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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Health in black and white : debates on racial and ethnic health disparities in Brazil


In 2006, the Brazilian Health Council approved a National Health Policy for the Black Population. The Policy is striking because it promotes the image of a biologically and culturally discrete black population in a nation where racial classification has historically been relatively fluid and ambiguous. It transforms established patterns of racialization by collapsing "brown" (pardo) and "black" (preto) Brazilian Census categories into a single "black population" (população negra) to be considered a special- needs group by the public health apparatus. This construction resembles the United States' dominant mode of racialization based on hypodescent and represents a significant departure from hegemonic portrayals of Brazil as a racially mixed nation. Furthermore, the Policy challenges national ideologies of racial and cultural unity by affirming the existence of an essential black body with specific health concerns, as well as an essential Afro-Brazilian culture that materializes in recommendations for culturally competent health care. As such, the Policy constitutes an important site for new negotiations of racial and cultural identity in Brazil. In this dissertation, I explore the political and social implications of treating racial and ethnic groups differently within Brazilian health care. I examine how the re-definition and medicalization of racial and cultural identities unfolds in public clinics, temples of Afro-Brazilian religion, and social movements based in São Luís and São Paulo, Brazil. Through an analysis of ethnographic data that I collected over twenty-four months, I assess the impact of recent developments in race- conscious health policy on Brazilians' lived experiences of race, ethnicity, and health disparities. I argue that the new Policy, and its associated health programs, signals the emergence of a new biopolitical paradigm in which the Brazilian state formalizes citizens' racial and ethnic differences in order to address inequalities among them. I also show that many aspects of these programs, which incorporate global discourses and concepts related to health equity, fail to resonate with Brazilian citizens' notions about race and health. Consequently, patients and healthcare providers often resist the new measures. The result is a disjuncture between policy and practice that ultimately hinders Brazil's efforts to reduce health inequalities among its citizens

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