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The Subtle Racism of Latin America

The Subtle Racism of Latin America

Carlos Moore sees a disguised racism permeating Latin American society, invented by Arabs in the Iberian Peninsula.

By Anson Musselman

While many believe that Arab and Latin American societies have a better track record in regard to race than the United States, Dr. Carlos Moore, resident scholar at Brazil's Universidade do Estado da Bahia, contends that this impression is wrong. Moore, a black man raised in pre-Castro Cuba, believes that while these societies may look color blind on the surface, race actually dominates every aspect of social and political life. Moore is best known for his book Castro, the Blacks, and Africa (CAAS, 1989), and African Presence in the Americas, co-edited with Shawna Moore and Tanya R. Sanders (Africa World Press, 1996).

This lecture took place in UCLA's Haynes Hall May 19 and was sponsored by the African Studies Center, the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies, and the UCLA Department of Political Science.

The Arab Model

Moore in his youth set out to find what historical events led to the establishment of a racial hierarchy in Latin America, where race mixing is the norm, yet lightness and darkness of skin still matters. His findings led him to believe that the paradigms of race in Latin America are directly descended from the time when Arabs controlled the Iberian Peninsula, the homeland of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the Americas.

Arabs successfully invaded the Iberian Peninsula (today Spain and Portugal) in 711 CE. The Moorish culture that was established was known as Andalusia. By the late 1200s Christian armies had expelled the majority of Muslims from Iberia.

"I have had the privilege to have lived in Arab countries," Moore said, "and to be shocked by the extraordinary similarities to Latin America of structures of race in countries like Egypt. It was familiar ground. I was twenty-one, had just left Cuba. I lived in Egypt for a year. I was surprised to see how it was as though I had not left Cuba except for the fact that they spoke Arabic and adhered to the Muslim religion. From then on I began to study the structures of race relations in the Arab countries in a comparative way with relations in the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America. That became my focus."

Arab Slavery on the Iberian Peninsula

“Through the Sahara alone," Moore said, "four million blacks were brought over to the Arab Iberian Peninsula. The Arab world was a world in which slavery was essential." Some scholars are skeptical of the size of the numbers Moore cites.

Moore sees the export of Arab-model slavery and race relations to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese, who had absorbed it during the Muslim occupation of Iberia. "The conquest of America begins when the Arabs are expelled from this part of the world by Europeans." Moore added that the Reconquista was accomplished by south Europeans who had already had long experience of intermarriage or less formal sexual relations with Arab and African peoples and who "are perfectly accustomed to a situation of familiarity of race relations between black and white in a situation of superiority and inferiority."

Moore sees two alternate models of racial rule. The one more familiar in the Northern Hemisphere is the Anglo-American one, where power relations and socio-political structures were based on two distinct groups: the Northern European and African prototypes. "We have a stable racial social order achieved and perpetuated through enforcement of an inflexible two-track system whereby extreme racial polarization is involved between two opposing somatic prototypes: The proto-Nordic types with blonde hair, pale white skin, and sharp facial features, and the proto-African type, with crispy hair, very black skin, voluptuous facial features."

Interracial Sex and Commingling

The Arab-Spanish-Latin American pattern was far more permissive of interracial sex and incorporating racial differences, but, Moore adds, not without its own light-skinned hierarchy. Moore asserts that racial mixing was a very normal occurrence in the Arab world; socially acceptable racial mixing, however, only goes in one direction. Moore postulates the existence in Latin America of a "racial philosophy of eugenics" that encourages a "unilateral … sexual commingling between white [or light skinned] males and the females of the physically conquered and socially inferior race."

Like the classification of "colored" in the former Apartheid South Africa, which was ranked as a higher class than the pure African, Moore sees the mixed race "mulatto" in Arab and Latin American society as a higher class than the purebred African or Indian. "The mulatto has a particular rank in society. In Arab societies there are all sorts of ranks. There are infidels, those who are believers, and the mulatto category which is viewed as a ladder for ascension."

The racial mixing that took place in Latin America that was socially acceptable, Moore said, was only between white males and the black or American Indian females.

According to Moore, the possibility of a black or American Indian man having sex with a white woman would have been destabilizing to the state because the black or American Indian penetrating the female would have been viewed as flipping the established racial hierarchy on its head.

Mixed race children from white fathers and dark mothers were totally accepted into society, according to Moore. In each generation males are expected or permitted to marry females of their own skin color or darker. "The production of a stable intermediary swarthy white type is very important to the Latin-Arab model of race relations. It is so important that the state encourages it." Moore views this as "the sexual enslavement of black women by the conquering white males."

The First Slaves in the Americas Were Imported from Spain

The system developed in Iberia under Arab rule was exported to the Americas as part of the Spanish and Portuguese conquest in the sixteenth century. Moore says that the Portuguese and Spanish added American Indians to their already-enslaved black populations brought from Iberia. “The first black slaves that came to the Americas were not slaves from Africa, but black slaves that came from the Iberian Peninsula, who spoke Portuguese and Spanish."

Moore told the audience that the Northern Europeans, “inventors of Apartheid," have traditionally feared the black person, while Europeans from the Iberian Peninsula, as well as their descendants in Latin America, have no such fear. As he put it, "in the U.S. one drop of black blood makes someone black. In Latin America one drop of white blood makes you white."

When Spain and Portugal conquered vast parts of Latin America, Moore said, they established a black slave trade, continued the mixing of the races with white Europeans at the top of the social ladder and American Indian and African descendants at the bottom. Whites lived in close physical proximity to black and American Indian populations, however those of a white European ancestry (Spanish and Portuguese) had the political and economic power. The lightness or darkness of one's skin strongly affected one's social rank.

The Rules of the Subtle Race Game

Moore recalled that Hollywood wanted to make a film about Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. They had cast an African American in the role, only to have to pull the plug on the project when Sadat objected to a black man portraying him. Sadat, being the leader of Egypt, considered himself white, according to Moore. Moore said there are black-looking Arabs and Latin Americans who consider themselves white because they have some distant white ancestry. “The only problem is when they go to New York."

Moore expressed some concern about the implications for race relations in the United States posed by the increasing immigration from Mexico and Latin America. While he clearly regarded the often overt racism of the North as perhaps even more objectionable than the Arab-Spanish form in the South, he saw a particular problem in the general Latin American denial of race as an issue. This has made it socially disreputable to raise demands for reform in Latin America around race issues.

Moore concluded by expressing the hope that these new Latin American immigrants will not import their Arab-Latin American model of race relations, as with it comes a false color blindness. To Moore, the U.S. model of dealing with race, while far from ideal, enables groups to make demands on society, and to be able to work for change.

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Published: Monday, June 2, 2003