Florestan Fernandes – V

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Florestan's contribution to the issue of race relations and to debates about racial discrimination in Brazil

The situation of the black in capitalism [1]

In the 1950s, Florestan Fernandes and Roger Bastide began a series of studies sponsored by UNESCO with the aim of verifying the supposedly democratic nature of race relations in Brazil.[2] These studies culminated in a substantial change in the current interpretation of racial relations in the context of Brazilian society. From a society considered to be racially resolved, we move on to the realization that racial groups are positioned differently within the social order and that the distribution of social positions is linked to prejudice and racial discrimination practiced against blacks.

According to Florestan Fernandes: “Brazilian society left the black man to his own fate, placing on his shoulders the responsibility of re-educating and transforming himself to correspond to the new standards and ideals of man, created by the advent of free work, of the republican and capitalist regime” [3].

In a way, we can understand the exclusion of blacks from the social scene as a direct consequence of the process of abolition of slavery. In other words, the insertion of black people happened slowly with the occupation of the most subordinate sectors in society.

The competitive economy, as the symbol of the modernization of the productive structure of Brazilian society, developed as an immediate consequence of the abolition of slavery. In other words, blacks suffered the direct consequences of a process marked by unequal conditions of access to new economic occupations resulting from the commodification of the economy.

This led, first of all, to the unequal insertion of the various racial groups in the competitive economy, highlighted by Fernandes as an ongoing process of economic rationalization aimed at the constitution of a new model of organization of economic and social life. In this process, evidently, still according to Fernandes, the integration of blacks was delayed since the immigration process put into practice by the national government prioritized the use of European arms within a conception, then in vogue, that white immigrants represented the advent of civilization and modernization of national society.

Thus, let us take Fernandes' statement: “The foreigner appeared,(…), as the great national hope of progress by leaps.(…). From this angle, wherever the “immigrant” appeared, the “black” or “mulatto” applicant was fatally eliminated, as it was understood that he was the natural agent of free labor” [4].

In this sense, Florestan demonstrates that the development of the competitive economy in São Paulo undermined the expectations of blacks and mulattoes, since these racial strata were not prepared within a framework of competition to face the adaptability of the imported worker for those tasks consistent with the nascent capitalist economy. Therefore, economic opportunities would not be equally enjoyed by racial groups due to the asymmetrical starting point to which they were submitted.

According to this author: “the slave regime did not prepare the slave (and, therefore, did not prepare the freedman either) to act fully as a “free worker” or as a “entrepreneur”. He prepared it, where economic development left no other alternative, for a whole network of occupations and services that were essential but did not find white agents. Even so, where these agents appeared (as happened in São Paulo and in the extreme south), as a result of immigration, in the midst of slavery, the freedmen were gradually replaced and eliminated by the white competitor” [5].

In this way, blacks were pushed into the most subordinate sectors within society, as free labor did not provide them with the conditions for insertion in the dynamic sectors of the competitive economy. On the other hand, immigrant workers had ample possibilities for social ascension in their favor due to the social conditions inherent in the nascent market economy.

The social structure founded in the post-abolition period did not absorb black labor because the agent of slave labor did not have the appropriate social conditions for this new reality. That is, the black leaving a slave-owning way of life encountered all the difficulties of adapting to the social structure under construction. The insertion process, consequently, would have to be painful and exclusionary.

According to Hasenbalg: “with the disintegration of the slave regime, according to Fernandes, the change in the legal status of blacks and mulattoes was not reflected in a substantial change in their social position. Added to the lack of preparation for the role of free laborers and the limited amount of social skills acquired during slavery was exclusion from the social and economic opportunities resulting from the emerging competitive social order. Former slaves and free men of color were relegated to the lower margin of the productive system, within pre-capitalist economic forms and marginal areas of the urban economy” [6].

Evidently, Fernandes attributes to the way in which the typically competitive production was organized the role of channeling the tensions experienced by the non-incorporation of blacks into the labor market. In a way, still according to this author, we have the survival of archaisms from the past within a competitive social order. In other words, racial discrimination and prejudice against blacks configure reminiscences of the past that would gradually lose their classifying power in a market economy.

