Geographical space and the question of black people in Brazil

Claud Lovat Fraser, The Slave Market, 1912-13


The marginalization of blacks by mechanisms and forms of racism specific to society itself and its space

In 1998, historian Emília Viotti da Costa published a seminal book whose title, From Monarchy to Republic, and subtitle, “decisive moments”, portray the author's historical-structural ambition.[I] Indeed, the period in which the book focuses ranges from the transition from Monarchy to Republic in Brazil, from the country's Independence to the coup d'état that abolished the Emperor's powers and its consequences.

Equivalent to this periodization is the transition from slave to free labor, which also corresponds to the emergence of Brazil as a sovereign country and which lays the foundations of the internal market. The author also seeks to highlight the issue of black people in this period. It is, therefore, the construction of the pillars of modern Brazil. The range of topics covered allows for analytical incursions into different disciplines: from geography, sociology and politics.

The purpose of this text is to reconstitute the author's thinking and some of the main themes she dealt with using a geographical theoretical framework. In the way I see the construction of the totality by geography based on a regional geography, this means rebuilding its reasoning in layers, starting from the soil, the land, and going up the hierarchy of the construction of society in economic, social and, finally, social terms. , political and ideological. The choice of texts was an attempt to cover the author's thought in a historical way, on the one hand, and analytically, on the other, in the sense of exposing, in the end, her own intellectual synthesis, which leads to the issue of black people in Brazil.[ii] As an indirect consequence, reconstitute the relationship between geographic space and the issue of black people in Brazil.

The proposal to reconstitute Emília Viotti's thought in a geographical way is anchored in a hypothesis that I have been developing and which aims, among other objectives, to reconnect geography to the critical fortune of Brazilian social thought. Since my reading of Florestan Fernandes (2006), I feed the theoretical formulation that the temporalities of the Brazilian revolutions in this period are very close to the temporalities of the transformation of geographic space. The immediate implication of this fact does not make Brazilian politics less dynamic, but, on the other hand, passive. This passivity has an effect on the behavior of classes in Brazil. It seems to me that this formulation found support in Emília Viotti da Costa.

Hierarchical reasoning is common in classical regional geography, which comes from its dialogue with geology, from which it thinks the construction of the social world in layers, like the layers of the earth. As society builds itself vertically, that is, from bottom to top or top to bottom, space itself is also being rebuilt and intermediating new higher or lower constructions, since society itself builds spaces. . Immediately superior to the geographic base, the social base in Brazil is formed mostly by blacks, and the political superstructure, by white landlords. I will divide this text into three parts: geographic stratum; economic and social stratum; political and ideological stratum.


geographic stratum

When reading Emília Viotti's texts, one has the impression that the main social changes that occurred in Brazil during the period unfold according to two factors that are not interdependent: on the one hand, the almost organic transformations of spaces, such as the growth demographics at the end of the XNUMXth century[iii] and that generates a new process of urbanization. On the other hand, the regulatory requirements of a changing global market. Both factors seem to deal with a society in transformation, however passive, since Brazilian society itself (including its elites), does not force, through its own energies, any of the transformations of the other dimensions, geographic and political, now below now above it, but ends up reacting to them.

Comparing Brazil with the United States (1999b), Emília Viotti notes a generalized immobility of the colonial agrarian space, precisely at a time when other global spaces are undergoing important transformations. While in the mid-nineteenth century the United States already had an important industrial base (which produced internal tensions), Brazil entered a new phase of the global market led by England with the same agrarian-export function. The Brazilian space is largely occupied by large slave farms and, secondarily, by a class of small free farmers who practice subsistence agriculture.

Both types of colonization originate in the vast tropical space, with continental dimensions, to be colonized. On the one hand, tropical export agriculture finds in the vast space the necessary extension to produce. On the other hand, the political class is unable to control a subsidiary colonization of adventurers and small settlers. It is this subsidiary class that will form the root of what the author will call clientele, that is, those who depend on favors to climb the social hierarchy as the internal market is slowly being built.

