ILLITERACY, GENDER, AND RACE IN BRAZIL1
In this study we present and discuss the principal tendencies of illiteracy in Brazil as observed through longitudinal demographic census analysis. This pursues one principal argument: gender and race affect the educational opportunities open to the Brazilian population differently. In this sense, this analysis will move beyond an associative analytic model (i.e., that gender and race are associated) and privilege those analyses that attempt to deal with the complexity of the interactions between gender and race in the production of educational indicators. The empirical base of this study comes from data published in the Brazilian national census between 1872 and 1980, and selects from these documents information which allows for a comparison of illiteracy, race and gender.
Information about Sex, Color, and Illiteracy in the Census
Data collection on population characteristics in Brazil is not a recent phenomenon. Marcilio (1974) proposes the existence of three distinct periods in Brazilian demography. The first period, which the author calls "pre-statistical," ran from the initial periods of colonization through the middle of the seventeenth century and typically contained estimates about general population characteristics normally accepted by demographers, although they did not include information about the indigenous population that had no contact with white people. The second period--proto-statistical--began in the second half of the eighteenth century and ended with the first general census in 1872. It was characterized by abundant data collection through parochial registers. Unfortunately, because these registers did not make explicit the criteria utilized in the collection process, data was of unequal quality and value. The third period, called the statistical era, began with the 1872 census, whose methodology established the standard for all the years to come.
The golden age of the national census began with the collection effort in 1940, to which the Italian demographer Giorgio Mortara was a principal contributor. This golden age inaugurated a series of modern census taken every decade, commissioned by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE)2 (Marcilio 1974, 6-7; IBGE 1990, 22). Produced with extreme equity, this census provided the initiation of the inclusion of special queries about the female population (fertility and mortality) and extensive data about the color and level of instruction of male and female populations.
It is interesting to reflect on the possible motivations of the Brazilian state, in the period between the 1920s and the 1940s, that led to research on specific queries about the female population, leading to data that appeared in the 1940 census. Studies by Schwartzman, Bomeny, and Costa (1984), Rago (1985), and Reis (1991) explain this data phenomenon as a product of the relevant role given to women by the then fascist government. Data collection on various aspects of women's lives (e.g., fertility) represented one mechanism through which the government could solidify control over the various behaviors linked to marriage and maternity (specifically in the elaboration of the Family Statute of 1941). Further, these initiatives occurred within the context of nascent industrialization, nationalism, and the strong concepts of nationality characteristic of that period (Schwartzman, et al. 1984, 107-122).
Subsequent data collection has included systematic queries about the dynamics of the female population, although similar queries about color have not always been included in such data collection efforts. This paucity of information on racial groups, both in terms of collection and dissemination, has been denounced as a strategy for throwing the race question into limbo in the discussions about national economic, political, social, cultural and educational priorities. Indeed, Brazilian society operates under an ideology of the myth of racial democracy. "Consequently, the inequalities between whites and blacks are not perceived as related to racial considerations but are seen as factors determined by class..., that which fulfills an important function of social control, pointing towards national unity and hiding the existence of racial and social divisions" (Hasenbalg 1992, 53). This myth of racial democracy expresses itself in the tendency of Brazilians (and shared by citizens in other Latin American countries) to consider themselves white. From this perspective, the parsimonious collection of data about race becomes understandable.
The census collects data about color in accordance with the national practice of basing racial classification principally on physical attributes and not on ancestry; that is, the country uses the rule of phenotypes and not the "one drop of blood" rule, characteristic of the North American conceptualization (Skidmore 1991). The classification of color in Brazil is one result of a complex equation involving physical traits, socio- economic origin, and region of residence.
Since 1940, the census has collected information on race in an unsystematic manner,3 using a self-classification system where the informant chooses among four options: white, black, brown (mulatto), and yellow (of Asian origin/appearance). While the census collection uses the category of color, researchers and militants from black social movements conceptualize those belonging to the black race (sociologically understood) as declaring themselves black or brown.
As far as illiteracy is concerned, the specialized literature discusses the imprecision and ambiguity of the conceptualization. "The imprecision and ambiguity with which the concepts of illiteracy and literacy have been treated have contributed to the proliferation of terms (frequently superimposed or partially superimposed) that describe a range of studies and levels situated along the illiterate/literate axis, such as illiteracy arising from disuse and absolute, pure, regressive, functional illiteracy or people who are illiterate, semi-literate, and neo-literate" (Torres n.d., cited in Galvez n.d., 12).
