Is the US a racial democracy?

Image: Alexandar Pasaric


Michelle Alexander, mass incarceration and quotas

Brazilian racism is strongly marked by processes of formal inclusion and real exclusion of black people. Post-abolition, formal segregation processes were not used as widely as the Jim Crow laws in the US or Apartheid in South Africa. Even so, Brazil managed to maintain an effective segregation of its black population that was as or more forceful than that of these two countries. The real segregation of blacks in terms of access to work, housing, land, education and health eliminated the need for an explicit formal segregation superstructure, but was obtained with a policy of whitening the State and the employer class.

The social scientist and my friend Thaís Fernandes showed how this process took place in the case of education, recently in her article “The public school in Brazil: the formal inclusion and material exclusion of black people in Brazilian education”. It shows how segregation was established with the material exclusion of black people and the ideology of cultural whitening that served as the basis of State policies. This institutional architecture of racism by the dominant classes and the Brazilian State came to develop the ideology of “racial democracy”, which maintains that the existence of formal inclusion, operated by a discourse of racial neutrality, would make Brazil a country without racism.

In the book The New Segregation: Racism and Mass Incarceration in the Age of Racial Neutrality (Boitempo), Michelle Alexander shows how the end of segregation laws in the 60s, won by the civil rights movement, made the US enter an era in which state policies began to adopt a racially neutral language, but their practices remained racists. It shows that black poverty and unemployment rates in the US are actually worse today than they were in '68, at the height of the black civil rights movement. Alexander argues that: “Racism is highly adaptable, forms of racial hierarchy evolve and change as they are contested. In a process of preservation through transformation. Sometimes these institutional changes leave what was understood by domination behind so that they seem to die, but are reborn in new forms.”

Thus, she argues that the criminalization of black people as a justification for police massacre and mass incarceration promoted by the State against this population was the element found to keep the black masses segregated. In this way, blacks have remained a super-exploited sub-caste, if not disposable, to the present day despite the formal end of segregation. The truth is that more African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison, on parole or assisted release – than were enslaved in 1850. We can say that such a diagnosis partially applies to Brazil and, from an ideological point of view, the US went through a process of Brazilianization with the end of the Jim Crow laws. An institutional ideology similar to our “racial democracy” was adopted, where the formal inclusion of black people coexists with the criminalization and material exclusion of the black masses.

Quoting Alexander again: “It could be argued that the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both served to define the meaning of caste in the United States. Indeed, a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today, mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: Black people, especially men, are criminals. This is what it means to be black.”

In Alexander's reflection, the concept of racial bribery is also presented, she describes how, to appease the black revolts of the 60s, the US ruling classes began to adopt policies of quotas for the inclusion of blacks and ethnic minorities in elite institutions. Thus, without substantial changes in economic structures and social or racial hierarchies, they created a small black middle class. Through figures who reached the apex of power and money such as Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice and Beyoncé, they made it seem to some to announce the beginning of a “post-racial” era with a society that no longer uses an explicit discourse of racial segregation. These “post-racial” times make even someone who has an explicit social base related to white supremacist organizations like Donald Trump feel the need to come out publicly and state that he is “not racist”. The racially neutral discourse of the “post racial” era only led to an ideology similar to that of Brazilian “racial democracy”, where 90% of the population admits that racism exists but 97% say they are not racist. In this way, the policy of quotas and the symbolic gains brought about by the creation of decorative black elites allowed the ruling classes to sustain a discourse of racial progress, while at the same time strengthening the economic bases of racial abysses for the masses.

Thus, a powerful wave of criminalization and repression swept over black communities. The war on drugs and mass incarceration policies in the US caused a jump from approximately 200.000 prisoners in 1970 to 2,1 million in 2020. The criminal label became the new legitimate pretext to deny blacks access to work, remove their right to vote, impede their right to housing and other social rights. Alexander relates the policy of quotas and the promotion of the black middle class as a racial bribe that allowed mass incarceration and the continuity of racial segregation to go unchallenged. On the contrary, a political consensus was created around a supposed “improvement” in racial relations, even if this improvement does not exist for the majority, which, on the contrary, is even further away from overcoming racism.

In Brazil, a similar phenomenon happens, the quota policy began to be implemented in 2001 when the state of Rio de Janeiro started to reserve 40% of the UERJ vacancies for self-declared black or brown people, but it was in 2012 that the quota law was approved which reserved vacancies with economic and racial criteria in federal universities across the country. At the same time, with redemocratization, the policy of mass incarceration in Brazil began, from less than 90.000 prisoners at the end of the dictatorship in 89, the prison population jumped to the current 746.000 prisoners. The quota policy put on a mask of racial progress in Brazil at the same time that the criminalization and militarization of black territories and the real exclusion of the black masses were deepening.

It is obvious that neither I nor Michelle Alexander are against racial quotas, we just emphasize how, despite being a very important measure, they are incapable on their own of leading to overcoming racism and, on the contrary, the illusions propagated in this regard have been a efficient means of strengthening it. The quota policy has extremely small economic impacts to help effectively overcome racism compared to the huge setbacks caused by the war on drugs and mass incarceration policies implemented simultaneously.

The racial stigma of black criminality pits blacks and workers against themselves, destroys mutual support networks and creates a barrier between the struggle for black progress and the struggle in solidarity with the most marginalized sectors, the silence regarding the new system of racial segregation is deep even among many of the people most affected by it. It is necessary to break this silence and root our struggle in the most oppressed black masses, showing solidarity with the victims of racist police violence and the prison system. We need to overcome punitivism within the left and dismantle mass incarceration with our struggles to advance in the fight against racism.

*Gabriel Silva He is a member of Quilombo Invisível and the Network for Protection and Resistance against Genocide.


ALEXANDER, Michelle. The New Segregation: Racism and Mass Incarceration. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

FERNANDES, Thais. The public school in Brazil: formal inclusion and material exclusion of blacks in Brazilian education. Available in:

SILVA, Gabriel. Dilemmas for an anti-racist struggle strategy:

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“90% of Brazilians say that there is racism in the country, but 97% do not consider themselves racist, points out a survey”:

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