One of the most striking and dramatic transformations to take place in the United States and Brazil during the 20th century was the redefinition of their national communities in racial terms. In each nation, the blatant exclusion of people of color, particularly blacks, grew ideologically distasteful, and the embrace of racial pluralism became rather mainstream. Under Franklin Roosevelt and Getúlio Vargas, both states played a critical role in this transition, championing multiracialism as a democratic and nationalist mantra for various reasons. I refer to this ascendant ideology as "racial democracy," a term traditionally applied to Brazil, but one, I argue, that pertains to the U.S. during this period as well.
Focusing on international causes, this study examines why racial democracy emerged as U.S. and Brazilian state ideology from 1930–1945, how, and the ways it was articulated. I argue that the U.S. and Brazilian states propagated ideological racial democracy in part to mediate communism, Nazism/fascism, and World War II. Domestic actors, especially black activists, further tested authorities by capitalizing on the international milieu to advance their own agendas. In the multilateral debate between authorities, the Left, the Right, and blacks, all sides claimed genuine democracy—engrained with explicit racial meanings—which pushed or pulled officials towards racially pluralist nationalism. Since authorities often characterized these challenges as threats to national security, racial democracy emerged as a national defense strategy.
Brazil and the U.S. collaborated on their messages of racial democracy largely through their wartime cultural propaganda exchange. The cultural manifestations of official racial democracy led to a larger presence of black culture and nationalist multiracial rhetoric in cultural productions like government-produced literature, film, and radio. Because of the national security concerns that greatly determined the development of racial democracy, these cultural efforts constituted, among other things, an ideological branch of national defense. But as these states helped to demarginalize black culture, rendering it authentic national culture to varying degrees, they simultaneously demarcated clear limitations to the ways that black artistry could represent the nation. Here, state cultural production reflected many significant features of official racial democracy, namely that it was largely symbolic and inherently restricted in its ability to actually redress racial inequalities in either country.