These conceptualizations of illiteracy/literacy are reintroduced into theoretically and ideologically more expansive contexts where visions about economic, social, and political development are translated into ideas and proposals about education. Maria Eugenia Letelier Galvez (n.d.), in a comprehensive study of female illiteracy in Chile, provided evidence of at least three dominant tendencies of the last few decades. In the first, occurring during the "development decades," education was analyzed from the perspective of human capital theory, in which labor market necessities reigned supreme. Illiteracy, in this context, was understood as an obstacle to national progress. During a specific political and ideological moment in history, Latin America, through the work of Paulo Freire, forged a new theory that penetrated the international concept of literacy (legitimated in the International Literacy Conference in Persepolis, 1975). Through his work, the concept of literacy moved from the idea of technical mastery of reading and writing to being understood as a contribution to the liberation of men. The Education for All conference, held in Jomtien (Thailand) in 1990, re-emphasized education and literacy as necessary components for the satisfaction of basic human necessities, stressing the ultimate goal that people realize different realms of their human existence.
These theoretical and ideological perspectives have had little effect on the collection of data about literacy and illiteracy in the recent Brazilian census. In Brazil, as in other countries in the world, the census, since 1940, has mainly opted to ask respondents whether they can read or write a simple message. The simplicity of the question comes from its administration during census interviews. It is asked because of the need for having local, regional, and international comparisons that can be used to orient the development of literacy campaigns and policies.
Similar to the question of color, the question about one's literacy is answered by the respondent. Social values and pressures often cloud the accuracy of the response. To be recognized as, or to declare oneself, illiterate is not a cold, neutral or objective statement, and passes through the sieve of social values. To identify oneself as illiterate, or to be recognized as such constitutes, in certain contexts, a stigma. Because of this, researchers question the value of analyzing this information, opting instead to collect information on the number of years of schooling obtained by individuals rather than looking at literacy rates.
In spite of this debate, the demographic census continued to adopt this unique conceptualization of literacy, making it possible to define historical trends. Thus, since 1940, with few annual variations, the census has defined literacy as "the simultaneous ability of individuals to complete basic reading and writing tasks in a language that they know" (Carvalho 1984, 149).
Also since 1940, the census has permitted comparison of literacy rates within age groups. Thus, there is systematic information about literacy among those older than 5, older than 7, 10 and older, and 15 and older. Information collected by age groups poses different issues for social and educational policies: in terms of an international comparison, in some countries children enter primary school at the age of five; in Brazil and in other countries, schooling is obligatory beginning at age seven. Moreover, as Carvalho affirms, in Brazil, a high proportion of those 10 years and older and those 15 years and older actually and de jure enter the labor market, rather than complete basic schooling, as theory would have it.
Data collection methods employed by the Brazilian census allow for an uninterrupted analysis of literacy by age group since 1872. However, the reality is that the desegregation of data by both color and gender is viable only in the 1940, 1950, and 1980 consenses.4 For this reason, this study works around the limitations imposed by published census data, comparing literacy rates by age group, race, and gender in a series of different historical periods: since 1872, without interruption until 1980 for gender data; and between 1940 and 1980 for data on race.
Studies on Literacy, Gender, and Race
The editions dedicated to literacy in the prestigious journal Cadernos de Pesquisa (1985 and in 1990), offer good examples of the extent to which Brazilian research on education has ignored the analytical perspective of the relationships between gender and race: in both publications we find important and competent articles that discuss macro- structural data about literacy in Brazil (Ferrari 1985; Gatti et al. 1990), without discussing the similarities and differences between the sexes and the races.
Gender and race enter into the Brazilian literature on education only when the text is produced by specialists in these areas or when the data is included in international studies. In either case, analyses which focus on relations between gender and race in the educational context are even more rare, almost non-existent.
It is possible, however, to find a few studies on this theme (Rosemberg 1993; Barelos 1992). We see that this research presents information on the principal tendencies of literacy in Brazil. Outside of Brazil, some researchers, including Alceu Ferrari (1985), take a secular stance on literacy in Brazil, but without giving specific attention to gender and race. These scholars offer several arguments:
These last two observations by Ferrari deserve additional attention since black people tend to concentrate more heavily in the northeast and in rural areas. Indeed, Barcelos (1992), through an analysis of educational opportunities in Brazil, viewed the superior situation of whites in comparison with blacks through the perspective of spatial distribution.
