The current rise of the radical right in several countries worldwide has been characterized by a focus on the issues of difference and diversity. These issues have been shifted from an inclusionary political rhetoric – informed by situated arrangements of what could been loosely called multiculturalism – towards nationalistic-based exclusionary discourses within which the stigmatization of racialized Others plays a central role.
It seems that we have to choose between a liberal democracy, however incomplete and imperfect, and governments whose authoritarian penchant reminds us of fascism, or even worse, Nazism. However, to the extent that these right-wing rulers all, in one way or another, claim to represent “the will of the people,” they clench to the idea of being “democratic” in some sense. Depending on the national context (in Brazil and in the US, for example), a diffuse threat of communism, at times projected onto China’s military and commercial power, has been deployed as an argument to cement broad social cohesion.
Shifting the Meaning of Democracy makes us realize with disturbing lucidity that it may not be the first time that such a political conjuncture has advanced to the forefront of history: it happened in the 1930s and ended up in World War II. This is the reason why Jessica Lynn Graham’s book is so timely and welcome; it impels us to ask whether the current global political situation might not only be similar to the interwar period but also fraught with consequences as sinister.
To grasp the ingeniousness of this work, imagine its plot as follows: in the 1930s, concerned with the possible advance of Nazi-fascism in Latin America, the segregationist US, where black people were still lynched on the streets, wanted to convince Brazil, the country with the largest concentration of black people in the hemisphere by far, that the US was not a racist nation. This seemingly impossible mission was ultimately accomplished with the help of Brazil itself, by providing the US insights into its hegemonic national self-image as a multiracial paradise.
As Jessica Lynn Graham argues, the term that synthetizes this transnational exchange is “racial democracy”. The expression refers both to Brazil’s race-based nationalism during her period of study and to a paradigmatic vocabulary still extremely common in the academic literature on racial relations in Brazil. However, as Graham contends, it is a term that “pertains to the United States as well” (p. 3).
It was during the era of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy for Latin America that the US tried to put the whole continent under its geopolitical control. Graham demonstrates that this process, even if quite asymmetric, was not unilateral. By shedding light on Brazil’s influence on the US, she complicates the usual view and helps to deconstruct the oppositional historical alterity erected between both countries. As her study shows, racial issues may be a discursive realm which allows not to reinforce a line separating an “openly racist US” from a “racially inclusive Brazil,” but to recognize strikingly common features.
Although focused on Brazil and the US, it is not simply a work for experts in race relations in these countries. Shifting the Meaning of Democracy might be more productively read as an outstanding historiographical elaboration of two broader issues.
First, it points to the centrality of the link between race and democracy in the Western political tradition. The four great political ideologies of the 20th century – communism, fascism, Nazism and liberalism – are scrutinized in light of the ways in which the notion of race was mobilized to shape the meaning of democracy in Brazil and in the US between 1930 and 1945. Graham uses the focus on these national domestic contexts to show how they were simultaneously shaped by multilateral political developments that involved Germany, Japan, Italy, and Russia as well. So doing, she endows her work with a pronounced transnational character. Here, furthermore, the book offers plentiful historical evidence to once again rethink the role of whiteness as the pivotal conceptual cornerstone of a specific narrative in which modernity falsely appears to be an unavoidable historical trajectory towards equality and freedom.
Second, focusing on the interaction of state-led cultural politics and social movements, especially the black movement, the book points to the fact that back then both Brazil’s and the United States’ cultural policy privileged symbolic and non-action-oriented gestures to promote social inclusion of blacks in democracy and society. Put differently, Graham grapples here with the almost intractable political-philosophical problem of recognition or redistribution as the core rational of social transformation. In this sense, she conceives of four analytical categories (racial realism, racial denial, racial dissuasion and racial obstructionism) for addressing the question of how to replace discursive and symbolic forms of racial democracy with state measures that tackle a much wider range of social inequalities (re)produced by structural racism (economic, educational, in political representation, etc.). Graham uses these categories skillfully and productively throughout the book affirming her proposition that they would not “oversimplify or collapse complicated and multidimensional phenomena” but rather “establish enough room for the complexity and nuance that existed within them” (p. 9).
Concerning both of these “big issues”, Graham shows a remarkable ability to integrate micro and macro dimensions, zooming in to even idiosyncratic features of biographies and going back up to the structural constraints of the wide-ranging historical conjuncture. This analytical flow produces a dynamism that traverses all subjects and levels of inquiry, covering with equal accuracy state cultural policies and the black movement’s grassroot actions, which are the two main social phenomena empirically reconstructed. By the same token, all over the book the intertwinement of gender issues with every subject matter at issue is carefully dealt with through the author’s sensitive treatment of both black women’s individual deeds and general constitutive role in the processes analyzed. In doing so, Graham calls attention to prior obliterations and evinces the significance of overcoming them by a profounder comprehension of the past.
On the other hand, the focus on black politics left reduced space for a proper consideration of the indigenous people’s position in the developments Graham accounts for. As a result, the work reinforces a tendency to underplay the importance of native populations in the shifting notions of democracy in both states. This unintended side effect, if read against the grain, means that Graham’s book makes a malady even more serious but, at the same time, provides – with her methodological approach – a potential remedy against it.
If the historian's craft consists, as Marc Bloch says, in demonstrating that “the solidarity of the ages is so effective that the lines of connection work both ways”, Shifting the Meaning of Democracy is a superior piece of historiographical craftmanship: it takes us back into the past so that we may feel our weight heavier on the present’s ground. But not only that. Paraphrasing Spike Lee, it is a work that instigates us to “do the right thing,” without forgetting the mistakes this act may entail.
 Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, Manchester 1963, p. 43.