UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Marcos Chor Maio

Marcos Chor Maio is senior researcher at Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, in Rio de Janeiro.
His articles on race, ethnicity, Brazilian social thought and history of sciences in Brazil have appeared in “Latin American Research Review, Critique of Anthropology, Luso-Brazilian Review, Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, Estudios Interdisciplinarios de America Latina Y Caribe,  History, Sciences, Health - Manguinhos.
He is the author of "Nem Rotschild, Nem Trotsky": o pensamento anti-semita de Gustavo Barroso ("Neither Rothschild, Nor Trotsky": the anti-semitic thought of Gustavo Barroso, 1992), co-editor with Ricardo Ventura Santos of Raça, Ciência e Sociedade (Race, Science and Society, 1996) co-editor with Glaucia Villas Boas of Ideais de Modernidade e Sociologia no Brasil (Modernity and Sociology in Brazil, 1999) and editor of Ciência, Política e Relações Internacionais: ensaios sobre Paulo Carneiro (Science, Politics and International Relations: essays on Paulo Carneiro, 2004).
His current research concerns the history of the proposal to create the International Institute of the Hylean Amazon, sponsored by UNESCO, immediately after the Second World War.
“UNESCO´s Anti-Racist Agenda: Research on Race Relations in Brazil in the 1950s”

UNESCO´s anti-racist agenda, approved by the Fourth Session of the General Conference, in September of 1949, was a response to the United Nations’ directive to combat racism. In December of 1949, UNESCO held an international meeting of experts to debate the scientific standing of the concept of race. The meeting went beyond debating this controversial matter, as it proposed a research agenda on racial prejudice and discrimination.
On May of 1950, during the Fifth Session of the General Conference, the resulting Statement on Race was made public and negated any deterministic association between physical characteristics, social behavior and moral attributes. At that same moment, the Conference approved the research project on race relations in Brazil.
Some analyses of the UNESCO race relations research in Brazil argue that the project was based on a false image. The expectation was that the findings would offer a paradigmatic model of “harmonious” relations among races as an instrument in the struggle against racism in the period following the Nazi genocide. The actual findings were quite different, though. Brazil had failed to elude racial discrimination. “UNESCO’s race relations project” showed that Brazil was not a “racial democracy”, as UNESCO’s staff originally tried to prove.

However, during my research I found out that more important than promoting a better understanding of the atrocities of the Holocaust, UNESCO´s anti-racist agenda reflected a new international juncture in which the issue of race was kept in the forefront of public attention by the persistence of racism, especially in the United States and South Africa, the emergence of the Cold War, and the demands for social and economic development from less advanced countries. In mid-October of 1949, the Head of the UNESCO’s Department of Social Sciences, the Brazilian anthropologist Arthur Ramos finished drafting a plan which predicted sociological and anthropological studies in Brazil. In tune with the agency’s concern about racism and the socioeconomic difficulties experienced by underdeveloped countries, Ramos believed that it would be necessary to pay special attention to the issue of integrating black and native groups into the modern world.

The other aspect which contributed to the emergence of the struggle against racism was the pressure by the USSR on the United States during the Cold War, when the Soviet criticized racism in the United States. The United States considered the choice for Brazil as a possibility of using a peripheral capitalist country in the international ideological battle against communism
Not less important was the decisive role of the transatlantic network at UNESCO. The first steps in the assembly of the “UNESCO research project” indicate the existence of a wide-open scenario, composed by information previously gathered by the social scientists on its staff. This was amplified by contacts and suggestions offered by Brazilian, U.S. and French researchers within UNESCO. They had experience in teaching or researching in Brazil. In addition, in Brazil there was a tradition of investigation about race relations – a trend that became stronger during the decades of 1930 and 1940. This transatlantic network of scholars determined the outline of the research.

The final design of “UNESCO race relations project” was thus changed and became a plan to analyze Brazilian problems, such as social disparities and racial inequalities. Originally, there was a limited regional focus on the state of Bahia (a traditional and rural economy), but soon the scope of the investigation covered modernized states such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Findings revealed a diversified situation. Not only was there an enormous social distance between whites and blacks, but also little social mobility among non-whites. In the North and Northeast, racial prejudice was deemed to be subtle, but nonetheless existent. Research in southeastern areas looked at race relations in Brazil’s major centers of development, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where economic and social changes were intense. During the last years of slavery, blacks living there had to deal with large numbers of European immigrants, and racial tensions were deemed more visible. The project also found that racial classifications in Brazil combined phenotypic definitions with non-biological attributes, such as class, status, and education. Thus, a complex system of racial classification was revealed.

Research on race relations under the auspices of UNESCO in the 1950s played a catalystic role in consolidating Brazilian academic intelligentsia. The cycle of studies produced a vast documentation about the existence of prejudice and discrimination against blacks. Focusing on these issues, the “UNESCO project” prompted new questions about Brazil and helped identify difficulties, deadlocks, and conflicts in a society going through a strong and swift process of urbanization and industrialization. Research findings did not deny the importance of the myth of a paradigmatic racial democracy. What they did in fact was reveal the tensions between the myth and the Brazilian style of racism, a tension that had already been discussed by black and white intellectuals and activists in Brazil.

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