One summary characterization of the spatial distribution of racial groups in Brazil points to the following trends: brown people are in the urban areas of São Paulo, the whites predominate in the south and southeast. This fact is not irrelevant in terms of educational achievement of people of color. We know that urban areas and the south and southeastern regions have the best educational attainment; thus, spatial distribution certainly has some sort of effect on the achievement of different racial groups. (39)
There is evidence, however, that the mere concentration of blacks in the northeast and in rural areas does not completely explain these differences in illiteracy rates. Within a particular physiographic region, even in the wealthy areas, a very evident racial difference persists. This difference was studied by Rosemberg (1992, 305) using data from 1989. She found that "among the 20 million illiterate Brazilians (10 years and older), 41 percent are black residents in the northeast, whereas the total percentage of black residents in the northeast represents only 20 percent of the Brazilian population." The author concludes, "In other words, as long as racial discrimination persists, illiteracy will not disappear..." (Rosemberg 1992, 305).
If such studies are extremely important because they attempt to link schooling with other aspects of social life, the analyses are oriented, as a rule, toward the perspective that education acts as a facilitator, a determined or variable intervenor in the social dynamic. However, a more focused analysis of the relations between illiteracy and race uncovers the possibility of altering the reasoning, focusing instead on the impact of the indicators of the reproductive sphere of life on the educational opportunities of whites and blacks. Such a focus permits an interpenetration of the categories of gender and race.
Based on these preliminary discussions, we can now identify points that we intend to (and are able to) analyze within these different historical periods about illiteracy in Brazil by gender and race. In the first part, we synthesize the current descriptive panorama of literacy in Brazil, based on the data published by PNAD in 1990. Then we describe and interpret the secular tendency of illiteracy in Brazil from the perspective of gender and race.
Illiteracy and Exclusion
In 1990, more than 21 million people in Brazil over the age of 7 declared themselves illiterate, corresponding to 19.6 percent of the population for this age group. This median index hides an extreme amount of variation: 0.4 percent of the people between 15 and 19 years old residing in the southern regions of the country and living with families whose median income is above two minimum salaries (a referential wage unit in the Brazilian context: currently one minimum salary equals $65); 84.3 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 9 residing in the northeastern region and living with families with less that one-fourth of a minimum salary (PNAD 1990).
The illiteracy that persists in Brazil is fundamentally a product of the exclusion of populations that are impoverished in terms of social goods, particularly education. Thus, illiteracy in Brazil has a strong connection to the variations in family income that persist in the different regions and age groups (Table 1). To live in the northeast or in the southeast does not affect one's opportunity to become literate if one's salary is above two minimum salaries; to be older than 39--among southerners and northeasterners--also does not affect the opportunity to learn to read and write, if the family incomes are high. However, to be poor in these regions affects one's chances of being literate. Thus, for all the age groups, the indices of illiteracy are worse in the regions where a greater number of poor people are concentrated.
In this sense, it is neither the geographical region nor urban/rural distinctions that determine in and of themselves the different indices of literacy, but rather the greater or lesser concentration of poor people in these areas; it is also worthwhile to note the higher or lower concentration of income in these geographic spaces. It is because of this that the illiteracy rates vary between racial groups and do not vary more between the sexes, excepting a small proportion of the population that is made up of older females. If it is true that the median personal income of women, in all racial groups and in all the national regions, is inferior to that of men from the same categories (Bruschini 1994), this difference tends to disappear when one looks at family income, which is not taken into account when comparing whites and blacks.
It is possible, then, to suggest that the differences in literacy between racial groups and between genders comes from different processes: the small difference between male and female literacy rates persists in older age groups, and can therefore be considered a legacy of the past; the intense difference that is observed between illiteracy rates of whites and blacks, for both genders, constitutes a legacy from slave history, augmented by current policies that reinforce social exclusion.
When comparing the two genders within each racial group, the differences in literacy rates are minimal. However, comparing the literacy rates between black and white men or between black and white women reveals significant differences (Table 2).
Between men and women, for the general population, and between each racial group, important differences persist in the older age groups. It is upon analyzing this relic from the past that one learns with clarity the secular tendency of literacy in Brazil by gender.
Gender and Illiteracy in the Censuses of 1872 and 1980
A comparison of the data collected since the 1872 census through 1980 about male and female literacy provides evidence of an evolution that has been almost perfectly parallel until the 1940s when there was a notable convergence (Table 3 and Figure 1). Differences in literacy rates between the sexes were maintained at a relatively high rate until 1940 (around 8 percentage points) and began to decrease after that date, even when considering that after 1940 women comprised a greater proportion of the population than men (possibly because of better birth and post-partum conditions).
The data suggest that after 1940, a relatively high number of women integrated themselves into the school system, thereby diminishing the differences in levels of schooling between the genders. The process of schooling for women, which increased after 1940, contributed to the reduction in the percentage of illiteracy in the country in the 1940s, a trend noticed by other researchers but attributed solely to the internal mechanisms of the school system (Ferrari 1985).
