The new “objectification” of black people

Image: Özer Özmen


The historic and very serious struggles of black men and women were instrumentalized, used, controlled, administered

“That's why I say, and I swear, if necessary, that the whole story of this law of May 13th was foreseen by me, so much so that on Monday, even before the debates, I tried to free a kid who was eighteen years old. years, more or less. Freeing him was nothing[1] […] [so] at this dinner, which my friends called a banquet, for lack of a better one, I gathered about five people, even though the news said thirty-three (years of Christ), with the intention of […] give a symbolic aspect [to the illustrated feat] (Machado de Assis, Abolition and freedom (19 / 05 / 1888).

In an exercise on the verge of delirium, let us imagine, in order, Caio Prado Jr., Florestan Fernandes, Octavio Ianni and even Fernando Henrique Cardoso hiding from making critical comments and even, in a certain way, “defending”, mass incarceration of black men and women in Brazil. It was somewhat unreasonable that these middle-class white men (with the exception of the commoner Florestan, son of a maid... and who knew the arduous life of work from a young age), who produced what can be said of the first systematic studies on the racial issue ,[2] “the black problem”, proceeded in that way.

Even so, they were responsible for transforming black people into: research topic and/or research object. The eminently shrewd practice of Guerreiro Ramos in formulating the mistakes of white intellectuals (from São Paulo, above all), which transfigured black life into black subject matter (objectified black), even with temporal and epistemological considerations to be made, had deep internal argumentative logic.

Guerreiro Ramos, one of the most original intellectuals that Brazil has ever produced (let us remember that he was one of the first to have contact, read and study the texts of political theorist Eric Voegelin – who today is significantly disseminated in the Brazilian academic debate), was, relatively ,[3] correct when criticizing his peers in São Paulo sociology: they lacked the immanent-existential sensitivity to perceive the subjective potentialities of black people, something already demonstrated by the country's own history with the Quilombo insurrections (so beautifully described by Beatriz Nascimento and Clóvis Moura) and several other manifestations of resistance.

However, and insisting on the point, it is unlikely that those would not take a position, in some way, if they had to face a national problem of such magnitude regarding their subject matter. In the recent history of intellectuality – or what remains of it (since today we have almost exclusively scholars competent, non-white people included, with serious research agendas and who occasionally issue bland opinions because they are not committed to those below, well-thinking and conformist), in this case practically nothing (with very rare exceptions to highlight one Jones Manoel , by a Vladimir Safatle, by a Jean Tible, by a Paula Nunes, by a Paulo Galo, by convinced editors and publishers like those who are in charge of Dandara[4], by Letícia Parks; by one Douglas Barros; These are the things that come to my memory proustianly for now... which is symptomatic), unlike the dictatorship that “everything remained” -, of Brazilian universities and politics, we are witnessing a new type of transfiguration of black life em theme-black and/or object-black. Let's look at the argument in three moments.

New generation

With the advancement of affirmative action policies in recent years, and due to issues peculiar to the relationships and interactions of the modern world and society (it is always essential to be aware of what Marx conceptualized as the social division of labor, “practical-physical” work and intellectual work, and the contradictions of this way of life), as well as given the need for resistance, survival so to speak, something that has always been constitutive of the experience and horizon of those with black skin since the days of Palmares, a fierce generation emerged of black men and women.

Driven, in a certain way, by the event-Djamila Ribeiro and her concept of place-of-speech and the preface of Woman, Race and Classby Angela Davis[5] (a resumption of the black American philosopher and political theorist, essential for understanding the constellation of recent political, cultural and symbolic events), these new social agents began to have a greater presence in the public debate, in academic discussions and in political disputes.

Bold and daring; with boldness; more self-confident of who they came from[6]; with solid intellectual and academic training – they became subjects of action, in a broad and varied sense. Indeed; Since then, a output literary, cultural, “moral” and university, as well as political and state: we then moved on to a circulation of works, authors, research agendas, notions (epistemicide, decoloniality, whiteness, empathy, the plaster of structural racism, privilege white) and more heterodox and imaginative tactical and political positions (this is the case of collective mandates). We thus experienced and experienced a unique moment in the fight against racism among us.

Embarrassment and Bolsonarism

With the transformations of the human sciences (philosophy, sociology, political science, history, anthropology, art, literature) increasingly from a comprehensive perspective to specialties – the figure of the intellectual practically disappeared. Today, we have trained researchers, with competence, that is true, who focus their efforts on the research agenda they develop and on their daily experience of the world. fields). It is a system that Russell Jacoby, in the North American context, has already described in The last intellectuals.