Thus, despite the permanence of the agrarian-export model in the vast territory, the domestic market is being built, however at the pace of the demographic transformation that was globally underway in the mid-nineteenth century, so that its birth was slow. It is this slow pace of urban births that allows the dominant social classes to control the process of social ascension through the structure of clientele and patronage (I'll come back to this). Clientele and patronage are fundamental concepts of the author.

From this agrarian quasi-immobility, a specific type of urbanization was forged. This type of urbanization is a product of generalized spatial and social immobility. The most important thing here is to highlight the slow pace at which these transformations are operating, so that the ruling political class can, up to a certain point, control, more or less rigidly, these transformations. One reads in the text by Emília Viotti: “based on a system of clientele and the marginalization of extensive layers of society were responsible, in the 1999th century, for a type of urbanization that does not follow the forms of the classic model of urbanization founded on the analysis of the process urban areas in the central areas of the capitalist system”. (VIOTTI DA COSTA, 233c, p. XNUMX)

In this way, Brazil acquires an urban structure whose greatest mobility turns out to be precisely concentrated on the coast, while the rest of the urban network lives in great dependence on the agrarian economy. Therefore, stating in the negative, it is not a quick and widespread urbanization process. Here, the main thing is not to point out that Brazil moved from an agrarian structure to an urban structure in the mid-nineteenth century, a global trend, by the way, but at what pace this could be done.

The pace of social transformations in line with demographic transformations (instead, for example, of relying on the impetus of political decisions from classes in conflict, as occurred in the United States) generates a society in transformation, however passive to external determinants and to the very geographic and urban basis corresponding to this slow transformation.


Economic and social stratum

The landholding regime, which is the result of the colonization of the tropical space (PRADO JR, 1954) generates an oligarchic political system for the following reasons: large land domains, almost self-sufficient, therefore, with concentrated economic and political power, have lords whose local powers they are not shared with any other group or social component. The latifundio produces an almost self-sufficient vertical and horizontal economic integration, with the top of this hierarchy controlled by the lord.

Hence, the lord exercises dominion over his lands and, at the same time, can radiate his power to the highest structures of society, controlling, together with his equals, the central power. Before Independence, Emília Viotti goes so far as to state that if the Crown was economically monopolistic, at least it formed a counterweight to the lords' dominion. After independence, the format of oligarchic power was accentuated in such a way that the State itself was used to strengthen the clientele.

In effect, politics was a conflict between families and domains supported by a clientele. The idea of ​​clientele gained meaning as social ascension took place based on favors, that is, dialectically, strengthening the lord's own authority. In return, clients received aid and protection:

Conflict between rural oligarchies and Crown officials was rare. Most of the time there was a conciliation. Rural lords enjoyed absolute independence in their domains, extending, as in the past, their power to urban agglomerations, whose population became part of their clientele. Politics in the city did not differ from politics in the countryside. It continued until the 1870s to be a struggle between families, struggles of patrons and their clientele against other patrons and their clientele. Voters related on personal terms to the local chief, whom they supported in the areas, receiving 'help and protection' in return. (VIOTTI DA COSTA, 1999c, p. 250)

In the second half of the XNUMXth century, the process of transformation of the spatial base accelerated due to external political determinants, that is, due to British pressure for the abolition of the slave trade. Once the abolition is accomplished, a deeper and faster change begins, because it will be a chain effect. This change directly interferes with the relative development of the internal market, whose previous stage, of limited development, favored the reproduction of the social body formed by the clientele. Then there is the entry of immigrants due to the lack of labor for the expansion of coffee.

This lack is related to the rhythm that, if dynamic, is, however, passive to the rhythm of transformation of the geographic space and the production of the farms. In addition, there is the development of the railway network and the concentrated industrialization and urbanization process, in addition to the development of the credit system. This chain process, in turn, begins to generate an autonomous stimulus in the cities, mainly in São Paulo with the production of coffee, which starts to manage both the internal market and the diversification of investments. There is a consequent process of increasing sociability, contributing to begin to dismantle the clientele system.

