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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Political Psychology of Race in Comparative Perspective: Racial Identity, Attitudes, and Participation in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States

  • Author(s): Mendes Fialho, Fabrício
  • Advisor(s): Sears, David O.
  • et al.

In this dissertation, I investigate why race is a salient political cleavage in some societies but not in others. Focusing on three countries marked by racial inequality but that differ in their racial dynamics -- Brazil, South Africa, and the United States -- I examine why the their racial formation processes resulted in strongly politicized racial identities in the two latter cases but not in the former.

I advance a theoretical argument that emphasizes the political roots of the development salient racial identities in these countries. I contend that, when a nation formation process has a built-in emphasis on racial hierarchies and prejudice and the state apparatus is employed for the enforcement of racial group boundaries in order to enact discriminatory policies against subordinate groups, this process unintentionally contributes to the formation of group consciousness among the members of political minorities, to reinforcement of major social cleavages, and to the emergence of political actors demanding social change. Apartheid in South Africa and the Jim Crow laws in the Southern United States, in using the state to oversee racial boundaries and to implement discriminatory practices against Blacks (and Coloureds, in the South African case) in favor of their White populations, fostered the development of strong group identities that ended up being crucial for the struggle against and eventual breakdown of those segregationist social systems. Brazil has not experienced legal forms of racial discrimination or segregation since the end of slavery in the late nineteenth and has celebrated race-mixing as a core element of its national identity, which resulted in permeable group boundaries and in the lack of consistent racial group identities.

To test this hypothesis empirically, I analyze data from cross-national surveys as the World Values Survey, the International Social Survey Programme, and the Social Hubble to assess group differences in perceptions of discrimination, political trust, and participation in political acts and voluntary organizations. Findings indicate the persistence of robust differences in institutional trust and participation between race groups in South Africa and the United States but not in Brazil. Results on perceived discrimination show that non-Whites do report higher levels of perceived discrimination compared to Whites yet the group gap is conditional on the context the type of discrimination. Importantly, results from Brazil and South Africa, when analyzed jointly are suggestive that group-levels of perceived discrimination cannot account for the the lack of group differences in political attitudes and behavior in Brazil and the political salience of race in South Africa. Prior literature is corroborated by findings for the United States.

Overall, results support the theoretical claim that the politicization of racial identities is dependent on contextual conditions such as the existence of strong social cleavages and the enforcement of group boundaries by the state. Once politicized, those identities have important political consequences.

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