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Determining the (In)Determinable: Race in Brazil and the United States

D. Wendy Greene

Samford University - Cumberland School of Law

May 5, 2009

Michigan Journal of Race & Law, Vol. 14, p. 143, 2009

Recently, the Brazilian states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Mato Grasso du Sol have implemented race-conscious affirmative action programs in higher education. These states have established admissions quotas in public universities for Afro-Brazilians or afrodescendentes. As a result, determining “who is Black” has become a complex yet important undertaking in Brazil. Contrary to many scholars’ advancements race in Brazil is skin color or physical appearance, whereas in the United States race is based on ancestry, this Article advances the notion that in both American countries one’s physical appearance is the primary determinant of Blackness. Furthermore, when U.S. courts have been charged with determining Blackness, racial constructs based on physical appearance - not the rule of hypodescent -- have steered their legal pronouncement of race. This Article first offers a necessary survey of African slavery in Brazil and the United States. This Article demonstrates that despite the contrasts in demography, slave law, and ensuing racial ideology - “racial democracy” in Brazil and “racial purity” in the United States - the enslavement and subordination of Africans and their descendants spawned a common racial hierarchy and assembly of phenotypes designating Blackness and whiteness. Moreover, this Article surveys historical and contemporary racial determination cases which demonstrate the salience of physical appearance in determining race in the United States and debunks the notion that the hypodescent rule is applied to determine “Blackness”. These cases additionally illuminate the paradoxical nature of race - specifically Blackness and whiteness - in the Americas; race is contextual, subjective, and malleable yet simultaneously fixed, as physical constructs of Blackness and whiteness have transcended geography, time, ideology, and demography. Ultimately, this exploration of racial determination cases imparts insight and guidance to Brazilian arbiters currently determining who is Afro-Brazilian for affirmative action purposes.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 53

Keywords: race, slavery, comparative slavery, comparative race relations, Brazil, United States, Latin America, racial determination cases, legal history, affirmative action, colonial United States, race conscious affirmative action, physical appearance, phenotype, rule of hypodescent

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Date posted: September 18, 2009 ; Last revised: January 1, 2015

Suggested Citation

Greene, D. Wendy, Determining the (In)Determinable: Race in Brazil and the United States (May 5, 2009). Michigan Journal of Race & Law, Vol. 14, p. 143, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1474446

Contact Information

D. Wendy Greene (Contact Author)
Samford University - Cumberland School of Law ( email )
800 Lakeshore Dr.
Birmingham, AL 35229
United States
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