The integration of black people into class society

Robert Rauschenberg, Mirthday Man


Excerpt from the Preface to the new edition of the book by Florestan Fernandes

The integration of black people into class society – thesis defended by Florestan Fernandes in 1964 and published in book form the following year, in volumes of more than 700 pages by publishing house Dominus in partnership with USP – acutely expresses the promises and frustrations that marked the brief interregnum democracy that lasted from 1945, with the end of the Estado Novo, to 1964, the year of the civil-military coup. The book, written at the end of this period – the defense took place a few days after the coup – captures and amplifies the major questions raised regarding the democratization of Brazilian society in the middle of the last century, with which it dialogues in a tense way, providing them with sociological rigor and density.

In this sense, the text operated as a sounding board for a historical moment that simultaneously presented an unprecedented horizon of social transformation and the latent presence – which soon after became manifest – of attempts to redefine that horizon in an authoritarian, conservative and exclusive sense. Not by chance, Fernandes treats, in the book, the racial issue as a dilemma to be actively faced by Brazilian society, and not simply left to the whim of circumstances. A dilemma that, in his view, had a necessary relationship with the very realization of democracy in the country.

In other words: there is a consistent discussion in The integration of black about the structural limits of our democratic realization, which is not only the theme of the book, but accompanies the very process of constructing its arguments. It can be said that, between “the legacy of the white race” and “the threshold of a new era” – subtitles of the two volumes of the book, respectively –, the author proposes the discussion of the passage from a rural society, riddled with status distinctions and of castes, for an urban society, competitive, however emptied of democratic content. Such a socio-historical process would shape subjects and institutions, preventing the full realization of rights in the new scenario. Contextual challenges in Brazil, in the middle of the XNUMXth century, observed by the weakest and most damaged link in its chain: the black person.

There is a theoretical and methodological balance that needs to be done on the heuristic potential of this work, but also a contextual analysis on the social conditions of its production and its consequences, both for the history of social sciences and for Brazilian society. Less to look for a determination – which would imply a mechanical relationship between effects of varied origins –, but to ponder over the active ways in which the book related to the cognitive and normative vocabularies available in its time, including so that it is possible to assess whether the work innovated or simply followed routinized intellectual procedures. With this, the sayings and prohibitions, the effects of contacts, the constraints of the possible, the connections of meanings become visible.

These two ways of approaching the book – one analytical and the other contextual – should not necessarily be seen, however, as antithetical, but as mutually fertilizing. Although we can, with advantage, analytically return to certain hypotheses and constructions of the book and discern its capacity for contemporary interpellation, this movement will gain greater depth if we retain certain contextual aspects that organize, internally, within the work itself, the arguments developed in The integration of black. Especially if we take into account that, in the book, there is a permanent bet on the potential for an effective democratization of Brazilian society, carried out from the bottom up, through the protagonism of black people.

Which even gives a nonconformist sense to the very notion of “social integration” that animates the title of the book and the course of the arguments – “integration” would not refer to the stabilization of the social order, but to the full realization of the democratic potentials of an open social order – despite the many evidences to the contrary that Fernandes also identifies and exhaustively analyzes throughout the two volumes. It is therefore a bet, not a prediction. A bet that is linked, of course, to the aspirations that were widespread in the 1950s and 1960s that Brazilian society should move towards the democratization of its social structures, but duly calibrated by the rigor of sociologically oriented empirical research, which pointed to the connection structural and profound relationship between the ongoing modernization and the forms of inequality and behavior inherited from the past.

The bet expressed in The integration of black, according to our hypothesis, is the bearer and expressive of a political and theoretical radicalism, which not even in its time managed to have social bearers for its execution, whether blacks or non-blacks, or the wider Brazilian society. It was not about achieving some rights, especially the legally formal ones; or some aspects of democracy and citizenship, as seen today. There would always be – as there still is today – an incomplete situation, whether in the historical scene or in the realization of the subjects, almost always aspeting (“blacks”, “whites”, “democracy”, etc.). Can one accuse the author and his work, then, of a certain idealism – when and under what circumstances did such conditions take place fully and unrestrictedly, in the social experience of capitalist societies? But such an accusation does not diminish the horizon of problems; rather, replace them.