It is worth saying, therefore, that the prospect of finding critical spirits, left-wing critics, public intellectuals, engaged in the sense that Sartre gave is unusual. Furthermore, they invariably come from the middle classes: they have a considerable accumulation of cultural capital to speak to Pierre Bourdieu – but little sense of revolutionary humanism (Sartre, again).

It turns out that in Brazil, part of the academic debate with this differentiation has a decisive impact on the composition and mental conformation of the left – and/or in the so-called progressive sectors. (Safatle and Manoel have been insisting on this observation in the period we are going through of uncertainty regarding the reorganization of the left.) The university's ways of being extend to politics (arcane teachings reach gentlemen).

This broad sector – our system of public thought – can also be read, primarily, in the light of what Roberto Schwarz, analyzing Machado’s character Brás Cubas, called “class shamelessness”. The critic says: Brás had the “concerns of an enlightened gentleman”, that is, he launched himself into the proscenium of national existence as a man with a strong reflective, modern, “virtuous” bent (this was the outfit, the uniform…, that the character wants to be seen). But the deceased of Machado and Roberto, precisely because he was deceased-illustrated, is, in the (national-slavery) environment, insolent.

But “insolence” and meditation are constitutive of social functioning here. In fact, it is our ideology, Brás has always sought the “evil satisfaction of superiority” – regardless of whether he wants, in the same oscillating movement, to be enlightened and defend slavery. Roberto Schwarz's quote from a Brazilian politician (and why not academic?) is memorable; “yes, Brazilian civilization came from there”, it was necessary (and today too) to be enlightened to admit and say that “Africa civilized Brazil”.

Now, it is an exhibitionist and manipulative dimension: a kind of trick (which sometimes becomes violent). Brás – and his heirs and heiresses of today, had boldness of spirit, are intelligent (in the intramural jargon of the world fields: so-and-so is good or good…), with “breadth of vision, mastery of the matter, analytical and ordering capacity [are scholars], with precise formulation”; Furthermore, Brás and his friends were and are empathetic to the issues of the people's suffering. But Schwarz claims via Machado de Assis – all “in a clown version”.

It was this costume that, in a way, was never recognized in its true representative; finding the real one in this case shocked them. How could Jair Messias Bolsonaro be the expression of the democracy of the dead? The “will to please” when it suits them (the demonstration of agency) is undone – Machado saw this exercise of abuse transfigured into a method. The laughter at seeing the jokes about being “king, minister or general” was a pleasure-killer. Now, the “whim despotic” [my emphasis] had to be replaced; the malignancy of the recovered libration.

The ex-chief (not illustrated) needed to be defeated, so that the “superiority that consists in not being […] found, in the eyes of others or one’s own”, the process of “systematic disidentification” – in a society of slavery identity, our “slavery and clientelistic system” – could return to normalization.


Hence, sectors of excellent universities, publishers, publishers and cultural institutes, political parties, and the judiciary turned to anti-racism as an instrument of “delusion of superiority” – they appropriated it as a “practical interest […] of a social class”. (An “advantageous […] accommodation” for Brás – of and for Brás’s –, Roberto Schwarz would say.) Thus, the racial debate entered the spaces mentioned above. Debates about black women are promoted; tables organized to discuss African philosophy; works from the north… are translated every week; countless seminars are held to discuss racial inequality; documentaries; exhibitions; reports etc, etc: how much.

So, we are witnessing the objectification of black people, but different from what Guerreiro Ramos criticized. There is, in effect – a new type of objectification. If before we were a theme – albeit a theme with a certain flesh, but without history, without culture and without subjectivity – today we are “themes” of the second degree. This in three senses. Before stating them, a comment is necessary.

We do not, in any way, want to involve all non-black people in the argument suggested here. There are “true” and “honest” fighters (without a moral connotation, obviously) for the cause in various forms of action and attitude; white people who engage in a daily, even heroic, struggle to eradicate racism from Brazil; who are, in fact, willing to practice practical reflection (to “coexist”) with the dramas of black men and women; who raise their white voices to fight against hateful color prejudice and its implications: these and these sometimes don't bark loudly..., the hood doesn't serve them. Returning to the three meanings of the new objectification of black people.

