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The Strange Death of Segregation


During his visit to South Africa in 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy addressed a student audience at the University of Cape Town.

I come here today, because of my deep interest in and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, a land taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued and relations with whom are a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which was once an importer of slaves and must now struggle to wipe out the last traces of that form of bondage.

He then paused and delivered his punch line: “I refer, of course to the United States of America.”1 In his catalog of the analogies between American and South African history, Kennedy might well have added one more—the legally mandated segregation that came to be known as Jim Crow in the American South and was called “native segregation” and later “apartheid” in South Africa. When Kennedy spoke, however, the two nations seemed to be on divergent paths: the United States was dismantling Jim Crow, and South Africa was still strengthening its system of apartheid. More than thirty years later the governments of both nations are now committed to legal and political equality for racial and ethnic groups previously considered inferior and unworthy of the full rights of citizenship.

Were there any direct connections between the history of segregation in the two countries? The first Jim Crow laws were passed in the 1880s, before the first efforts at systematic segregation by the Union of South Africa. The abolition of apartheid in 1991 came well after the successes of the civil rights movement in the US. In both cases South Africa lagged roughly twenty to twenty-five years behind the United States. Did American changes in race policy, and the movements that brought them about, have a strong influence on events in southern Africa?

Writing about the campaigns for segregation in both countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the historian John Cell has shown that white South Africans borrowed the term “segregation” itself from American white supremacists; they also borrowed the arguments of white Americans for mandatory racial separation, particularly the claim that legal and political equality during the Reconstruction era in the American South had been disastrous for whites.2 We often hear that the American civil rights movement inspired the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa; but the American movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., remained committed to nonviolence, whereas the African National Congress took up arms after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.3

Were there common patterns of development in the two nations that would account for the history of segregation and desegregation in both? This is the question that Anthony Marx has addressed in Making Race and Nation. He is the first writer I know of to do so by comparing race policy in the United States and South Africa with the experience of Brazil, another multiracial society with a slaveholding past but one that never imposed official segregation. Many authors have written about the contrast between American and Brazilian race relations and on the similarities and differences between the American and South African experiences. But Marx’s book is the only systematic and fairly detailed comparison of race and racism in all three countries yet to appear.

A political scientist by profession, Marx argues that the United States and South Africa adopted policies of racial exclusion and oppression primarily because of the imperatives of “state and nation building” as perceived by political elites who happened to be white. In the United States during the era of sectional conflict and Reconstruction and in South Africa around the turn of the century, order and prosperity—the main goals of any state, according to Marx—were threatened by crises resulting from sectional or ethnic divisions among the enfranchised white citizenry. But, he argues, the conflict between North and South in the United States and the struggle between British and Afrikaner settlers in South Africa had no counterpart in Brazil, where the white population has never been seriously split along regional or ethnic lines.

In the United States, the acquiescence of the federal government to the Jim Crow laws of the Southern states was the price of national solidarity and a necessary device for building a modern state. In other words, Marx argues, blacks were made the scapegoat in order to promote political accommodation among opposing whites. By the 1960s in the United States and by the late 1980s and early 1990s in South Africa, in Marx’s view, white unity was no longer at risk while black resistance had become a serious threat to the health or survival of the state. Ruling elites in both countries chose to abolish discriminatory laws and fully enfranchise blacks so as to promote the same goals of internal peace and prosperity that had earlier led their predecessors to impose segregation.

Marx’s analysis is original and provocative, although it will seem too schematic and abstract for most historians. It makes a strong case for putting a new emphasis on the importance of the state if we want to understand how race and racism came to be treated differently in different societies. In my own research on the United States and South Africa I also found that political conflicts among whites and efforts to resolve them were a recurring factor that helped to account for changes or adjustments in race policy from the colonial period to the present. But, like any explanation that highlights a single factor, Marx’s theses risk oversimplifying a complex and many-sided process.

Marx has little to say, for example, about efforts to resolve or manage another kind of split among whites—the class tensions between employers and workers in industrializing regions or between landlords and tenant farmers in the countryside. For some historians, such conflicts do much to explain the rise of legalized segregation, discrimination, and disfranchisement in the United States and South Africa. By appealing to white racial solidarity in the face of an alleged danger of “black domination” in the South after Reconstruction and in South Africa in the 1920s and 1930s, segregationists could take the edge off potentially explosive antagonisms between well-to-do and poor whites. There is no reason, on the face of it, to prefer Karl Marx to Anthony Marx on this issue, but also no clear reason to prefer Anthony. The pursuit of order and prosperity by the people in charge of the state is difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate from the efforts of class or economic interests among whites to gain control of a larger share of the economy. How do we decide who called the tune? We need only ask “order and prosperity for whom?” to open up questions that Anthony Marx’s sharp distinction between state and society will not answer.

