African descendants comprise nearly one-third of Latin America’s population, but suffer economic, social, and political exclusion. In my research, I examine how political and social institutions reinforce Latin America’s entrenched racial stratification. My work challenges conventional wisdom about the importance of race in Latin America and contributes both theoretically and empirically to the study of identity politics.

My research is on racial identity, political behavior, and representation in Latin America. I focus principally on Brazil, which has the largest African descendant population of any country in the world, outside of Africa. Brazil’s predominately white political elite historically promoted the myth that Brazil is a “racial democracy”—that is, Brazil is an inclusive, racially tolerant society. In reality, Afro-Brazilians suffer racial discrimination and are politically marginalized. Despite comprising a majority of the Brazilian population, only 20% of the elected members of Brazil’s Congress are Afro-Brazilian.

Book Project: Race and Representation in Brazil

In my current book project, I answer two central questions. First, why do Afro-Brazilians not attain representation in Brazil’s Congress commensurate with their numerical strength? And second, how do racial disparities in electoral outcomes affect the representation of Afro-Brazilians’ policy interests? This project draws on a year and a half of fieldwork in Brazil, econometric analyses of electoral and legislative data, and experimental methods. I received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Fulbright-Hays Program to support data collection and analysis.

I show that political parties, resource disparities, and voter prejudice undermine the electoral prospects of Afro-Brazilian candidates. Drawing on interviews with politicians and party officials, as well as data from Brazil’s 2014 congressional elections, I find that parties recruit Afro-Brazilians to run for office but do not provide them the financial resources necessary to win. Parties provide white candidates significantly more financial resources than their Afro-Brazilian counterparts, even after controlling for candidate quality. My research also indicates that voter prejudice, not just discrimination by political elites, also hinders Afro-Brazilian candidates attaining elected office. Observational election data and a pilot experiment I conducted suggest Brazilian voters discriminate against Afro-Brazilian candidates. I published my findings in a peer-reviewed article in Politics, Groups, and Identities and am currently conducting a nationally representative voting experiment in Brazil to elucidate the conditions under which racial voting is most pronounced.

I demonstrate that racial disparities in electoral outcomes perpetuate racial inequality in Brazilian society. My analysis of legislation sponsored in Brazil’s Congress between 1995 and 2015, as well as the formal interviews I conducted with 75 elected legislators reveal that Afro-Brazilians’ policy preferences receive limited representation. I find that less than one 1% of the more than 40,000 legislative bills sponsored between 1995 and 2015 are designed to improve the economic, social, and political status of Afro-Brazilians. My econometric analysis of bill sponsorship behavior indicates some legislators though are stronger advocates for Afro-Brazilians than others. Afro-Brazilian legislators are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to introduce legislation that improves the status of Brazil’s majority Afro-Brazilian population. Afro-Brazilian legislators introduce bills to valorize blackness and to address racial inequality in education, employment, and healthcare. Nevertheless, Afro-Brazilian legislators’ ability to transform their proposed race-conscious legislation into law is hindered by their limited congressional numbers. In this way, the descriptive underrepresentation of Afro-Brazilians perpetuates racial inequality in Brazilian society.

Job Market Paper: Brazilian Politicians Change Their Self-Reported Race

In my job market paper, I show that some politicians seek to enhance their electoral prospects and capitalize on Brazil’s increasingly salient racial divisions by strategically changing their publicly declared race. Brazil’s history of racial mixture and the absence of official rules for racial classification provide politicians remarkable latitude to racially identify themselves. My novel theory of “racial positioning” indicates that politicians instrumentally change their publicly declared race according to electoral conditions to advance their political careers. Racial positioning suggests electoral rules, as well as the racial composition of the electorate, determine the electoral utility of different racial identities. However, formal rules and social norms of group membership constrain which racial groups candidates can claim membership in. I test this theory using an original dataset assembled from official electoral documents.

My econometric analysis demonstrates that over a quarter of Brazilian politicians who ran for office in 2014 and 2016 changed their self-reported race from one campaign to the next. I show these changes are by no means random, but instead reflect strategic electoral calculations. I show that candidates are significantly more likely to racially reclassify themselves as members of large racial groups, as opposed to small ones. Moreover, my results indicate that candidates competing in single-member districts are significantly more likely than those in multimember districts to claim membership in large groups. Finally, I demonstrate how voters’ perception of candidates’ race determines how candidates choose to racially identify themselves. These results indicate how politicians choose to racially identify is neither fixed nor exogenous. More broadly, the results challenge theories linking race and political outcomes.

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