Skip Navigation
Brazilian Justice Speaks on Race, UCLA BookPhoto by Hoorig Santikian

Brazilian Justice Speaks on Race, UCLA Book

Joaquim Barbosa Gomes, the first Afro-Brazilian Justice on Brazil's Supreme Court, and three panelists praised a UCLA sociologist for his award-winning book. The panel discussed racial inequality in Brazil.

By Hoorig Santikian

Telles' book paved the way for more significant discussions that were unthinkable before.

The son of a brick-maker, Joaquim Benedito Barbosa Gomes began working in the Brazilian court system as a janitor in the electoral tribunal in Brasilia. The court director heard him sing in English and later offered him a position at the congressional printing press. While working, he also studied, finally obtaining a doctorate in public law. He taught at the UCLA Law School from 2002 to 2003 as a visiting professor.

In 2003, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva appointed Barbosa Gomes to the country's Supreme Court, making him the first Afro-Brazilian Justice.

Barbosa Gomes returned to UCLA this month to participate in events hosted by the Latin American Center, the Law School, the Department of Sociology, and Social Sciences at UCLA.

On Jan. 16, 2007, he took part in a symposium at the Young Research Library on racial tensions in Brazil, viewed in the fresh light of a landmark study by UCLA Professor of Sociology Edward Telles. Barbosa Gomes and the other distinguished scholars on the panel—UC Berkeley Professor Steven Small and UCLA Professors Mark Sawyer and Andreas Wimmer—praised Telles for his award-winning Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (2003).

In his remarks, Barbosa Gomes credited Telles' book with altering the ongoing debate about race and equality in Brazil.

The book exposed the discrimination that penetrates Brazilian society and "paved the way for more significant discussions that were unthinkable before," Barbosa Gomes said. In particular, he added, Telles presented the legal system as a viable tool for establishing racial equality.

In his book, Telles concludes that there is a large discrepancy in material gains between whites and blacks. Interracial marriages and social bonds, Telles suggests, though more common in Brazil than the United States, often occur amongst the lower class and do not improve the material conditions of blacks.

Some universities and a few other institutions have adopted affirmative action policies, he added, just as Telles recommended. The Brazilian Justice did not elaborate because cases related to affirmative action are pending in the courts.

Other panelists praised Telles for using large amounts of empirical data and avoiding an American, or outsider, perspective. All said that Telles successfully debunked the myth of Brazil as a "racial democracy."

Sawyer said that the book captures "quotidian practices" of racism, while Small emphasized its impact on methodology in the social sciences, with its effective comparative approach.

While agreeing about the book's merits, Wimmer suggested that its reliance on census data, although necessary, limited the accuracy of comparisons between the United States and Brazil. Brazilians and Americans define "white" and "black" differently. Comparing these generic categories from census data can distort analysis, he said.

When Barbosa Gomes was asked by an audience member if he was optimistic about racial equality emerging in Brazil, he smiled before responding.

"I am entirely optimistic…. Now we live in a new era," he said.

Latin American Institute