The racism of backwardness

The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil
Barbara Weinstein
2015, Duke University Press
458 pages, plates, paperback

IT IS A question that is almost as old as the study of culture itself: whether cultural constructions determine our behaviour, or are a reflection of it.

Traditional modernism, championed by the US, would have had us believe that cultural diversity explains the stark differences in development for most of the 20th century between countries such as Brazil and the “advanced” economies of the northern hemisphere.

Indeed, this argument was a hidden pillar until recently of the literature on democracy, which implied that the free markets and competitive politics were inseparable, even though Pinochet’s Chile – and contemporary China – are just two of the obvious exceptions to the absurd notion of “market democracy”.

The work ethic, probity and a belief in liberty and progress associated with Euro-American (and hence “white”) settler culture together nurtured the strong institutions built upon equally robust values that enabled progress and ultimately industrial capitalism.

The modernist perspective continues to exert a potent influence over many intellectual perspectives, and beneath it – as one reading of The Color of Modernity can demonstrate – remains a thinly veiled racism. If you don’t believe this, you only have to look at some of the pronouncements by a succession of US presidents about the problems befalling de facto colonies such as Puerto Rico and Haiti.

Barbara Weinstein’s brilliant book explores how similarly racialised associations can work at the level of regional identity within countries, with significant implications for national identity.

She is interested in how patterns of economic development are understood, and how that understanding in itself becomes a factor perpetuating the developmental narrative that nurtures inequality.

The author examines two episodes in Brazilian history, the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolution and the IV Centenário in 1954, in order to understand how the population of São Paulo embraced a regional identity that emphasised European and hence “white” origins associated with an aptitude for modernity and progress.

In so doing, they underlined the backwardness and poverty of other regions associated with non-white majorities, such as Brazil’s impoverished North-east. Weinstein argues plausibly that this helped to consolidate development policies that would ultimately entrench those inequalities, but also hamper the development of democracy itself.

What is fascinating about this book is that it makes an important attempt to link cultural narratives with political economy, something that has been badly neglected in the study of Latin America.

Political and economic ideas have transformational power, and when they are appended to an identity they can be forces of great moment. In Europe for example, it is no coincidence that by Catalonian demands for secession from Spain are fuelled by two crucial vectors: the strong sense of regional identity that many Catalonians say makes them distinct from their Castilian cousins, and an equally strong sense of economic grievance in an area that regards itself as the neglected engine of the Spanish economy as a whole.

Given its potential relevance to the study of regions like this, Weinstein’s book makes for highly recommended reading.