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December 20, 2004

Brazil, kin & race

About 2 years ago a study came out which indicated that there had been some decoupling of ancestry from phenotype in the case of Brazil. That is, a large number of people who were phenotypically "white" had a great deal of African (and Amerindian) ancestry, while a large number of "black" individuals had white ancestry. Though the study is not definitive (Brazil is a large nation, though the sample sizes were decent in my opinion) it does lend support to a large body of ethnological and historical literature which can easily ferret out non-white ancestry among white families which have deep roots in the nation. The authors of the study above suggest that assortative mating over the past few centuries has confounded ancestry in people who display a physical type that is normally associated with a particular region of the world (that is, the relationship between predominant European physical appearence and predominant European ancestry is not clear).

I thought of this study because I recently viewed two movies about Brazil, City of God and Bus 174. Both of these films dealt with crime in Brazil and the color aspect was clear to anyone with eyes. Though there was evidence of racial mixture in the slums, the Brazilian elite could have been southern European. Racism is a reality in Brazil, no matter the "racial democracy" myth propounded for much of the 20th century by the nation's elite. One recent survey found that "black" slum dwellers were twice as likely as "white" slum dwellers to be shot by officers in the line of duty. Making this even more confusing is that he Brazilian police force is traditionally one of the avenues of middle class advancement for non-whites and is 50% "black."

The only insight that I can draw from this is that it all makes mtDNA and NRY studies (or ABDNA's product) a little peculiar, in that people often want to find out about ancestry which has no real relevance in their life. On this blog many South Asians have emailed me about the phylogenetic relationship of their group to others, and I often get a hint that there is a hope that the studies will indicate a close affinity with Europeans. But the reality is, nothing has really changed from one moment to the next, and the proximate features which people use as cues remain the same.

I also wonder about the case of Brazil in the context of the ethno-state. The confounding of ancestry and its decoupling from appearence seems to be a perfect prescription for fooling any proximate psychological kin detection system. Though I am rather shocked by the salience of racial stratification in a society that has, with a straight face, promoted racial democracy and equality, it is notable that the various races in Brazil, whose phenotypes vary a great deal more than say Croatians and Serbs, or Malays and Chinese, have avoided interethnic conflict over the past century (I do not deny the criminal acts of violence). In fact, "black consciousness" is a very new phenomena in Brazil. Though the racial democracy was a blatant falsehood in the face of phenotypic stratification, it was a myth that for many decades prevented the mobilization of blacks to assert their interests as a group (until recently, Carnival in Salvador was an all-white affair, even though the city is 80% black). But, it is also true that many blacks in Brazil probably have a relative who falls in the range of "white" (at least what is white in Brazil), so exclusion did not have the same bite.

Posted by razib at 01:12 PM