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The identity and character of cities in America have been profoundly influenced by race. In the past, laws mandating the segregation of African American and white urban residents through racially discriminatory housing and lending policies created racial geographic boundaries within cities and between cities and suburbs. The impact of this racial segregation in cities can be seen in the creation and persistence of an urban African American underclass in some cities as well as many urban neighborhoods marked by racial homogeneity and economic underinvestment.

The racial climate in the United States in more recent years has been decidedly different. Overt racial discrimination in urban housing opportunities is, at the surface at least, a historical phenomenon. Laws and social mores have evolved past the acceptance and endorsement of racial discrimination in housing and economic opportunities. Neighborhoods have more racial diversity and African Americans have access to suburban housing opportunities. The housing choices of an African American homebuyer are arguably limited only by her economic resources. In many respects, urban American life has truly moved toward a colorblind society.

The Brazilian racial and urban experience offers lessons for the United States. Brazilian cities face a similar challenge as those in the United States; that is, how to frame political, social, and economic claims of racial inequality in an ostensibly nonracial country. Brazil is commonly viewed as one of the world's few true racial democracies where race is considered an inappropriate focus for concern because it is irrelevant to opportunity. A “Brazilian identity” is paramount, individual racial identities are minimized, and legal segregation based on race is not part of the historical experience. And while Brazilians are acutely aware of any slight variation in skin color, a dark skinned person can become socially “white” through economic or social success. In short, class, rather than race, shapes opportunity in Brazilian life.

Publication Citation

24 Harv. Blackletter L.J. 69 (2008).