Eugenics in Brazil: In the early 20th century, elites believed racial improvement was only possible with a project favoring predominance of the white race



Note from BW of Brazil: You know, the further you look into Brazil’s past the more you come to realize that the country’s leaders were every bit as committed to ideals of white supremacy as any other country. In some ways, their tactics of assuring the victory of the white race were a bit different but in other ways they were on par with other intellectual beliefs of the era. Brazil’s desire to maintain black people in a position of inferiority used several mechanisms designed to make their lives a living hell until they eventually just disappeared. There were three and half decades of slavery. The replacing of slave labor with millions of foreign immigrants. The denial of an education. Vagrancy laws that were meant to imprison black people who were in the streets because of the job discrimination that was created by the same system. The slow removal of black teachers from the teaching profession in the 1930s. The outlawing and/or repression of aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture (see here, here and here). The driving of black Brazilians from city downtowns, leading the rise of periphery favela slums and the promotion of miscegenation with the goal of the disappearance of blackness submersed in a pool of whiteness. With all of this going on, is there any surprise that Brazilian elites also warmed to the idea of eugenics? The eugenics movement had adherents throughout Latin American countries, as such, Brazil’s participation was simply a sign of the times. The topic is pretty deep and the article below is just a scratch on the surface. Check it out!


What was the eugenics movement in Brazil: so absurd that it is difficult to believe

Eugenia is a term that came from the Greek and means ‘well born’. “Eugenics emerged to validate hierarchical segregation,” Pietro Diwan, author of the book Raça Pura: uma história da eugenia no Brasil e no mundo (Pure Race: A History of Eugenics in Brazil and the World), explains to VIX.

How eugenics was born

The idea was disseminated by Francis Galton, responsible for creating the term, in 1883. He imagined that the concept of natural selection of Charles Darwin- who, by the way, was his cousin – also applied to humans.

His project was intended to prove that the intellectual capacity was hereditary, that is, it passed from member to member of the family and, thus, to justify the exclusion of the blacks, Asian immigrants and disabled of all the types.

Francis Galton

For this, he analyzed the biography of more than 9 thousand families.

“Galton intended to extend the implications of the theory of natural selection, indicating that his studies demonstrated that beyond the color of the eye, features, height and other physiological aspects, also behavioral traits, intellectual, poetic and artistic skills would be transmitted from parents to children,” described the researcher Valdeir del Cont, of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).

The eugenics project was introduced to the world by Great Britain and put into practice for the first time in the United States.

Movement of eugenics in Brazil

Brazil not only ‘exported’ the idea but also created an internal movement of eugenics. Doctors, engineers, journalists and many names considered the intellectual elite of the time in Brazil saw in eugenics the ‘solution’ for the country’s development.

Black people in Salvador, Bahia at the end of 19th century

They therefore sought support in biogenetics (ie, in Galton’s research studies and results) to exclude blacks, Asian immigrants, and disabled people of all types. Thus, only whites of European descent would populate what they understood as the ‘nation of the future’.

According to social anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz, eugenics officially came to the country in 1914, at the Faculty of Medicine of Rio de Janeiro, with a thesis guided by Miguel Couto, who published several books on education and public health in the country.

Couto regarded Japan’s immigration with a bad eye and years later, in 1934, he would be responsible for implementing an article in the Constitution of the time that controlled the entry of immigrants into Brazil.

In the early years of the twentieth century, however, there was in Rio, then the Brazilian capital, the idea that the Brazilian epidemics were the fault of the negro, recently freed from the abolition of slavery (1889).

Thus, for some of the intellectual elite of the time, eugenics would be a form of ‘social hygiene’, so much so that ‘sanitation, hygiene, and eugenics were very close and often confused within the more general ‘progress’ project of the country, said researcher Maria Eunice Maciel, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).

Renato Kehl: the father of eugenics in Brazil

When confronted with the thesis directed by Couto, the physician and sanitarist Renato Kehl (1889-1974), considered the father of eugenics in Brazil, felt that the scientific community had to try harder.

He believed that racial improvement would only be possible with a broad project that would favor the predominance of the raça branca (white race) in the country.

Professor Maria Maciel lists some of Kehl’s ideas: “segregation of the disabled, sterilization of the ‘abnormal and criminal’, marriage regulation with mandatory pre-nuptial examination, compulsory eugenic education in schools, mental tests on children aged 8-14, regulation of ‘illegitimate children’ and examinations to ensure divorce if proven ‘hereditary defects’ in a family.”

Kehl was able to bring several medical authorities to take the eugenics project forward: one of them is Gonçalves Vianna, from the then Liga de Higiene Mental do Rio Grande do Sul (Mental Hygiene League of Rio Grande do Sul). Another well-known figure was the radio broadcaster Roquette-Pinto, who led the Eugenia Congress in Rio, in 1929.

At this congress, which brought together dozens of physicians and biologists who favored the idea of eugenics, they classified people with disabilities such as blind, deaf-mute, and people with mental disabilities, for example, ‘the defective’ – that is, an evil to be combated for the ‘superior race’ to prevail.

