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Back to Black:

Racial Reclassification, Education Reform, and Political Identity Formation in Brazil

1. Introduction
2. Theory: Racial Reclassification as Political Identity Formation
3. Background: Race, Social Citizenship, and the Brazilian State
4. Mechanisms: Pathways to Consciousness

5. Quantitative Analyses: Consciousness or Convenience?
6. Consequences: Conscious Citizens and Political Engagement
7. Conclusion

My dissertation research aims to understand how certain social categories come to constitute individuals’ political identities by leveraging an empirical phenomenon of racial reclassification toward blackness in Brazil, known for its history of race mixture and racial ambiguity. Brazilians have long capitalized on racial fluidity to reclassify themselves toward whiteness, but since the early 2000s Brazilians have demonstrated a marked and newfound tendency to reclassify toward blackness. Indeed, between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, Brazil’s population unexpectedly turned from majority to minority-white, a sudden structural shift left unexplained by intergroup demographic differences or enumeration practices. My central argument is that this reversal has been driven by a newly developed and racialized political consciousness among the population, brought about by expanded access to secondary and university education over the past several decades. State-led efforts to incorporate lower-class sectors through educational expansion has increased formerly marginal and upwardly mobile citizens' exposure to new information, social networks, and labor market experiences. Greater exposure, in turn, has led many formerly marginal citizens to come face-to-face with racialized inequalities in their quests for upward mobility and to reclassify as an articulation of these racialized political identities.
I build this argument by drawing on more than 15 months of fieldwork in two major cities in Brazil, including participant observation in civil society organizations and in-depth interviews with reclassifiers. I systematically test these insights and their observable implications by drawing on pseudo-panel analysis of household surveys, quantitative analysis of municipal-level census data, and an originally designed survey and survey experiments.

In addition to accounting for this sudden reversal in patterns of racial identification, this project provides a new theoretical account of the processes of identity politicization and the individual-level formation of political consciousness. Prominent theories of ethnic and identity politics emphasize the role of elites who strategically politicize identities in pursuit of material benefits. The empirical patterns uncovered in my research not only complicate strategic calculations based on presumed demographic structures, but also highlight how identities can become politicized in the absence of mobilization from above. The account I provide thus shifts the focus away from the rent-seeking behavior of elites (or voters) and instead toward the consequences of the expansion of social citizenship. A major finding of my research is that individuals might assume and articulate stigmatized identities in the political arena, rather than distance themselves from them, when this identity constitutes their political consciousness—that is, when this identity serves as one basis on which they make sense of power relationships. In this way, my account provides a novel account of the processes through which social categories translate into group politics.
The emphasis on educational expansion in my project also directs attention to an alternative theoretical angle on identity politicization that focuses on citizenship. In my argument, access to higher education is central because it exposes individuals to new information, social networks, and labor market experiences, while also endowing them with a greater sense of internal efficacy. Greater exposure and efficacy, I argue, inform and empower citizens to recognize and challenge social stigma and hierarchies, rather than internalize or comply with them. In this view, the political articulation of stigmatized identities is one way in which individuals exercise their civil and political citizenship rights on terms of equality with others. Yet unlike the sequence envisioned in seminal scholarship, in which the civic and political dimensions of citizenship precede the social, I argue that access to the benefits of social citizenship can be one channel through which individuals come to exercise their civic and political citizenship rights. Identity politicization and articulation, then, are driven in part by the structural conditions of extreme inequality and racial stratification, as well as by access to the tools and benefits of social citizenship.