and the poor. On the one hand, the fractious debate over affirmative action has helped convince more Brazilians that their history of racial mixture did not erase color-based discrimination. On the other, the establishment of a quota system is obliging a society that has always had a fluid notion of race to begin to standardize, collapse and solidify racial categories in order to determine who exactly should benefit from this race-based entitlement.
As it happens, Batista de Lacerda's prediction that "blacks" would "disappear" wasn't that far off. What he did not foresee, however, was the persistence of the large intermediate category between black and white. According to the 2000 census, 53% of Brazilians consider themselves white, 39% pardo -- a broad, generic mixed-race category -- less than 1% indigenous and Asian and only 6% black.
Because the Brazilian black movement has traditionally had a dual mission -- the first to combat color discrimination, the second to forge a black consciousness -- it has long championed the adoption of a binary racial classification system in which there are only two choices: black and white. For the purposes of enforcing affirmative action, some universities have begun to do just that. Quotas are not limited to those who are preto (black) but also to mixed-race pardos. Hence, a new de facto black category has emerged, and it represents no less than 45% of the population.
But given the fluidity of race here, it isn't always clear who is or is not black. Although most university affirmative action programs simply allow for self-classification, two of them require the submission of photos and have formed committees to verify the veracity of racial claims.
Civil rights attorney Humberto Adami told me that he thinks all this is a good thing. Now that blackness confers a benefit, he says, the whitening process will be reversed and more pardos will come to consider themselves fully black. "People are already bringing their [black] grandmothers out of the closets," he said.
Adami, who helped defend quota students against legal challenges, says universities are just the beginning. He supports the controversial Racial Equality Statute, which is stalled in Congress and is expected to remain there during this presidential election year. If passed, the seemingly innocuous yet far-reaching bill would require all employers to collect racial data from workers and establish quotas in a variety of economic sectors, both public and private. Critics fear that the law would divide society along "pseudo-racial" lines and foster the kind of overt racial tension with which Brazil is not familiar. Proponents argue that those divisions already exist.
Still others, such as Graziella Silva, a Harvard doctoral candidate and Rio native, believe that affirmative action will go through an assimilation process of its own and that it ultimately will be Brazilianized to recognize mixture. "We need to model our public policy on the reality of mixed people," she told me.
Perhaps because I come from a nation that is at long last beginning to acknowledge racial mixture and to move beyond dangerously rigid notions of race, I hope she's right.