Emergence of an Organized Politics of Race in Latin America

“Latin America’s embrace of race-based public policies has been accompanied by the deployment of new categories by the state, international organizations, and social movements.”

Chapter 4: Emergence of an Organized Politics of Race in Latin America

Mala Htun, University of New Mexico

In the past 10 to 20 years, Latin America has come to acquire an organized politics of race. By an “organized politics of race,” I mean a situation in which racial categories are simultaneously and explicitly the subjects of state policy, deployed in claims-making by subordinate groups, mobilized as constituencies by political actors, such as social movements and political parties, and used by social scientists to describe and diagnose social inequalities. To be sure, racial identities mattered previously; racism has been widespread, people have used racialized language to describe others, and economic and social hierarchies have paralleled racial differences. However, explicit mobilization around racial categories—by both society and the state— marks a new trend for the region. This chapter addresses a few related questions. What is the nature of and the implications of the new racialized public policies being adopted in the region? Do they work? Will they raise awareness of discrimination and reduce inequality? The arguments are intended to constitute the basis for an ongoing conversation. The organized politics of race does not look the same everywhere and has proceeded farther in some countries than in others. The first part of this chapter shows that, because the historical context of the state’s role in race making differs significantly in Latin America from the United States, takenfor-granted racial categories used by states and scholars mean different things on the ground. The second part argues that the emergence of race-based public policies has involved a racial recategorization project launched by elites, a project that does not always resonate with the targeted populations. The third part of the chapter briefly analyzes two major experiences of race-based public policies: university admissions quotas in Brazil and reserved seats for “black communities” in Colombia. These two experiences demonstrate that race-based policies have succeeded in raising awareness and broadening discussions about inequality. However, they mark an imperfect beginning to a longer and much-needed national conversation about race.