However, this process is concentrated in the big cities, with the rest of the country remaining essentially agrarian, which preserved the base of the clientele and patronage system. In practice, the middle urban sectors, concentrated in coastal cities, formed the storehouse of more radical ideas of progress in society, but they were intellectuals who were alienated from the political and social structure of the country as a whole: “…the deputies to the Constituent Assembly were united by family ties, friendship or patronage to groups linked to agriculture and import and export trade, the slave trade and internal trade. It is therefore not surprising that he organized the nation according to the interests of these groups”. (VIOTTI DA COSTA, 1999a, p. 132)

Thus, liberal ideas, such as those relating to black freedom, and especially the most radical ones, were not absent in Brazil, but formed an ideological broth of a residual social class (including geographically) in relation to the economic and social base of the group. of society. Viotti states that liberalism has in fact adapted to Brazil, but recalls a fundamental difference: while in Europe it was the ferment of an internal social struggle within society, in Brazil it was the ferment of an external struggle, for sovereignty in relation to the colonial system, and its internal effects were controlled by the political dominance of the oligarchy and by the clientele and patronage system itself.

There was a compacted interest across the elite that popular demands should be controlled, particularly after the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution. Haiti was an island that had come to be controlled by blacks, Brazil was a continental country, and the possibility that Brazil would follow in the footsteps of the small island was possibly tragic for local and global elites. There was a sector that was defeated in 1822 and that sector was precisely the incipient popular organization formed by blacks, mulattos and radical whites. “This situation only changed in the last decades of the Second Empire, when economic development and the appearance of new interest groups created a new public favorable to reforms” (VIOTTI DA COSTA, 1999a, p. 143). In the Second Empire, the signs favorable to the reforms also point to a greater difficulty for the oligarchies to control the process of social ascension of blacks and mulattos.


Political and ideological stratum

Within the scope of the political and ideological dimension, the clientele system is the process by which the dominant groups manage to control a slow process of social ascension, at the same time that, in this movement, they reinforce their own positions. I argue that this slow transformation may be in line with the pace of economic and social transformations which, in turn, are paced by the transformation of spaces or by external political determinants.

In sociological and political terms, for lower class individuals to be able to improve their lives in post-independent Brazil, it was necessary to have a protector, who usually held a position in parliament or government. For Emília Viotti, the mulatto is the product of the clientele and patronage system. Why is he a product and not the cause? Because this type of ascension has at least three faces, the result of which is the unequivocal marginalization of the black, as a cause, in the face of the acceptance of the mulatto, as a consequence.

On the one hand, the clientele system is an inevitable product of the slow development of the productive system itself (demographic, urban, and after the abolition of trafficking, this process accelerates). In the same vein, there was mixing of races, taken as a fact, that is, it was an inevitable consequence of the process of differentiation of work, so that, to maintain control of the process of social ascension, it was better to mix races than the segregation or the social ascension of the black.

In this process, the class of white gentlemen is strengthened, because only the mulatto, that is, the whitened black, is allowed social ascension, while the black remains in a subordinate position. It is as if the rise of the mulatto were the lesser evil to maintain racism in Brazil and the social marginalization of the black: “Secure in his position, controlling social mobility through the clientele and patronage system, and imbued with a conservative ideology, he [lord of land] did not fear the population of free blacks. Blacks were naturally segregated in a social system that offered them few opportunities” (VIOTTI DA COSTA, 1999d, p. 356).

The author categorically states that this mechanism is equally racist in relation to the one in which racism was legalized, as in the United States. Because miscegenation, allied to the clientele and patronage system, is a specific mechanism by which the inevitability of the slow and gradual economic process is faced, making blacks, and especially those who resisted the whitening process, continue to occupy subordinate positions , while blacks and mulattoes who started to incorporate the ideology of superiority and values ​​of the white race were socially incorporated.