In this sense, as an archaism of the past, racial discrimination and prejudice constitute fundamental elements of a social stratification according to well-defined criteria of skin color. This implies the perception of racism as part of an inheritance from the past that survives in national society. Gradually, the transformations in the competitive economy will cause these remnants to disappear, since it is founded on rational criteria of competitiveness that do not contain archaisms from other times.

Thus: “prejudice and racial discrimination appeared in Brazil as inevitable consequences of slavery. The persistence of prejudice and discrimination after the destruction of slavery is not linked to the social dynamism of the post-abolition period, but is interpreted as a phenomenon of cultural backwardness, due to the uneven pace of change in the various dimensions of the economic, social and cultural systems. [7].

Hence, Fernandes' emphasis on understanding the competitive social order, since, as it develops, these mechanisms of racial discrimination will be overcome. Social inequalities would be resolved as blacks were integrated into the market economy and social distinctions between whites and blacks gave rise to a situation of equality in occupation, income and education opportunities. Thus: “Fernandes argues that the archaic model of race relations will only disappear when the competitive social order frees itself from the distortions that resulted from the racial concentration of income, privilege and power. Thus, an authentic racial democracy implies that blacks and mulattoes must achieve class positions equivalent to those occupied by whites”. [8].

Thus, the interpretation provided by Fernandes presupposes the understanding of the capitalist social order, an exact expression of democratic values ​​and equal opportunities based on the rational criterion of competence. As we can see, this author presents a dynamic interpretation of the Brazilian reality and, therefore, considers the elimination of racial barriers to be a necessary event for the full development of a competitive economy.

Therefore: “given that economic development and the full constitution of the competitive social order are considered as the main processes underlying the elimination of the archaic aspects of racial relations, F. Fernandes is led to a carefully qualified, but optimistic, vision about the future of Brazilian race relations”. [9].

This theory leads us to explain racism, in the context of class society, as something that has its roots in the past. In the competitive economy, elements of the previous social organization survive, which constitute anomalies that the subsequent development of the market economy will try to correct, making the process of ascension-integration of the black possible within the framework of the capitalist social order.

In this perspective: “after the abolition of slavery, argues Fernandes, society inherited from the old regime a system of racial stratification and subordination of black people. The persistence of this stratification after emancipation is duly attributed to the effects of racial prejudice and discrimination. Despite the comprehensive and meticulous dissection of Brazilian race relations, the main interpretive weakness results from this conceptualization of racial prejudice and discrimination as survivals of the ancien regime. This perspective, related to the theory of the asynchronous character of social change, explains the social arrangements of the present as a result of “archaisms” of the past. Thus, the “traditional” or “archaic” content of race relations, revealed by the presence of racial prejudice and discrimination, is considered as a remnant of the past. The traditional, asymmetrical model of race relations, perpetuated by prejudice and discrimination, is considered an anomaly of the competitive social order. As a result, the further development of class society will lead to the disappearance of racial prejudice and discrimination. Race will lose its effectiveness as a criterion for social selection and non-whites will be incorporated into “typical” positions in the class structure. [10].

Notably, Fernandes elaborates an interpretation of Brazilian race relations in terms of the breakdown of the previous social structure, which implies understanding the context of contemporary race relations as the immediate result of the combination of social forces present in the battle for abolition. However, another clearly perceptible aspect is the fact that this author associates the competitive economy with the subsequent elimination of discrimination and racial prejudice, giving rise to the understanding that capitalist expansion would make it possible to adapt racial relations to the class structure of Brazilian society.

Racial inequalities would thus be conditioned by the survival of remnants of the slave society in the national socio-economic reality. Thus, Fernandes presents an optimistic perspective regarding the inclusion of blacks in the class structure of the competitive economy. This would be equivalent to saying that racial relations based on the subordination of blacks would gradually be overcome as the spectrum of the capitalist economy expanded.

