Favelas and Ghettos - Book Review

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dos Santos Oliveira, N. “Favelas and Ghettos: Race and Class in Rio De Janeiro and New York City.” Latin American Perspectives (1996): 71–89.

Ney dos Santos Oliveira’s “Favelas and Ghettos: Race and Class in Rio De Janeiro and New York City” contributes to the dialogue established by Marcuse, Ronald van Kempen, John Hughes, Simon Sadler, and others. Adopting a transnational comparative perspective, Oliveira examines the relationship between race and class in the establishment and proliferation of Brazilian favelas and American ghettos. “Political empowerment” of residents serves as a special point of focus for Oliveira. Like Ananya Roy’s squatters and commuter women, Oliveira hopes to excavate the potential and reality of political mobilization for both spatial communities. Perhaps surprisingly, Oliveira concludes that despite diminished funding (in comparison with their American counterparts), Rio’s favelas organize more effectively, remain independent from state co-option which enables broader progressive movements. Moreover, favelas focus on class identity facilitates broader alliances but also allows for the maintanence of a racial identity for participants. Drawing upon several authors, Oliveira marshals David Harvey to explain his focus on spatialization, “Harvey (1990) contends that classical Marxism fails to explain the significance of spatial organization in urban social movements, the politics of collective consumption, and so forth. I argue that the likelihood of popular resistance is a function of political opportunity, the resources necessary for mobilization, and the spatial concentration of these factors.”

Brazil’s history of urban spatialization differs sharply from the United States. Slavery, more widespread throughout the country rather than confined to a region as in the US, meant that racial spatial patterns following Brazil’s gradual emancipation lacked the polarized racial demographics of the U.S. Additionally, favelas have long illustrated a more diverse racial and class integration than American ghettos. From the 1930s through the 1970s, both the U.S. and Brazil engaged in urban development plans that resulted in similar failures as far less affordable housing was constructed than expected. With new external factors such as globalization, Oliveira wants to know ““if social mobilization is strongly and decisively dependent on spatial concentration.” In moments, Oliveira echoes ideas put forth by Saskia Sassen in The Mobility of Capital and Labor, “Here I want to stress the process by which favelados and ghetto residents consolidate a degrees of power through spatial concentration and its implications for the relative significance of race- and class – based identification.” Oliveira suggests that the concentration of class based identities in favelas provides them a special political power, much like the proportionally small but dense immigrant communities of Sassen’s work that enable such populations to wield political power despite their smaller numbers . Moreover, globalization contributes to an economic polarization that further divides Rio and New York, “recent changes in global economic processes have exacerbated racial segregation and class inequality. What is worse, those segments of the labor force that do not have the necessary skills to compete for new jobs generated by the reconfigured business and financial system have essentially been abandoned by both public and private sectors.” This new relationship between capital and labor require scholars to reevaluate the “categories of race and class”. If many American communities such as former public housing in Chicago have begun the long process of gentrification (Bronzeville serves as only one example in the Midwestern capital), so too have favelas endured this process as middle class Brazilians move into many, pushed further out by rising land prices.

Though Oliveira concludes that community favela movements’ effectiveness exceeds similar efforts by their American counterparts , both too often organize around service delivery for political mobilization ““because institutionalization of more egalitarian patters in the provision of housing and infrastructure does not by itself guarantee the integration of blacks and the poor into mainstream society.” Ultimately, both movements need more “comprehensive political agendas” exceeding race and class while defining their goals “on the basis of critical emancipatory particiapation."