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June 13, 2001

Conference Explores Black
Politics in the Americas

Political scientists and others will gather this year at California State University, Sacramento for an unusual international conference on blacks and politics.

"Race and Democracy in the Americas" will focus on the challenges facing the black communities in the United States and Brazil, and offer workshop sessions on political analysis and comparisons. The July 7 conference is a follow-up to a highly successful meeting held last summer in Brazil.

Most of the research papers and projects to be presented were conceived and carried out by international teams.

"A big part of this conference is bringing together scholars and activists so they can develop both new projects and political initiatives," says David Covin, a CSUS professor of government and ethnic studies who helped organize the conference. The event is supported by the Ford Foundation.

Presentations will be on civil rights laws, underground economies, elected representatives and more. There will also be talks by prominent black elected officials and political activists.

Featured guests will include Jose Augusto Lindgren Alves, the Brazilian consul general; Luiza Barrios, the first national coordinator of the United Black Movement in Brazil; Robert Chrisman, editor and publisher of The Black Scholar; Grantland Johnson, secretary of California's Health and Human Services Agency; Kevin Johnson of the Kevin Johnson Foundation; Maulana Karenga; creator of Kwanzaa; Bill Lee, publisher of the Sacramento Observer; Jose Raymundo Martins Romeo, chair of the Latin American Council of the International Association of University Presidents; and Ivete Leal do Sacramento, president of State University of Bahia and the first and only black president of a Brazilian university.

Brazil is of particular interest to black political scientists in the United States because it is second only to Nigeria in the number of its citizens descended from Africa. It is also the second largest nation in the Western hemisphere, with about 150 million people, and is seen as an increasingly important political and economic power by many U.S. policymakers.

Brazil's black community also faces many of the same problems as the black community in the United States - such as racism and poverty. But the differences are striking.

Blacks are generally considered a majority of the Brazilian population, at least outside Brazil. The United Nations has estimated blacks make up as much as 73 percent of the population, compared to 12 percent in the United States. Brazil's official census, though, shows the black population at about 44 percent, a sign that Brazil's leadership and population place a premium on "whiteness," according to Covin.

"On questions of race, Brazil is enigmatic," Covin says. "Brazil sees itself as a racial democracy, with opportunity for everyone. Yet the country portrays itself as white, and the bulk of the population of people of African descent is marginalized - socially, politically and economically."

Even the concept of "race" is much different in Brazil than in the United States. Racial identity in Brazil is determined more often by skin tone or facial features than by heritage. Children of the same two parents can be seen as different races. And most people label themselves as close to white European as possible.

Covin says Brazilian media includes blacks even less than U.S. media, and when it does it is usually as criminals, servants or athletes.

More information is available by contacting the CSUS ethnic studies department at (916) 278-6645 or the public affairs office at (916) 278-6156.


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