It is worth mentioning that this bet needed to be quickly reclassified by Fernandes, in theoretical and political terms, at the end of the 1960s, given the authoritarian backlash that began in 1964. The structural obstacles to the democratization of Brazilian society, already extensively noted and analyzed in the integration, would even be typical of a bourgeois revolution under the conditions of a “peripheral capitalism”, an argument presented ten years later in The bourgeois revolution in Brazil (1975). Or, in other words, the various mechanisms, discussed at length in the integration, which would explain the reproduction and naturalization of racial and social inequalities, would now be understood by the author as one of the mainstays of the strength and persistence of what he will call in the bourgeois revolution of “bourgeois autocracy”.

However, even emphasizing with the greatest possible clarity the limits to democratization carried out by those “from below”, that is, to popular protagonism, Fernandes will never stop betting that the only possible way out is given precisely by the emergence of the People in history, to gloss striking phrase that is in the "Explanatory Note" that opens The integration. A kind of impossible gamble, given that his diagnosis is that of a society that, pardon the exaggeration, seems to be socially, culturally, politically and economically oriented against democratization. But what other way out would there be than to bet on popular power, even if the conditions for its historical concretion prove to be almost implausible?

In our current context, of profound crisis of the democratic order instituted by the 1988 Constitution – full of limits and problems, as Fernandes himself did not fail to note in the heat of the moment in his parliamentary action –, as well as of democratic regressions in different parts of the world, the questions posed by Fernandes' sociology about democracy in Brazil seem to take on new meaning and urgency. It is true that the (now we know) short democratic interval allowed unquestionable advances, such as the social and economic inclusion of vast portions of subaltern sectors and the affirmation and institutionalization of social rights and the right to racial and gender difference.

With regard to the racial debate, terms such as “structural racism” began to dispute, in public debate and in everyday perception, the limits imposed for decades by the “racial democracy” pact, even allowing the advancement (although always disputed) of social legitimacy to affirmative actions in higher education, selections for public tenders, among other initiatives. On the other hand, the current unfolding of the “bourgeois autocracy” in a new order that starts to actively incorporate fascistization in the different dimensions of social life, tensioning and corroding from within the advances of previous decades, becomes an eloquent counterproof of the narrow limits that Brazilian society imposes on any more substantive process of democratization – even if, to do so, it is necessary to remove any mask or façade of a minimally civilized order oriented towards the universalization of rights and social guarantees. If the democratic crisis we are experiencing took many of us social scientists by surprise, perhaps Florestan Fernandes was not completely surprised by the current course of events in the country.


Reviewing book reception

Resuming the thread of the thread, the theoretical re-reading of The integration of black cannot let go unnoticed this dimension of bet that is organizing the book – both in the theoretical and methodological as well as in the normative sense. Fernandes translates the aspirations present in his intellectual generation, in the sense of “doing science, doing history”, orienting his arguments towards society, the possibility of self-determination of the “People” – a recurring term in his writings –, or, more specifically, to the possibility of the subaltern, the black, being the master of himself and his destiny – and not a mere instrument of the dominant classes.

But this never supported an optimistic view of the process of democratization of race relations or, in a broader sense, of the democratization of Brazilian society as a whole. In Fernandes' terms: “[…] we cannot endorse 'optimistic' opinions. The path taken was almost insignificant, corresponding neither to the imperatives of the normalization of the competitive social order, nor to the collective aspirations of the 'population of color'”. This peculiar combination of optimism – the bet on popular protagonism – and skepticism – his distrust regarding the effective overcoming of obstacles to democratization – was how the author responded to the challenges posed to the historical scene in that tense period of Brazilian society. Hence his divergent note in relation to the developmental aspirations of the period, which imagined that the simple acceleration of urbanization and industrialization would automatically solve the problems of social integration.

These preliminary observations are necessary because there is a type of reading – mistaken, in our view – that suggests that, in The integration of black, with the advance of capitalism, the racial question would be resolved more or less automatically. It seems unlikely to find textual support for this. Once again: we cannot confuse the author's normative bet with the effective reconstruction of the empirical universe of racial relations undertaken throughout the book.

This does not mean, of course, that it is possible to entirely separate the normative dimension from the sociological analysis developed in the book. Otherwise, Fernandes' sociology could not be seen as a critical sociology. After all, it is in the light of the potentialities identified in the “competitive social order” –, organizational support of class society –, that is, the emancipatory horizon inscribed in an open and democratic society, that Fernandes identifies and evaluates the structural blockages – secular inequalities, forms of conduct regulated by “traditionalist” values, heterogeneous and fragmented processes of social change – which permanently frustrate the realization of those potentialities.