The first meaning is what the American black political theorist, Adolph Reed, by the way a Marxist, calls the moral voice of white conscience, today the racial debate in Brazil, especially for the heirs of Brás..., if became much more the cynical purification of the soul of those sectors described above, than a real, concrete combat, the issues of violent class racism are taken as if they were the bureaucratic-institutional program of some public institution or the code of conduct of some big bank or business conglomerate about social responsibility.

Hence the outcome of this is the pleasure of saying that one is reading this or that black author (American author is the preferred standard), of criticizing this or that white philosopher from one of the constitutive centuries of the modern era (the XNUMXth, XNUMXth, XNUMXth , XIX), the well-thought-out and calculated display of self, sometimes with black people, the derisory defense of certain necessary representations, of reserving for those with black skin their place of natural enunciation as if it were diversity.

The second sense is what we can call parts of the gear of the process of accumulation of economic and cultural capital (a la Bourdieu), it goes without saying regarding the economic sense, the torrent of titles entering our book market stimulating a significant demand (while, on the other hand, the “noble” space for publishing non-white national authors remains the same as it was in the days when Guerreiro Ramos criticized São Paulo sociology), once we were the object-theme, today we are the theme -object via the object-of-theme-object (or if you prefer second degree), it is in the cultural capital, however, the point to highlight, therefore, the well-thought-out debates at the university, in progressive sectors and groups of the liberal-social left has transfigured into a system of “class” distinction.

The third meaning is, in a way, the synthesis of these two meanings and was configured in the last period of dispute with the forces of the intransigent right, with Jair Bolsonaro giving it the name (in the happy formulation of Rodrigo Nunes in the From trance to vertigo), the historical and very serious struggles of black men and women were instrumentalized, used, controlled, administered; they were mobilized in order to become a tool of dispute and distinction to the non-enlightened (in Machado's sense) of Bolsonarism (their “real” face) – the subtle reversal (the desire to “not be taken for granted…”) of this, in some sectors, it is already “noticed” by the manifestations that call certain resistance to the racist, patriarchal, patrimonial, capitalist and hierarchical social order of identitarianism; and certain fertile minds (to the point of disgust…) manage, from the height of their encyclopedic erudition, to compare “identitarianism” with Bolsonarism. (The joke was spectacular: with the climb up the Planalto Palace ramp on January 01, 2023.)

There could also be such a “scam”, in the debate about the privatization of prisons, the racist new spending cap and the vexatious situation of the teaching staff at public universities.[7] and some other things…[8]

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a professor of political science at the Department of Social Sciences at UFSCar.


[1] Machado's “nothing” in the excerpt is self-praise (of the character), and not of little social significance.

[2] In passing, it is appropriate and necessary to mention the studies in social psychology of Virgínia Leone Bicudo (black woman) within the scope of the Free School of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo. In fact, she was the one to publish the first scientific and systematic research on the racial issue in Brazil. Her legacy needs to be defended.

[3] It is or would be important to ask ourselves whether it is feasible from an epistemological perspective not to transform what we study into a theme and/or object.

[4] They are undertaking a historic work of re-editing the works of Clóvis Moura, giving him the place he should always have had in the pantheon of Brazil's main interpreters and in the area of ​​research today known as Brazilian social and political thought.

[5] The gigantism of Djamila Ribeiro's achievement is already in the history of Brazilian ideas. His shift in recent years towards accommodation to the current social order will still be subject to critical appreciation, especially from those of his skin color; respect for his great work will be the exercise of this criticism itself. As the ancestors she so admires and quotes said: to Caesar what is Caesar's – to God what is God's.

[6] This excerpt is stylized; It is obvious that those who preceded us had, in their own way, self-confidence: it is unnecessary, exhibitionist and boastful (which this text intends to oppose) to state in yet another repetition the glorious action of Abdias, Lélia, Moura, Minervino, MNU , Beatriz, Frente Negra, Milton Barbosa, Sueli Carneiro, etc., etc. We do not make history out of our free will – we inherit past situations.

[7] The political-historical order of priorities is exactly as stated. A sector of the Brazilian black elite today should not be exempted from responsibility. There is an intimacy in the shadow of power (Lukács) that needs to be debated, and urgently.

[8] Roberto Schwarz's passages are in “Uma Façatez de Classe”. New Cebrap Studies, no. 11, 1985. Regarding Adolph Reed’s formulation, see Benjamin Wallace-Wells – The Marxist who Antagonizes Liberals and Left, The New Yorker, 31/01/2022. Reed is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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