By Cheryl Staats, Research Associate,
Brazil has been a long-standing place of interest for many scholars due to its fluid racial categorization that focuses on phenotype rather than hypodescent. With the release of Brazil’s 2010 census data, the newly-minted “minority-majority” country only further piques the interest of many in the U.S. as our country quickly approaches its own “racial tipping point” in approximately 2042. What insights can the U.S. gain from Brazil and its experiences with this demographic transition thus far? While the two countries possess similar yet distinct racial histories, some possible parallels are worth considering.
Non-white birth rates outpacing those of white women is one of the key factors in the U.S. demographic transition, as twelve states and the District of Columbia already have white populations below 50% among children under age five. Seven additional states are poised to also attain a “minority majority” designation among children within the next decade.
Similar to the U.S., one of the drivers behind the numeric rise of nonwhites in Brazil has been the rise of the non-white birth rate. Moreover, experts also cite an increased willingness of Brazilians to self-identify as black or pardo, a Brazilian term akin to mestizo or mixed race. Among the reasons attributed to this include: a period of economic growth that is helping to dispel associations between poverty and skin color; increased presence of blacks in high-profile positions, including the appointment of a black judge to Brazil’s Supreme Court and the country’s first black actor in a leading telenovela role; and a sense of hope that is permeating the country.
While Brazil’s common designation as a racial paradise or (post-)racial utopia represents an overly romanticized misnomer that masks inequalities, the feeling of racial tolerance and optimism contrasts with the often subtle yet consistent racial tensions that continue to plague U.S. society. Many of the current signs in the U.S. are not encouraging. Accusations of reverse discrimination, such as the highly publicized New Haven firefighters case, are becoming increasingly common. Recent research claims that anti-white bias has actually surpassed anti-Black bias, thus reflecting whites’ zero-sum mentality on racism. Other large-scale manifestations of continued racial tensions can be seen through the veiled racism of the Tea Party Movement, the plethora of political cartoons about President Obama and his family that incite racial anxieties , and the “birther” movement’s relentless questioning of President Obama’s citizenship. As unequivocally asserted by Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez, “Forget the melting pot or the salad bowl; the metaphor for how we balance diversity and unity is becoming the fighting cage.”
In contrast, another parallel worth considering is how Brazilians’ increased willingness to identify as pardorelates to the increase of multiple ethnic identifications by Americans. While past U.S. Censuses limited folks to a single racial/ethnic category, in 2000 the Census began allowing respondents to select more than one racial identity. This new option allowed many folks to express their full range of racial identities, as 6.8 million people (2.4% of the population) reported more than one race. This number increased by 32% to 9 million people (2.9% of the overall population) in 2010. The combination of Black –White comprised the largest group of multiple race respondents (1.8 million people). The reasons behind this increase in mixed race identification are varied; they include intermarriage (2008 data shows that approximately 1 in 7 marriages were interracial or interethnic), immigration trends, and the embrace of more flexible racial identities. As succinctly stated by one interviewee in a recent New York Times article on her mixed race identification: “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.” This growing fluidity of racial identities in the U.S. certainly does not match that of Brazil; however, it does reflect how Americans’ self-perceptions are transitioning away from longstanding stable categories.
While I am not naively promoting Brazil as some kind of racial utopia, the general feelings of racial tolerance and optimism in the country contrast with the unsettled racial sentiments often found in the U.S. As the demographic shift to a so-called “minority majority” gradually comes into focus, we are left to wonder not only whether or how attitudes regarding race in the U.S. will change, but also the extent to which the increase of people identifying as multiracial may influence perceptions of this transition. Brazil’s experiences certainly seem worthy of further reflection and consideration.
 Some have noted that Brail may have already been a minority-majority country prior to the 2010 Census, but given the mutability of their self-identified racial designations, prior statistics did not reflect this demographic milestone.