If the desegregation of data by gender already highlights the importance of focusing on gender and its diverse effects on social dynamics, analysis of this same data from the perspective of race further complicates the picture.
Racial Tendencies in Illiteracy in the Censuses of 1940, 1950, and 1980
The analysis of the evolution of literacy/illiteracy by race demonstrates another situation that steers us in the direction of demographic analyses about reproduction, introducing again the discussion of gender. We go then, in steps, to describing what we observed initially.
The data contained in Table 4, which is illustrated in Figures 2 and 3, provides evidence that illiteracy did not afflict, during the last 40 years, different racial groups the same way. On the one side are whites and mulattos which had similar profiles: a slow decrease in indices of illiteracy and a gradual increase in the number of illiterates. As we affirmed, this tendency demonstrates that the nation is not capable of making literate each new generation. That is, the pace of educational development is slower than the growth of the population.
When comparing whites and mulattos (Table 4), one observes that the mulattos are the racial group that shows the greatest growth in the absolute number of illiterates. Thus, while the general growth rate of illiteracy was 39 percent between 1940 and 1980, this rate was actually 15 percent for whites and 70 percent for mulattos when desegregated (Table 5).
The same trend is not visible, however, among blacks who demonstrated a simultaneous decrease in the percentage and number of illiterates during this same period. We suggest that the decrease in the absolute number of black illiterates does not detract from the fact that one part of this population would have become literate but is "disappearing" in the general population for reproductive reasons. This argument will be analyzed in the following sections.
In order to explain the decrease in the absolute number of black illiterates, one hypothesis is that black illiterates between 1940 and 1980 might have "migrated" to another racial group. As Piza and Rosemberg (1994) assert, the classification of race does not enjoy great stability or constancy in Brazilian life; that is, it is possible to alter one's racial identity during the course of a lifetime. As Wood's (1991) study evidenced, a "migration" has been observed in the way that people declare their racial identity from one census to the other, principally between blacks and mulattos. Given that Brazilian society views whiteness as the norm, it is not surprising that the self-classification process, and a related intricate process of intersubjective and social construction of identity, would result in shifting racial classifications (Piza and Rosemberg 1994). As Charles H. Wood has argued so well,
These commentaries could be valid for the case in question--and we would then end this interpretive exercise here--if it were not for the fact that the least educated people, not the most educated, had "disappeared" from the black classification. The logic of a racial "migration" from one color category to another corresponds with the ideology of whitening in the sense that "money (and status) whitens." As we have seen, illiteracy in Brazil is a powerful indicator of social and economic exclusion, and does not constitute a "passport" to whiteness. Therefore, it does not explain the decrease in the absolute numbers of black illiterates.
Another hypothesis that can be explored refers to the decrease in the black population in general in the country, a phenomenon identified by demographers (Wood 1991; Berquo, et al. 1986). As Elza Berquo affirmed, "throughout the history of the Brazilian population in the last 40 years, we have observed a change in the configuration of what is referred to as the color variable." The mulattos have had the highest rates of median growth annually, followed by whites and blacks. The black segment was the only one which, between 1940 and 1950, had a decrease in population.
When we compare the growth in population to the growth in illiterates in each subgroup of races, we see that among blacks in the 1940-1980 period there was a small increase in general population and a decrease in the absolute number of illiterates (Table 5, Figure 3). That is, a reduction in the black population was not general but took place principally among illiterates.
Moving beyond the "migration" hypothesis to explain a decrease in the number of illiterate blacks, it seems justifiable to look for explanations in statistical evidence from the last 40 years that substantiates the claim that the number of illiterate blacks would be diminishing. The hypotheses for explaining this population decrease come from a combination of factors including differences by racial groups in life expectancy, infant mortality rates, and marriage and fertility rates (the most important reproductive factors). These factors can also be viewed through the lens of gender.
