Often overlooked in the national self-serving comparisons to the U.S. Jim Crow past is the role of the state in Latin America in regulating race. Specifically, upon the abolition of slavery Latin American nations enacted restrictive immigration laws and provided state funding explicitly focused on whitening the population and outlawing the immigration of persons of African descent. Through the operation of immigration laws, persons of African descent were recast into their pre-emancipation status of marginalized peoples. Moreover, customary law (that is, the enforcement of unwritten laws established by long usage rather than legislative enactment) was also used as a tool of racial exclusion in Latin America.
Assessing the treatment of Afro-descendants through the lens of customary law helps to elucidate the “law” part of Latin American racial histories. Specifically, the book examines the post-abolition state customary practices of policing public spaces for the maintenance of racial segregation, excluding persons of African descent from places of public accommodation, imposing racist norms in public education, establishing biased regulation of African-based religions, and structuring census enumerations to marginalize persons of African descent, first in Spanish America and then in Brazil.
Examining the large panoply of racially exclusionary customary practices, along with the legislation and funding of restrictive immigration laws, erodes the notion that Latin American states were innocent of racial regulation. In short, the book disrupts the traditional narrative of Latin America’s legally benign racial past by comprehensively examining the existence of customary laws of racial regulation and the historic complicity of Latin American states in erecting and sustaining racial hierarchies to esteem whiteness.
The book argues that an examination of the role of the state after the abolition of slavery in regulating race through immigration law and customary law disrupts this picture of Latin America as “racially innocent.” I assess the ways in which the contemporary Latin American anti-discrimination laws seek to eradicate the legacy of racial inequality wrought by the historic racism of the state.
Finally, the book concludes with insights as to how the examination of the Latin American context may be helpful to the U.S. racial justice movement today, given the growing denial of the existence of racism in the United Sates. Therefore, the book has a particular relevance for the contemporary U.S. racial context in which Jim Crow laws have long been abolished and a “post-racial” rhetoric undermines the commitment to racial equality laws and policies amidst a backdrop of continued inequality and promotion of whiteness as the ideal.