The Anthropology of Race and Ethnicity in Latin America

Gabriel Hassan – DELA Comparative Race and Ethnic Relations – Week 4
The Anthropology of Race and Ethnicity in Latin America
A. Summary of the readings
The readings consisted of two texts: four chapters from a book by British anthropologist Peter
Wade, Race and Ethnicity and Latin America; and one from a book by Clara E. Rodriguez, a
professor of sociology in the United States, entitled Changing Race.
Peter Wade’s book is primarily about confronting theories of race and ethnicity in Latin
America with one another, and its first half is mostly historical. The author claims in
introduction that “knowledge is a process that has its own past – an archaeology or genealogy
– which it is necessary to know in order to understand its current dynamic” (1). This is
applied in various chapters of the book.
As he starts by looking at the concepts of race and ethnicity (chapter one), Wade does
a brief history of both before trying to explain what they refer to and how different they are
(he offers no proper definition). Races in his view are social constructions “using the
particular aspects of phenotypical variation that were worked into vital signifiers of difference
during European colonial encounters with others” (14). Ethnicity is “about cultural
differentiation, but (…) it tends to use a language of place” (16). Although race and ethnicity
are very similar and indeed overlap (20), Wade resists the view that they are one and the
same. Thinking so, he says, “is to blur the particular history by which [racial] identifications
come to have the force they do” (19); that is, the history of colonial encounters.
Chapter two is essential as it develops an argument running through the book and
already announced in introduction: “from a very early date, native Americans have occupied
the institutional position of Other (…) whereas the descendants of black Africans have been
located much more ambiguously, as both inside and outside…” (2-3). Looking again at
history, Wade notes that when the Spanish and Portuguese arrived in the New World,
“Africans were a well-known category of person” (24) seen as infidels whose enslavement
was unquestioned. “In contrast, native Americans were a conundrum” (25) who were “to be
protected as well as exploited” (26). These different statuses of blacks and indigenous people
were replicated in social science, as the majority of anthropology focused on indigenous
people (viewed as ethnic groups) while the study of blacks “was about racism and race
relations” (37). In Wade’s view both categories “have aspects of racial and ethnic
categorization” (40).
In chapters 3 and 4, Wade reviews a series of approaches to blacks and indigenous
people, from the 1920s to 1960s and then in the 1970s. Beyond the richness of the writing that
he covers, what is interesting is how he identifies common assumptions, theoretical stances
and shortcomings in all these studies. Functionalism is a major influence in the studies of
indigenous people. Indigenistas and US anthropologists seek to understand how “traditional”
indigenous communities “function”, how they are integrated and coexist with different
cultural groups (such as mestizos) in the same society. As for blacks, studies tend to focus on
how they can assimilate into the nation. There is important debate as to whether Brazil is a
“racial democracy” (as Gilberto Freyre affirms) or a country steeped in racial prejudice and
discrimination (as UNESCO researchers discover from the 1950s). Overall, Wade emphasizes
how all these approaches are both integrationist and taking for granted racial and ethnic
identities (60).
Eventually, chapter 4 shows the influence of Marxism and the theories of dependency,
on the one hand, and situational perspectives on the other hand. While he criticizes “class
reductionism”, the view that race relations are mere byproducts of class structure, Marxist
approaches “were vital in producing a broad view of economic and political inequalities”
(83). On the contrary, Wade tends to embrace a situational view of ethnic groups and
identities, which exist “in relation to others” (62) as Frederick Barth explained and various
authors showed in Latin America. Lastly, the 1970s were crucial in definitively doing away
with the myth of “racial democracy” and showing how discriminations and racism in a nonUS version actually worked.
Clara E. Rodriguez’s chapter is an excerpt from a book that is actually not about Latin
America, as the subtitle (Latinos, The Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United
States) indicates. It is also very historical. It tries to show how the concept of race in Latin
America is both similar and different from the one in the US – and how this difference
impacts on the way Latinos react to the US census. The most important difference, I think, is
the “tendency in Latin America to see ‘race’ as a social-racial construction” (107) which is
malleable, rather than a rigid, genealogical concept as in the US. The author goes in depth into
the historical causes of these differences in Latin America: Spanish law codes, the influence
of the Catholic Church, the economy (less dependent on slavery) and the demography (less
European women, substantial populations of indigenous and mixed people).
B. A critical assessment of their contribution to the topic
Both readings, especially Peter Wade’s, are very useful contributions to the topic of the class.
Indeed, their subject is even larger, as they take historical approaches and make use not only
of anthropological material but also of historical (Carl Degler, in Wade’s chapter 4) and
sociological studies (Octavio Ianni, in the same chapter). In fact, one limit of Wade’s book
may be that he does not identify clearly each field’s methods and conclusions.
I already outlined three major contributions from Wade’s book. The first one is to give
a broad definition of race and ethnicity, without taking for granted that they differ. While I
find the discussion quite convincing, I was left with a doubt as to whether and how race
relations are intrinsically different from ethnic relations. For instance, we worked on racism in
the context of the enslavement of blacks in the Middle East. Apart from the very important
cultural differences between Islam and the West, is this racism essentially different from the
one that emerged in the context of colonial encounters?
The second, essential contribution is pointing out the different treatment of blacks and
indigenous people both in the Latin American societies and in social sciences. I found the
concept of “structures of alterity” (37) to be quite evocative, although a definition might have
been useful. The third main contribution is to construct a history of knowledge by isolating
common theoretical assumptions, showing how they relate to the historical context (for
instance, the assimilationist drive in the context of nation-building at the beginning of the 20th
century) and how each approach builds on previous ones. One risk of such a method might be
overemphasizing the similarities between different studies from the same period. Though
Wade is quite careful about this, he goes a bit too far in his conclusion at the end of the fourth
chapter by putting all the approaches of the 1970s in the Marxist and/or instrumentalist
Another contribution from Wade is the emphasis he puts repeatedly on “the relation
between ideas and practice”, the “interactive, recursive relation between the groups as
perpetually reconstituted collectivities in action and the groups as perpetually re-imagined
communities” (60). The studies from the 1970’s supporting this view (Judith Friedlander,
Norman Whitten) seemed quite convincing. Moreover, both texts give a better understanding
of how racial formations in Latin America differ from those in the US. With its historical
detail, Clara Rodriguez is in a sense expanding on Wade’s chapter 2 about the history of
blacks and indigenous people in Latin America, especially about the way mixed people were
viewed. She substantiates Wade’s point that racism in the US and in a country like Brazil can
be two different things.
Finally, I found some of the concepts in the studies reviewed by Wade illuminating.
For instance, the notion of “accommodation” in Florestan Fernandes’s study of racism in
Brazil, later transformed into the “smooth preservation of racial inequalities” (Carlos
C. Three questions
1) How and when did each field (history, sociology, anthropology) approach the question
of race and ethnic relations in Latin America? How did their perspectives differ?
2) Are race and ethnicity really different, as Wade claims?
3) To what extent do racial formations in Latin America influence the way Latinos
conceive of themselves in the US? Aren’t their ethnic identifications in front of the
census form “situational”, dependent on their position as Hispanics in the American

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