This process took place this way not because of a moral particularity of Brazilian society, but because the process of social ascension could be controlled, while in the United States the previous development of society and the rapid development of a competitive market generated social groups that quickly placed themselves in conflict, generating a more explicit racism. The result of both is similar: both types of racist systems sought to keep blacks in a subordinate position. Hence, therefore, Viotti da Costa manages to demonstrate, historically and analytically, that the so-called “myth of racial democracy” (VIOTTI DA COSTA, 1999e, p. 365), through which intellectuals of the 1920s generation understood miscegenation as a positive process to the black of incorporation, it is, in fact, a process of negative incorporation to the black.

The myth of racial democracy would have emerged precisely at a late time (the 1920s), when the Brazilian domestic market was beginning to become more competitive, and the process of controlling social ascension could get out of control. In other words, both the prior clientele system and the late myth of racial democracy itself make it more difficult, according to the author, for blacks to develop their group identity.



In conclusion, I return to the central idea in the author's thinking according to my interpretation: the control of the pace at which society changes was such that the social actors, and mainly the dominant actors, were able to control it more strongly in a period and least in another. This idea, as I tried to argue, seems to be due to Brazilian society accompanying a dynamic but passive social transformation, corresponding to the very pace of transformation of the tropical space or the normative determinations of the global market.

Emília Viotti goes so far as to state that the defenders of the idea of ​​racial democracy were conservative, supporters of traditional political conceptions and, therefore, wanted Brazilian society to develop respecting the so-called traditional values ​​and their foundations. In short, a past society and its mechanisms had to be preserved, accepting mulattos, subordinating blacks.

After all, what would the rapid and unrestricted emergence of blacks as a social group endowed with rights in sovereign Brazil mean? The counterfactual reasoning is relevant here: it would possibly mean, in the wake of Viotti's thinking, the very emergence of a competitive market in Brazil and the breaking of a wealth transmission chain that took place almost exclusively within families.

Deep down, this is what the patronage system and, later, the very idea of ​​racial democracy tried to avoid: that the regime for transmitting wealth in Brazil took place outside the family sphere. The fact that Brazilian society has been passive, sometimes to the transformations of the geographic space, sometimes to the normative determinations of the global market, seems to feed the geographic possibility of a control of the social domain itself and of the marginalization of blacks by specific mechanisms and forms of racism to society itself and its space.

*Larissa Alves de Lira, PhD in Geography from the École des Hautes in Social Sciences, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB) at USP.



BARBOSA, Alexandre de Freitas. Developmental Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida: project, interpretation and utopia. Sao Paulo: Alameda, 2021.

FERNANDES, Florestan. The bourgeois revolution in Brazil: essay of sociological interpretation. Sao Paulo: Globo, 2006.

PRADO JUNIOR, Caio da Silva. Guidelines for a Brazilian economic policy. Provision of Chair – University of São Paulo, São Paulo, 1954.

SMILE, Max. Les fondements de la géographie humaine, 3 volumes. Paris: Armand Colin, 1951.

VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. From slavery to free work. In: VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. From monarchy to republic: decisive moments. São Paulo: Fundação Editora da UNESP, 1999d, chapter 6, pp. 343-364.

VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. Liberalism: theory and practice. In: VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. From monarchy to republic: decisive moments. São Paulo: Fundação Editora da UNESP, 1999a, chapter 3, pp. 131-168.

VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. The myth of racial democracy in Brazil. In: VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. From monarchy to republic: decisive moments. São Paulo: Fundação Editora da UNESP, 1999e, chapter 9, pp. 365-384.

VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. Land policy in Brazil and the United States. In: VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. From monarchy to republic: decisive moments. São Paulo: Fundação Editora da UNESP, 1999b, chapter 4, pp. 169-193.

VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. Urbanization in Brazil in the XNUMXth century. In: VIOTTI DA COSTA, Emilia. From monarchy to republic: decisive moments. São Paulo: Fundação Editora da UNESP, 1999c, chapter 6, pp. 232-269.



[I] According to Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa, a historical-structural style would have become a hallmark of the formation of Brazilian social thought (BARBOSA, 2021).

[ii] Viotti da Costa, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 1999d, 1999e.

[iii] In regional geography, demographic growth can be associated with a biological dimension of societies (SORRE, 1951).

The site the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters. Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table