According to Arruda: “in the framework of these considerations, the author's conceptions are made explicit: the notion of competitive social order, or capitalist society, as a form of open stratification and tending towards democracy; the identification of myth with ideology, in a more restricted sense of this phenomenon of symbolic nature. In this sense, Florestan works with the notion of myth in the different sense of the anthropological tradition, that is, as a universe of exclusive representations. On the other hand, the discussion of the myth of racial democracy allows him to overcome certain dominant views and “represents a refusal of the conservative view that marks the debate not only on the racial issue, but also in Sociology in Brazil” (Bastos, 1987: 141 . Quoted by the author.). Within these analytical parameters, the sociologist develops the second part of his reflection, when the competitive social order expands in the capitalist sense at the time of the Second Industrial Revolution, which makes it possible to rethink the forms of integration of blacks” [11].

Certainly, the work that investigates race relations carried out by Fernandes confirms the existence of the phenomenon of inequalities of opportunity between whites and blacks. However, this author's investigative concern leads him to the perception of the solution in terms of a reordering of social, economic and political relations within the competitive economy.

In short, this author demonstrates the unequal character of relations between whites and blacks and demystifies the notion of racial democracy as he presents, in contrast, discriminatory elements present in the daily life of racial relations in Brazil.[12] However, he associates these social maladjustments to the existence of remnants of slavery still marking the Brazilian reality.

Still, according to Arruda: “despite the tendency towards assimilation, prestige and power remain linked to the dominant social principles inherited from the past and imprisoned by the white order. The slowness and discontinuity of the pace of integration point to the dilemmas of a history that does not break the chains of the past. Within the scope of class society, despite the nuanced relationship between blacks and low social status, those who left slavery did not constitute a threat to white people's positions and did not even enter the universe of their perceptions.(…). In the impossibility of constituting himself, effectively, as a subject of his social trajectory, black people experience a reality of contradictory prejudice, which can be both neutralized and intensified, depending on the cultural tradition of society. This path of connection between the past, the cultural legacy of the slave society and the present suffers from the injunctions of circumstances and was not conceived in the intrinsic dynamics of the competitive social order” [13].

In this way, the interpretation offered by Fernandes points to the understanding of the present-capitalist society – as something still incomplete – survival of aspects of the slavery past – and, therefore, discriminatory practices would be like a foreign body in the tangle of capitalist social relations.

*Cleito Pereira dos Santos He is a professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at UFG. Author, among other books, of Capitalism and the Racial Question (Redelp editions).

Originally posted on the blog Reflections and Ruptures.


[1] I use the category Negro to designate blacks and browns.

[2] Check out: SKIDMORE, T. Fact and Myth: Discovering a racial problem in Brazil. Research Notebooks. Sao Paulo, no. 79, Nov., 1991. p.5-16.; TELLES, E. Racial Contact in Urban Brazil: analysis of residential segregation in the forty largest urban areas in Brazil in 1980. In: LOVELL, P. A .(Org.). Racial Inequality in Contemporary Brazil. Belo Horizonte, CEDEPLAR/FACE-UFMG, 1991. P. 341-365.

[3]FERNANDES, F. The Integration of Blacks in Class Society. vol. 1 and 2. São Paulo: Àtica, 1978. p. 20.

[4] Idem. P. 27.

[5] Idem. p.51-2.

[6] HASENBALG, Carlos. Discrimination and Racial Inequalities in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1979. p. 72.

[7] Idem. P. 73.

[8] Idem. P. 74.

[9] Idem. P. 74.

[10] Idem. p.75-6.

[11] ARRUDA, Maria Arminda do N. Dilemmas of Modern Brazil: the racial issue in the work of Florestan Fernandes. In: MAIO, Marcos C. and SANTOS, Ricardo V. (Orgs.). Race, Science and Society. Rio de Janeiro: FIOCRUZ/CCBB, 1996. p.198.

[12] Check out the works of FERNANDES, F. O Negro no Mundo dos Brancos. São Paulo: Diffusion Europea do Livro, 1972.; The Integration of Blacks in Class Society. Ob. cit.

[13] ARRUDA, Maria Arminda do N. Ob. cit. P. 199.


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