Throughout Latin America, race and ethnicity continue to be among the most important determinants of access to opportunity and economic advancement. Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in Latin America represent 40 percent of the total population yet they remain a disproportionate segment of the poorest of the poor. While a priority for social inclusion measures, they have not seen the sharp reductions in poverty experienced by the overall population and are still more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty. How did such an issue go unseen for so many years and why does it still exist? Where does the problem lie? Understanding the concept of race and ethnicity would be a good place to start and anthropologist Peter Wade could help shed some light into this issue.
Race is a social construction based on physical or genetic traits differences. Hair type, skin color etc. are criteria used to divide people into races but there is nothing that supports intellectual differences between races. Throughout the years, race has been used to suppress people and divide them in various categories. During colonial times Europeans used race to justify slavery and racism, they saw themselves as superior and that they had the right to enslave people of races that was inferior. Nazis being advocates of this idea used propaganda as “studies” to make people believe that some races are inferior or superior compared to others. While there are many other examples that have followed the same unjust path, today, even though this issue has not been completely eradicated, it is considered racist and unjustified to judge or divide people based on race.
Similarly, ethnicity, is a social construction but instead of dividing by physical or genetic traits, is a system that classifies groups of people according to cultural, linguistic and historic criteria. Ethnicity is often a synonym to the word race, but the use of ethnicity became more frequent after the second world war. An ethnic group is normally defined by having a degree of cultural and linguistic similarity and often an ideology of shared roots. Some people may feel that their ethnicity is important to their identity, but most people do not have one ethical identity according to anthropologist Peter Wade, people have multiple ethical identities that tend to change depending on who they talk to and the context. For example, Sami people (ethnic group in Norway) view themselves as ethnical Sami in certain cases and scenarios and in different cases as ethnical Norwegians.
In Latin America both terms were being used during colonial times to divide people into categories. “Blacks” for example were defined by their race while indigenous people were divided based on their ethnicity. The concept of race was often combined with social traits such as socio-economic status, so that a person could be categorized not only according to their physical phenotype but also social standing. The class structure in Latin America had a pyramidal structure with white (Spaniards) at the top, a group of mixed-race (castes) people beneath them and at the bottom a large indigenous population and slaves (usually of African origin).
Notably the caste system was particularly interesting because it divided people even further within the group. The offspring of black and white parents, called mulattoes; of white and Indian parents, called mestizo; and of black and Indian parents, to whom no term was applied. The mestizos, mulattoes, and black Indians also intermingled and produced descendants of even greater racial mixture. The dramatic growth of the castas in the eighteenth century has as a result the emersion of new racial categories. It was hard to differentiate and was particularly easy to blend in with higher classes if you could afford to dress nicely and behave like them.
“Blacks” and indigenous people, lower on the social scale, had their own differences. Many “blacks”, especially among the first generation, were slaves. Their low social status was forced legally, and they were prohibited by law from many positions. Indigenous people had more privileges, an administrative status and could have an institutionalized position, when compared to “blacks”. Moreover, indigenous people could only become slaves if they were classified as cannibals whereas black slaves were considered natural slaves. The fact that indigenous people worked and paid taxes, which benefited the state, certainly made them be in a better position than the African slaves, but that is not to say that they were treated much better.
Ethnicity was often something reserved for the indigenous groups so that ethnic identity is something that members of indigenous groups had in addition to their national identity. Indigenous identity was constituted within the context of the nation-state. The nation-state needed disorder and savagery in order to cast themselves as the forces of order. To put it in another way labeling indigenous people as anarchic could give them more power and control instead of having to look for external solutions.
The thought that becoming a nation-state would improve the lives of people in the lower brackets was sadly false. The problem was so deep that one could say it worsened the problem. Above all, it seems necessary to note the attempt of the government of Latin America to “whiten” their population, thinking that white is a superior race, by sponsoring immigration programs from Europe and giving them benefits. The goal of this was to eliminate blacks and indigenous people and create a whiter society, something that sounds very familiar with the Nazi eugenics, which surely confirms that the process and the idea of “whitening” was undoubtfully ill minded and racist.
Racial and ethnic discrimination is still common in Latin America where socio-economic status generally correlates with perceived whiteness, and indigenous status and perceived African ancestry is generally correlated with poverty and lack of opportunity and social status. Generally, the caste system, even though initially performed its positive functions well, in course of time it became degenerated and instead of doing social good it caused a great harm to the society.
The lower castes were constantly suppressed by the higher castes to a point that the whole system was solely based on exploitation of the lower castes, thus creating a sense of a chaotic nation without unity. It can also not be denied that it undermined the ability and aspiration of its nation, having status and roles fixed up from the time of one’s birth, certainly affects the aspiration of the people. The wealth accumulated within the higher castes whereas the lower castes were doomed in poverty, similarly to today.
The uneven distribution of power and wealth contributed to the social and racial injustice and is clearly still visible in Latin America. According to Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 92 percent of Afro-Caribbeans descents live below the poverty line and are underrepresented in politics compared to white wealthy men who still prevail in Houses of Representatives and Parliaments.
Minorities continue to be criminalized, incarnated by law enforcement and military. One would think that after all those years the effects of such a system would have been completely eradicated but since the system was based upon inequality it widened the gap between the people in high and low castes making it visible to this day and age.