American ideas cannot simply be transplanted to Brazil. Differences in how the two countries were colonised, and how the slave economy operated, led to distinct ideas of what it means to be “black”—and different attitudes to compensatory policies and whom they should target.
In Brazil, unlike America, race has never been black and white. The Portuguese population—700,000 settlers had arrived at the start of the 19th century—was dwarfed by the number of slaves: a total of 4.9m arrived. Portuguese men were encouraged to consort with African women. Since most came without wives, such unions gained some legitimacy. Their offspring, referred to as mulatto, enjoyed a social status above that of pretos. They worked as overseers or artisans, but also doctors, accountants and lawyers. A mulatto, Machado de Assis, was regarded as Brazil’s greatest writer even during his lifetime in the 19th century.
…Both black and white Brazilians have long considered “whiteness” something that can be striven towards. In 1912 João Baptista de Lacerda, a medic and advocate of “whitening” Brazil by encouraging European immigration, predicted that by 2012 the country would be 80% white, 3% mixed and 17% Amerindian; there would be no blacks. As Luciana Alves, who has researched race at the University of São Paulo, explains, an individual could “whiten his soul” by working hard or getting rich. Tomás Santa Rosa, a successful mid-20th-century painter, consoled a dark-skinned peer griping about discrimination, saying that he too “used to be black”.
Though only a few black and mixed-race Brazilians ever succeeded in “becoming white”, their existence, and the non-binary conception of race, allowed politicians to hold up Brazil as an exemplar of post-colonial harmony
Slavery’s legacies | The Economist