A comparison of economic classes in the three societies could probably explain Brazil’s peculiarities as effectively as Anthony Marx’s emphasis on what was needed for the making of the state. At least until very recently, Brazil has had both a relatively slow rate of economic development and a pattern of patronage and paternalism that produced a social ethos quite unlike the competitive individualism characteristic of American and South African society during the age of segregationism. Because of the strength and pervasiveness of personal ties between rich and poor and black and white, Brazilian society and culture have traditionally discouraged people from basing their identities on class or race. Like people in other pre-modern and pre-industrial societies, Brazilians have tended to identify with their privileged patrons or protectors, rather than with the social class or ethnic group to which they belonged.4

Marx believes racism is as strong in Brazil as it is in the US or South Africa. Most dark-skinned Brazilians, he points out, are poorer and have fewer opportunities than others. For Marx, Brazil’s failure to legalize and institutionalize anything like Jim Crow or apartheid is explained by its lack of deep political conflict among whites. This view can be criticized for ignoring the differences many writers have observed between the relatively relaxed and fluid character of relations among Brazilians of differing skin color and the more sharply defined and well-enforced distinctions between whites and blacks in the United States and South Africa even before they were codified into law. Brazil’s claims to have been a racial democracy have recently been persuasively deflated.5 But Marx’s contention that racism or racial prejudice has been similar in all three countries remains highly debatable.

Black-white relations in the United States and South Africa sooner or later assumed a castelike character that they have never had in Brazil, even though an effective pattern of extralegal discrimination based on color differences persisted in Brazil after slavery was abolished. Interracial marriage was banned in much of the United States from the colonial period to the late 1960s and in twentieth-century South Africa; it has not been illegal in Brazil since its early days as a Portuguese colony. Twentieth-century Euro-Brazilian intellectuals and politicians of European extraction have at times endorsed intermarriage as another way (along with European immigration) to “whiten” their nation.6

This preference for the mostly white over the mostly black is obviously a form of racism, but it is a more tolerant and permissive variety than the fixation with racial purity and the rigid color lines that characterized American or South African racial thought and policies before and during the eras of Jim Crow and apartheid. Unlike Afro-Brazilians, southern African-Americans and black South Africans were commonly treated not merely as social inferiors but as permanent aliens or social outcasts, ineligible even for a limited or second-class citizenship. White American and South African conceptions of their national identities have often betrayed a commitment to white purity and exclusiveness that has no real counterpart in Brazil.

That Brazil’s history was different from that of the United States and South Africa in its post-emancipation racial policies can therefore be partly explained by the special character of its racial or ethnic hierarchy, as well as by the fact that the political unity of white Brazilians was never threatened to an extent that impelled nation builders to find a scapegoat. Despite recent revisionist studies, there is no doubt some truth in the traditional view that Brazil, while still a Portuguese colony or a Portuguese tropical empire—and well before it aspired to be a modern nation-state—established a pattern of racial relations that differed significantly from that which developed in the United States and South Africa. The mulatto, or pardo, stereotype was—and to some extent still is—quite different from that of blacks, or pretos.

Brazil’s limited openness to mixing races offered some mulattoes access to many of the advantages of Euro-Brazilian status. Those who were light-skinned and well-educated could be hired for well-paying jobs, run businesses, buy desirable property, obtain government and military appointments, and marry white partners. The many different color categories in Brazil and the permeability of the boundaries between these categories meant that a system of Jim Crow segregation or apartheid would have been very difficult to impose in Brazil even if there had been a strong political incentive to do so. It was simply too difficult to determine who was what on the basis of physical appearance alone.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Massie, Loosing the Bonds, p. xi. For a detailed comparison based on these and other analogues, see my White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (Oxford University Press, 1981).

  2. 2

    John Cell, The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: Origins of Segregation in South Africa and the American South (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  3. 3

    See my Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (Oxford University Press, 1995), Chapter 6.

  4. 4

    On the importance of patronage in traditional Brazilian society, see Kim D. Butler’s illuminating new book, Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paolo and Salvador (Rutgers University Press, 1998), pp. 18-23.

  5. 5

    See George Reid Andrews, Blacks and Whites in São Paolo, Brazil, 1888-1988 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1991); Pierre-Michel Fontaine, editor, Race, Class, and Power in Brazil (Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, 1985); and France Winddance Twine, Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil (Rutgers University Press, 1998).

  6. 6

    See Thomas Skidmore, Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (Oxford University Press, 1974).

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