Women were regarded as ‘procreators’ and eugenics, to them, was a form of ‘warning of danger that threatens the race with feminism’, as Maciel pointed out.

In the same era, a “Concurso de Eugenia” (Eugenics Contest) was organized that would reward the 3 children who “most approached the ideal eugenic type,” as the poster announced.

The ‘winners’ of the contest were all girls, white, who were classified as ‘good procreators’.

According to Pietra Diwan, on a national and political scale, eugenics was a “super project” because it allowed us to identify the racial and physical characteristics considered to be “bad” by the richest of the time and “to cut the bad to develop only the good characteristics in each person.”

Intellectuals against and in favor of eugenics

Monteiro Lobato

Who was in favor In the 1920s and 1930s, eugenic thinking co-opted many influential names, such as Júlio de Mesquita, owner of the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo; Oliveira Vianna, jurist and sociologist considered ‘immortal’ by the Brazilian Academy of Letters; and the founder of the department of Medicine in São Paulo, Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho – of whom the famous “Dr. Arnaldo Avenue”, in the downtown of the city of São Paulo takes its name.

The renowned author of Sítio do Picapau Amarelo, Monteiro Lobato, was not only close to Renato Kehl, but also wrote a book based on the ideas of eugenics.

Published in 1926, O Presidente Negro – O Choque das Raças (The Black President – The Shock of the Races) spoke of a black man who would take over the Casa Branca (White House) in the year 2228 and would unite all whites in the United States to the point of sterilizing and exterminating the blacks of his country.


Shortly after releasing the book, Lobato mentions his friend in terms that today sound scary: “Renato, you are the father of eugenics in Brazil, and I dedicate my (book) Choque, a pro-eugenics war cry, to you. I see that I made a mistake by not putting you there on the frontispiece, but forgive this spoiled friend. We need to release, popularize these ideas. Humanity needs only one thing: pruning. It’s like the vine.”

They didn’t have a clear opinion

After the proclamation of the Republic, Brazil was living a new moment. Newly-freed blacks competed with immigrants from various parts of the world (such as Japan, Italy, Syria and Jewish refugees, to name a few), causing the Brazilian unit to be rethought.

It was in this context, in 1933, that the author from Pernambuco Gilberto Freyre published Casa Grande e Senzala, a book that revolutionized Brazilian anthropology by showing how miscegenation became a unique feature of Brazil.


Pietra Diwan says, however, that Freyre’s ideas were not a counterpoint to eugenics.”It’s controversial. In my view, he tries to justify prejudice in Brazil through miscegenation. He rather criticizes segregation. But the danger of miscegenation in this context is the embranquecimento (whitening), which has become the proposal of some: ‘Well, let’s mix because it whitens and eliminates the bad characters of society.'”

Freyre was close to Renato Kehl and considered one of the great Brazilian geniuses by Monteiro Lobato. Still, says Pietra, “Freyre was not of the eugenics movement. I say he is an understander.”

Not even the modernists, who had as their intention to praise Brazil’s ‘root’ in the field of literature and the plastic arts, were totally against eugenics. “Most of the modernists went in search of a pure, natural country of Indian images, but they completely exclude blacks. They do not contemplate the whole of Brazilian society at that time,” reflects Pietra.

Immigrants in Brazil

Who was against

One of the greatest opponents of the ideal of eugenics was the (state of) Sergipe doctor Manoel Bonfim. In 1905, he published a work that irritated the medical community: the book A América Latina: males de origem (Latin America: evils of origin). He called eugenics a “false science” and exposed the declared prejudice of Europeans in relation to Latin Americans.

“The book is an analysis of the causes of misery and the general backwardness of the continent, in which it exposed the so-called scientific racism,” explains sociologist Jefferson Medeiros of the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE). “The formulation given by Bomfim in contrast to what was in force at the time about the factor of the races being the causes of underdevelopment leads him to formulate the thesis of social parasitism.”

(Social parasitism is the idea that rich countries invade nations to extract wealth and make natives a dominated class.)

Eugenia at the present time

Reports and evidence of generalized violence promoted by Nazi Germany made it “an international constraint on eugenics,” according to Pietra.

In any case, this thought persists, yes, in our society. “If there is no institutionalized eugenics today, there is eugenic thinking embedded in the Brazilian’s mind. We don’t realize it because it is so naturalized, that we always see it as a joke or a justification to differentiate its place in relation to the other,” explains the researcher.

Ordinary jokes like “segunda-feira é dia de branco” (Monday is the day of the white) or “sou pobre, mas sou limpinho” (I’m poor, but I’m clean) are just a few examples of how eugenics have come to this day.

Pietra attributes the persistence of this discourse to television programs, that is, “the consumer industry and mass culture in Brazil”. Once again, this is an American heritage. “This culture comes essentially from the United States, through Hollywood and consumer goods,” says the researcher.

“The term eugenics may have disappeared, but the questions, the thinking and the preoccupation remained,” says the Brazilian researcher, who is currently working on his doctoral thesis relating eugenics to the United States.

Pietra says that in that country, eugenics is institutionalized in social relations – something that is evidenced by the clear distinction between whites and blacks in all spheres.

Source: Vix

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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