COAL TO CREAM

A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race

By Eugene Robinson

Free Press. 271 pp. $24

Reviewed by Gregory H. Williams

Brazil has always held a special attraction for those who yearn for a color-blind society. The history and lore of that country display a persistent image of a true multicultural world. The hope of finding a such a society filled Eugene Robinson's mind when he arrived in Rio de Janeiro as the South American bureau chief for The Washington Post. In Brazil, Robinson thought he would find an egalitarianism that did not exist in his boyhood in Orangeburg, S.C. There, in the 1950s and '60s, the lines between black and white society were clearly delineated: As Robinson recounts, even young black boys understood that race made a difference in where you went to school, what jobs your parents held, and where you lived.

But many people who grew up in the '50s and the '60s, especially black Americans, believed that Brazil was different. Robinson's initial foray onto the beaches of Ipanema reinforced his view of Brazil as a raceless society. At a beach gathering he chatted with a colleague's Brazilian girlfriend, who -- at least according to Robinson's well internalized American color-consciousness -- was obviously a black woman. But she refused to be categorized as black. Robinson discovered that -- in what amounted to a mirror-image of the U.S. "rule" -- in Brazil "one drop" of white blood can make you white, if that is the path you choose.

He found the experience both unsettling and liberating -- unsettling in the sense that the U.S. penchant to classify and categorize as black anyone with a trace of black ancestry did not apply in Brazil, and liberating in that at last he had found a society where race was "what you made it." Thus he began his South American odyssey.

Robinson's keen journalist's eye and sharp ear for subtle nuance, however, compelled him to continue to test the thesis that race in Brazil is as malleable as the Amazon earth. And he could not fully embrace the corollary that race does not limit social and occupational mobility in that country. Ironically, it was in Brasilia, billed in the 1950s as the city of the future, that Robinson's views of the role of race and color in Brazil finally changed. He found almost no blacks living in that capital city; they hovered on the outskirts in shanty towns. He finally had to reconcile the fact that the leaders of Brazilian society -- the policymakers, the bureaucrats who decided the future of the nation -- were almost exclusively white. The few black faces belonged to "security guards, the janitors and other support staff."

Reluctantly, he concluded that, while there may not be vivid racial lines in Brazil, there are clear -- although unacknowledged -- color lines. And it is this color caste system that permits the illusion of a raceless society and the delusion that there is no discrimination on the basis of skin color. Robinson decries the failure to acknowledge these color lines because they eliminate a tangible focal point for both recognizing and battling the very real discrimination that does exist in Brazil.

Robinson's conclusion provides a powerful lesson. Brazilians, like many U.S. citizens, seem to take comfort in considering the lines of division in society to be socio-economic, not racial. But that view often conveys an unspoken belief that low socioeconomic status may be more duly charged to individual shortcomings than to inherent defects in society at large. It is simpler and much less emotionally charged to talk exclusively in the neutral language of improving general status than to combat systemic racism and discrimination.

Those in the United States who would prefer to talk in terms of raising the status of all Americans often do not confront the ingrained cultural beliefs that close doors of opportunities for persons of color. The Brazilian experience suggests that we will not move forward as a people until we recognize that race -- just as much as place -- affects how persons of color are perceived, where in society they land, and how the social fabric of this country is drawn.

Gregory H. Williams is dean of Ohio State University College of Law and the author of "Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black."