There is, therefore, a counterfactual judgment loaded with normative meaning: if the advance of urban-industrial society se consistent with the universalization of the competitive order, the parallelism between color and precarious social position could dissolve, placing relations between whites and blacks on another level – more democratic. For Fernandes, contrary to what a quick reading of the book suggests, urbanization would not operate as an analytically independent variable, always producing the same effects, regardless of the historical specificities involved. Before, the expansion of class society in Brazil, empirically observed from the city of São Paulo, walked passi passu to a profound indifference to the situation of the Negro. This is why the issue of democracy is a substantive dimension of the author's sociological reflection, and not a residual dimension that could be deduced from other variables, such as urbanization, industrialization, secularization, etc.

Everything indicates, especially in the field of research on race relations in Brazil, it is the reading of Carlos Hasenbalg, in his seminal Discrimination and racial inequalities in Brazil (1979), which has shaped much of the critical reception of The integration of black. In his valuable bibliographic balance of the racial question in the United States and Brazil, Hasenbalg makes a fine reading of Fernandes' book; however, it ends up precisely by minimizing the distinction between the normative and counterfactual dimension – the wager, as noted above – and the factual dimension of the empirical analysis of the social trends observed by the author. In addition, Hasenbalg imputes to the book a dualistic view of social change, as if tradition and modernity – or, in Fernandes's terms, estate and caste society and class society – were composed of interconnected and mutually incompatible systemic variables.

In our view, agreeing with Elide Rugai Bastos, there is, in the integration, the rejection of “a linear explanation”, since it is the repeated meeting of archaic and modern elements – and not the overcoming of the former by the latter – that generates, “simultaneously, the objective, the research unit, the challenge to understanding, the search of a theoretical support and the investigation method”. Let us see, by way of example, an excerpt from “Race, class and mobility”, one of the chapters written by Hasenbalg in place of black (1982), a book written in partnership with Lélia González, in which the author explicitly dialogues with Fernandes’ theses: “racial prejudice and discrimination [for Fernandes] are seen as requirements for the functioning of a slave regime, but as being incompatible with the fundamentals legal, economic and social aspects of a class society. The adoption of a normative model of bourgeois revolution and a competitive social system leads to an overestimation of the democratic and egalitarian potential of the class society in formation. This, together with the vision of racial prejudice and discrimination as anachronistic survivals of the slavery past – therefore destined to disappear with the maturation of capitalism – implicitly lead to an optimistic diagnosis about the integration of black people into class society”.

This reservation regarding Hasenbalg's interpretation of Fernandes' book is not intended to be controversial, quite the contrary. It should be noted that Discrimination and racial inequalities in Brazil it was a decisive element in the reorganization of studies on race relations in the country from the 1980s onwards, also having a strong impact on black activism. It's just about reopening the integration for new possible readings, and, who knows, put it back in contemporary debates referring not only to the racial issue, but to the very condition of democracy in Brazil. After all, Hasenbalg's version of the integration seems to be present in many works on the subject, as we can see in contributions as diverse as Angela Figueiredo (2015) (2015), Edward Telles (2014), João Feres Jr. (2006) and Roberto Motta (2000). And even an author who positively incorporates the theoretical legacy of the book, such as Jessé Souza (2006), ends up indirectly dwelling on the same problem.

To leave no doubt, it is worth remembering that, for Fernandes, no existing class society, not even those that would have experienced classic bourgeois revolutions, had effectively achieved the universalization of the competitive social order, even though, in these cases, the struggle for rights had advanced much more than in Brazil. As he himself says, “modern history is full of examples that demonstrate that the competitive social order can be adjusted, economically, racially and politically, to the monopoly of power by a certain 'racial' stock (in the examples in question: the 'white race ')”.

There is no, in Fernandes, an “idealization” of modern capitalism, as he presented a necessary affinity with the realization of a democratic social order. What he does point out is that the forms of social stratification that organize class society are articulated, at least potentially, with the opening to competition and conflict for the most advantageous social positions in the social system, as opposed to the monopolization of society. income, prestige and power that would characterize a society of estate type. If, and only if, the process of universalization were taken to its extreme limit, could we say that class society would be fully realized.

in no time The integration of black people into class society, a book that analyzes the formation, expansion and differentiation of this type of society in the city of São Paulo, the epicenter of the bourgeois revolution in Brazil, Fernandes states that there would be consistent social trends in the sense of reversing the racial concentration of income, of overcoming negative stereotyping of blacks and, associated with these two points, of putting into crisis the monopolization of rights and social guarantees of the competitive social order by whites. Quite the contrary, and without minimizing, of course, the numerous changes that occurred between Abolition and the 1960s – the time span covered by the book –, the author demonstrates how, at each historical moment, the racial inequality inherited from the past is restored, limiting the struggle for rights and the autonomous assertion of blacks in the historical scene.

