Becoming Black Political Subjects: A Review

By Diego F. Leal

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As the 20th century was coming to an end, several countries in Latin America produced major pieces of ethno-racial legislation. Tianna S. Paschel’s Becoming Black Political Subjects focuses on the cases of Colombia and Brazil, the two most prominent examples of these interesting and fundamental changes. These ethno-racial reforms –as well as their more or less successful implementation– had the black social movements of each country as their most important advocate. As Paschel argues, however, contrary to what the experience of the US Civil Rights movement would suggest, in the Colombian and Brazilian experience these movements were very far from being massive or disruptive.

A key signature of this book is that in it, Paschel is in constant critical dialogue with the literature on social movements based on the experiences of the Global North. To be sure, she does employ key concepts rooted in this literature like the idea of “ritualized participation” developed by Meyers (1993).This concept is key to describe how state actors in Brazil and Colombia provided social movement actors with highly routinized opportunities to discuss policy issues while giving them relatively low real opportunities to influence the policy process itself. Similarly, Paschel also employs concepts like McCammon and colleagues’ “discursive opportunity structure.” Paschel uses this concept to describe how national and international discourses around indigenous rights in the 1980s were later used by black activists to aid their fights. This is, in fact, a key point in Paschel’s argument: the synergy between national and global organizations and discourses was key to both the emergence and implementation of ethno-racial legislation on the one hand, and to the achievement of important symbolic victories on the other. These major changes in Brazil and Colombia simply cannot be understood without taking into account the international arena, and how it influenced and was influenced, by local processes taking place in these countries. Without a doubt, the detailed analysis of these dynamics over time is one of the most important contributions of this book. In a word, I really encourage you to read this book since it represents a well-crafted analysis of how international and global actors need to be systematically taken into account by traditional social movement theory.

The changes in ethno-racial legislation analyzed in the book indeed represented major transformations in Brazil and Colombia. This is, I believe, a second reason why this book must be part of your summer reading list. If you want to understand some of the intricacies of the most major agrarian reform ever done in Colombia or how the demographic composition of elite public universities in Brazil changed over the last few decades, then Becoming Black Political Subjects is simply a must. Even more, those interested on topics related to symbolic boundaries and boundary-making processes around categories like race & ethnicity or nationhood, will surely find Paschel’s analysis highly relevant. In this book, for instance, Paschel shows how a more widespread –although still far from universal- recognition of racism emerged over the last decades in Colombia and Brazil. This is important because such recognition meant a direct challenge to deeply engrained color-blind and racist conceptions of nationhood based on the ideology of mestizaje. Still in the realm of the symbolic, this book also shows how different symbolic conceptions of blackness, and more precisely of black political subjectivity, emerged and impacted cultural and political processes in Colombian and Brazil.

A third and final reason to read this book is related to how Paschel’s work is a very good practical example of how a (political) fields approach can be fruitfully applied to understand contemporary social movements’ processes and outcomes. Here I would like to briefly mention Paschel’s notion of “political field alignments.” This is an important concept because it acknowledges the centrality of the state without reifying it. In fact, political fields are understood by Paschel as necessarily spanning national boundaries, the boundaries of the state. Paschel shows that when the transformation of domestic political fields in Brazil and Colombia resonated (i.e. aligned) with more or less similar changes in the “global ethno-racial field” (i.e. global political actors and discourses related to ethno-racial matters), then large-scale symbolic and material changes were more likely to be conquered by black activists. I find these ideas and concepts highly compelling. In fact, I would love to see more research that explains the trajectory and outcomes of negative cases in Latin America, that is, countries in which novel ethno-racial legislation was less prominent or virtually inexistent (e.g. El Salvador, Peru). A thorough analysis of negative cases will likely illuminate and enrich the political fields approach developed by Paschel in her book.

I hope I made a good case to include Becoming Black Political Subjects in your summer reading list. I truly believe this is a wonderful piece, one that, by the way, is very accessible and easy to read, yet another reason why I think you should give it a try!

p.s. On page 103, Paschel cites Van Cott’s The Friendly Liquidation of the Past, to give some context on the 1991 constitutional reform process in Colombia. In this context, Paschel mentions that 80 percent of Colombians favorably voted for the constitutional reform. I believe this figure was much less, although I wish it was that high. Alarmingly low levels of participation in formal politics is a key signature of Colombian politics.

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