Race and Racism in the Americas

Race and Racism in the Americas
Race and Racism in the Americas

Beginning in the years after conquest, Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a societywide, centuries-long coming together of European, African, and indigenous American populations.

The precise nature of that coming together varied according to time, place, and circumstance, generating a complex and shifting mosaic of racial categories, boundaries, and identities. In British North America, in contrast, Native American were on the whole excluded from the dominant Anglo society, while Africans were included in that society while relegated to its lowest rung.

This latter trajectory led, over time, to a largely dichotomous conception of race—a racial universe consisting of blacks (or Negroes) and whites, along with other categories (Indians, Asians, and others) but no substantial intermediate categories (save “half-breeds” and similar epithets designating white-Indian mixes). By the 1800s, this dichotomous conception of race coalesced in the United States into the “one drop rule,” in which a single drop of “Negro blood” made a person Negro.

French North America followed a different trajectory, with French traders along the St. Lawrence River, in the Great Lakes region, and in the Mississippi River valley mixing and intermarrying with native peoples to a much greater extent than in British North America.

The resulting “mixed” racial categories, generically termed the Métis (equivalent to the Spanish term mestizo), can be taken as emblematic of the different ideas and practices of race and racism in French and British colonial North America.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, in contrast, there evolved very different cultural understandings and social practices of race that there, too, varied widely across time and space. In general, racial categories here ranged across a spectrum from dark skinned to light skinned and were defined by more than skin color.

Hair texture, nose shape, facial architecture, upbringing, social class—the latter exemplified in the popular locution “money whitens”—and many other factors combined to determine a person’s precise location in the complex and fluid grid of racial categories.

Spaniards in particular were especially concerned with maintaining their limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), a concern routinely expressed in law and custom. The irony was that such “purity of blood” never existed.

In fact Spaniards and Iberians in general around the year 1500—sometimes called the “mestizos of Europe”—could trace their genetic heritage to centuries of biogenetic mixing in consequence of Iberia’s geographic location as a land bridge between western Europe and North Africa—a population that combined northern and western European, North African, trans-Mediterranean, and sub-Saharan African “racial strains.”

Race, virtually all modern scholars agree, is a social construct, a cultural imposition that exhibits only the most tenuous connection to biology or genetics. Biogenetic diversity is a fundamental feature of the species Homo sapiens.

Yet as biologists, anthropologists, and the scientific community in general universally agree, there does not exist, “out there in the world,” an objective biogenetic reality that corresponds to historically developed, “commonsensical” conceptions of “race.”

Among the most common facts cited in support of this argument is that there exists far more biogenetic diversity within a given “race” (say, Africans or Caucasians) than between “races.” A frequently invoked distinction in this regard is between “genotype” and “phenotype.”

The latter, comprising various visible markers such as skin color, hair texture, and so on, bears no substantial relation to the former, which consists of an individual’s (or, more broadly, an organism’s) genetic makeup and heredity.

These and related contemporary understandings of “race” did not exist in the period covered in this volume. Instead there emerged across Latin America and the Caribbean highly elaborate and varied racial categories meant to pigeonhole any given individual’s racial background and characteristics.

In addition to mestizos (Indian-Spanish), mulattos and pardos (African-Spanish), and zambos (African-Indian), there emerged in Spanish America, in different times and places, hundreds of more precise categories: castizo or quadroon (mestizo-Spanish), octoroon (quadroon-Spanish), quintroon or sextroon (octoroon-Spanish), Morisco (mulatto-Spanish), cholo (mestizo-Indian), quinterona (Spanish-mulatto), and many more. Toward the end of the colonial period, such efforts to pinpoint racial categories faltered, leading to increasing use of the generic term castas to refer to mixed-race peoples generally.

In Portuguese Brazil the most salient categories were mamelucos, mestiços, and caboclos. The greater propensity for Portuguese men (and to a lesser extent, women) to mix freely and intermarry with indigenous and African populations, and with their “mixed-race” offspring, eventually led, after independence, to a Brazilian national myth of “racial democracy”—the notion that racism did not exist in Brazil.

The fallacious nature of this myth is the subject of an expansive literature. In fact, in Brazil as elsewhere in the Americas, there existed a very strong correlation between social class and social race.

Darker skin and more Indian or African phenotypes were most commonly associated with lower social class and lesser social privilege, lighter skin and more European physiognomy with higher social class and greater social privilege.

Intricate gradations of racial categories did not mean an absence of racism, but rather different forms of race and racism in different parts of the Americas—not only in Spanish, Portuguese, and British colonies, but in French and Dutch colonies as well.

In virtually every sphere, from major social indices such as employment and life expectancy, to popular media such as television and film, the legacies of those distinctive heritages of racism remain profoundly apparent to the present day.