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Minorities now officially a majority in Brazil

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
  • New census data shows that whites are less than 50% of population
  • This is the first time that has happened
  • But observers say it may have been that way before
  • Social movements have affected how Brazilians self-identify
  • Brazil

(CNN) -- The growing influence of Brazil's minority populations has not just created new opportunities for black and mixed-race Brazilians -- it has shifted demographics.

Results from Brazil's 2010 census, released in late April, show that Brazil is now a minority-majority country. The white population dropped below 50% of the total for the first time, to about 48%. But some say it may have been that way all along, but the statistics did not reflect the reality.

Although the birthrates of blacks and pardos -- the Brazilian term for mestizos, or people of mixed European and Native American heritage -- remain higher than for whites, experts don't cite that as the reason for the shift. Instead, they say that more Brazilians than ever are self-identifying as black or pardo, whereas in the past they would have checked off the box for "white."

"During this decade we have been noticing this increase in people declaring themselves black and pardo," Ana Saboia, a researcher at Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, or IBGE, told CNN. The institute oversees the census.

In the most recent census, 7.5% of Brazilians identified themselves as black, and 43% pardo.

The trend is in line with a national public discussion of race that has raised self-consciousness, she said.

Brazil is enjoying a period of growth that, despite the global economic downturn, has pulled thousands of people out of poverty. The rising incomes may be helping to dispel and reject associations that exist in Brazilian society between poverty and skin color.

"In the past, people would have been ashamed to say, 'I am mestizo,' or 'I am black,' because of the link to poverty," Saboia said.

Brazilians characterize race relations in their country as harmonious. The country is diverse and there was never legal segregation like in the United States. But that didn't mean that there was equality among the different populations.

"Unequal and together," is how Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, described it.

Discrimination noticeably decreased during the administrations of Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Sotero told CNN.

Lula nominated the first black judge to the supreme tribunal in more than 90 years. Afro-Brazilian athletes and musicians entertained millions. And most recently, Brazilian soap operas got their first black leading actor.

Combined with those on the lower economic rungs moving up, a sense of hope and integration has been growing, Sotero said.

"We are in a moment, despite problems and challenges, that there is a sense of optimism and hope about direction of the country," and this is reflected in self-identification, he said.

In the past five years, sample surveys taken by IBGE have shown a nominal demographic shift, and it shows no signs of slowing down, Saboia said.

The shift was not limited to urban areas or other developed areas, she said. The change in how people identify themselves was recorded all across Brazil.

Modern Brazil is a different world from what it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when scientific racism led to many to identify themselves as white if possible.

At the time, "there was a lot of anxiety at the elite level about race," Reid Andrews, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, told CNN.

In fact, the census stopped asking questions about race between 1890 and 1940. When racial demographics resumed in 1940, about 60% of Brazilians identified themselves as white. Some of this was due to European immigration, but also self-identity, Andrews said.

In Brazil, the question of race on the census is not based on lineage, but on color of one's skin. So what race a person identifies with has a lot to do with how they see themselves, or how they think others see them.

As the Brazilian census begins to better reflect the actual make-up of the country, other racial debates are emerging.

Under Cardoso and Lula, Brazil passed its first affirmative action laws. There is no federal affirmative action law, but universities and many private companies have such policies.

The benefits that come from these programs may be another incentive for residents to identify themselves as minorities, Andrews said.

The harmonious relations of different groups in Brazil is being tested by what some see as preferential treatment for members of certain races. In a way, Brazil is importing the American-style divisions and tensions that exist between groups, Andrews said.

"A big social experiment is going on right now in Brazil," he said.