Various social indicators that have been analyzed from the perspective of race provide evidence that the social destiny of blacks and mulattos is very similar and that it is not often that mulattos actually occupy a better position than blacks with regard to social goods (both symbolic and concrete). Nelson do Valle e Silva (1992), using data from PNAD 1988, affirmed that "poverty in Brazil is not color-blind." Poverty has greater impacts on mulattos (36 percent of this population is below the poverty line) and blacks (30 percent) than on whites. This incidence of poverty among blacks can explain the differences in life expectancy observed between racial groups. As Charles H. Wood (1991) states, life expectancy rates of whites greatly exceed those of blacks and mulattos: "Between 1950 and 1955, life expectancy for whites exceeded that of blacks and mulattos by 8.8 and 9.0 years.... Between 1975 and 1980, life expectancy for whites surpassed that of blacks and mulattos by 6.1 and 6.9 years respectively" (99). Thus, with a Brazilian illiteracy rate that is highest among the poor and elderly, we can suggest that among blacks and mulattos there might have been a decrease in illiteracy rates. However, if poverty and median life expectancy rates allow for a distinction between whites and blacks, they are not factors that establish a difference between blacks and mulattos, because both groups experience similar negative effects. In this way, these explanations do not sufficiently explain the significant decrease in the absolute number of illiterates among the black population.
In the article, "Blacks and Whites Marrying in Brazil," Elza Berquo (1991, 115) offers some clues for understanding the reproductive dynamics of black women. A summary of her observations regarding nuptial patterns by racial groups finds that: black women marry later in life than do their mulatto and white counterparts; celibacy among black women is greater than among mulatto and white women; same race marriages are the norm but when interracial marriages do occur, it is more common that the man has darker features than the woman; and that widowhood among black women is more common than among mulatto and white women. More than demographic phenomena, these aspects of Brazilian marriage uncover a connection between gender and race that produces fewer opportunities for procreation among black women than among their mulatto and white counterparts. In light of the dominant ideology in the country that equates "whiteness" with an improvement in social status and position for women, men tend to prefer women that are whiter and "of better racial background." Thus, black women have even fewer chances to procreate and they give birth to children that tend to be illiterate. Indeed, fertility among black women in the period that we are studying revealed lower rates than among white and mulatto women (Table 6).
The reproductive characteristics of black women diverge even more on another important point: the rate of infant mortality whose mothers classify themselves as black is higher than cases where mothers identify themselves as white or mulatto (Tamburo, 1987; Table 7).
Infant mortality for black mothers is significantly greater than that for white and mulatto mothers, especially among mothers who say they have no education (Tamburo 1987; Table 7). The high rate of infant mortality among children of illiterate black mothers, associated with black women's relatively low possibilities for procreation (i.e., their low ranking in the "marriage market") and lower rates of fertility, could explain the decrease in the number of illiterate people among blacks. Children from this group that might increase the number of illiterates at later ages (e.g., five years and older) are eliminated from the census counts because they die at such a young age.
Thus, as a result of the marriage market, black women have less opportunity to marry than mulattos and whites, diminishing their chances of having children. When they do marry, they seem to have fewer possibilities of having children; when they have do have children, if they are illiterate women, there is a lower chance that their children will actually live to expand the ranks of illiterates.
When we find that there has been a decrease in the last few years in the number of black people who are illiterate which cannot be accounted for by an increased rate of literacy, there are important implications for educational policy. Indeed, macro-structural studies (Barcelos 1992) provide evidence that education without regard to access or the drop-out rate of blacks and mulattos in schools construct strong and similar barriers to these two segments of the population. However, in light of the suggestion that the number of illiterate black people would have diminished because children from those groups that have the least schooling tend to be most rejected from the system, it is possible to conclude that racial discrimination in Brazil has its most dire consequences on the black population.
The link between race and gender becomes increasingly important (and opens new questions) when one knows that the greatest educational barriers for poor black children occur during the initial years of schooling, where the teaching staff occupies the lowest professional status and consists primarily of white women following instructions, in many cases, from white men.
*Fulvia Rosemberg holds a doctorate from the University of Paris in psychology. She is professor of social psychology at the Catholic University of São Paul and is a senior researcher affiliated with the Carlos Chagas Foundation. Dr. Rosemberg works as editor of the education journal, Revista Cadernos de Pesquisa, and has published widely on child development, day care institutions, and gender and race relations. Edith Piza is completing a doctorate in social psychology at the Catholic University of São Paulo, where she is working on a dissertation exploring gender, race, and intergenerational relations in Brazil.
1. This work was completed within a study group on race, gender, and age at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. Support for this research on women was provided by the Carlos Chagas Foundation/Ford Foundation. This article was translated from Portuguese by Pia Wong, a contributor to this volume.
2. The IBGE is the agency responsible for the realization, processing and distribution of the census which is taken every ten years, and for the annual National Research on Households (PNAD).
3. During the twentieth century, census information on race was collected of 1940, 1950, 1960, 1980, and 1991. The census of 1960 experienced various technical problems and is no longer being used. The 1991 census had not been analyzed or published at the time this article was written (November 1994).
4. In 1980, the author confirms that blacks and mulattos registered similar rates of fertility when compared with people without education.
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