This proposed review of The integration of black benefits from recent research that has shed new light on the context of production and reception of the work, notably in relation to black movements in São Paulo. In recent years, there has been a deepening of the discussion about the role played by black informants in the research, whose names are mentioned in the acknowledgments of the book: to the secretary of the Commission for the Study of Racial Relations between Blacks and Whites in São Paulo, Jorge Prado Teixeira; to the “informants of color” (sic), doctors Raul Joviano do Amaral, Edgar Santana, Arlindo Veiga dos Santos, Francisco Lucrécio, Geraldo de Paulo and Ângelo Abaitaguara, and to José Correia Leite, Geraldo Campos de Oliveira, Francisco Morais, Luis Lobato, professor Antonio Dias, José Pelegrini, Vicente de Paula Custódio, Paulo Luz, Vitalino B. Silva, Mário Vaz Costa, Carlos Assumpção, Romeu Oliveira Pinho, Joaquim Valentim, Nestor Borges, Cirineu Góis, José de Assis Barbosa, Adélio Silveira, Anibal de Oliveira, Luis Aguiar, Benedito Custódio de Almeida, Gil de Carvalho, José Inácio do Rosário, Sofia de Campos, Aparecida Camargo, Nair Pinheiro, and ladies Benedita Vaz Costa, Maria de Lourdes Rosário, Maria Helena Barbosa, Ruth de Souza and Nilza de Vasconcelos are researched and active subjects. This allows us to state that an explanatory key to the work is this construction of a horizon of shared interests, common to sociologists and black intellectuals in debating a complicated state of affairs in the 1950s.

In this sense, one of the controversial points of the book, the denunciation of “racial democracy as a myth” is also a consequence of the thinking within associations of black activists, involved in social struggles since the 1920s, heard in the Unesco survey and suppliers, to Fernandes and assistants, with life stories, handwritten social essays, shorthand narratives and heated debates at the former Faculty of Philosophy or at the Municipal Library. Those subjects would be living indexes of the organized people, daily confronting the open (and closed) possibilities in the socio-historical process. The activists were participants in newspapers from the São Paulo black press (Bastide, 1973; Ferrara, 1986), such as Clarim d'Alvorada, Voice of the Race; of associations like Brazilian Black Front (1931-1937), Black Social Culture Club (1928-1932), José do Patrocínio Association (1940s), Our Lady of the Rosary Brotherhood of Black Men (1711-), Association of Brazilian Blacks (1948) and from Black Cultural Association (1954). This relationship between sociology and activism in the black milieu is one of the decisive contextual mediations to understand more precisely the meaning of bet by Fernandes.

In order to demonstrate the validity of our reinterpretation of The integration of black, the remainder of the text is divided into four parts. The first part reconstructs the author's arguments regarding the passage from rural to urban, seen in the integration from the situation of blacks and racial relations in the city of São Paulo. Despite the historical specificities of São Paulo and the black group in the city, Fernandes understands that this angle of observation would make it possible to illuminate, with remarkable clarity, the more general limits of the democratization of Brazilian society. From the weakest link in the chain, it would be possible to analyze the social structure; from the periphery of the system the center is better gauged.

The second part highlights, in a more detailed way, how the author analyzes the modes of socialization experienced by black people in São Paulo, whether in conditions of extreme pauperism or in situations of upward social mobility, retaining the effects of inequality and racial prejudice. in their forms of interaction, association and collective claim. Although in different ways, Fernandes shows the limits imposed on black autonomy in both cases, limiting him to the elaboration of individual solutions to the collective dramas of this social group in São Paulo.

In the last two, we will discuss with more attention the reconstruction, made by the author, of the black movements in São Paulo, whose explanation cannot be dissociated from the intense relationship he had with intellectuals and other segments of the black population and from the theoretical, methodological and empirical innovations that this relationship brought to the sociological discussion of race relations in Brazil.


* Mario Augusto Medeiros da Silva Professor at the Department of Sociology at Unicamp.

*Antonio Brazil Jr. Professor at the Department of Sociology at UFRJ.



Florestan Fernandes. The integration of black people into class society. São Paulo, Countercurrent, 2021, 888 pages.


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