The race cycles model proposes that there is a systematic process behind massive shifts in dominant ideologies about race in a country that while based upon a logical model, is not in itself linear in practice and occur in brief, intense bursts. This model relies on an event that throws the existing system off balance and allows for the subordinate racial group in that paradigm to emerge and gather strength within the context of the crisis event. Over time, the new racial ideology works itself into the mainstream one and thereby radical change of a racially-based nature occurs, which permanently alters the existing racial structure, whether actively or in a more ideology-based sphere.
The key components of the race cycles model as proposed by Sawyer include five elements, the first of which is the driving mechanism. This mechanism can be defined by several critical events, either directly crisis or event-driven (such as regime change) or political (the influence of both internal and international political action) or what Sawyer defines as events that are otherwise “endogenous shocks to the system" (3). In short, the first component is significant changes or drastic ideologies. What happens following such an upset to established system is the second component of the cycle, which is the shift in “racial politics" (6) that lead to consolidation that is based on current/rapidly shifting racial paradigms as they emerged in the crisis situation. The third component in this model is that there is a change that might permit the possibility of gains or advancement for an oppressed racial group but these changes eventually come to rest and lead to what is termed as “stagnation of the racial situation" (Sawyer 7). Within the context of the crisis situation, these racial changes are implemented, thus creating a new ideological balance that replaces the dominant racial paradigm in the pre-crisis state in a way that is permanent, although is open to debate in terms of how significant the change itself is.
At the moment of independence, black rights are no by no means perfectly aligned and in place due to the struggle and process of consolidation. Due to the long and often fragmentary nature of consolidation, rights and radical change are often slow coming and do not adequately reflect the gravity of the change that has occurred. Sawyer uses the example of the Reconstruction period in America’s south following the end of slavery and the institution of a new dominant racial (not to mention wholly political and economic) paradigm that arguably, is still coming to fruition well over one hundred years later. The non-linear quality of the race cycles model as well as the lack of immediate effects from such changes is not instant—the race cycles model reflects a process of gradual change, even if it is spurred on by a momentous, earth-shattering event that takes place rapidly in time.
Following independence, the race cycles model proposes that change will come, albeit, as suggested above, not instantly. Over time the minority view of race issues will seep into the mainstream and will inject itself forcefully, sometimes violently, before finally replacing the dominant ideology. This could be over one hundred years in the making, even if the critical event that spawned it was massive. What this suggests for Latin America is that the race cycles model has not yet begun. Currently, the critical event that produces the dramatic second and third stages has yet to occur, particularly in the role of Latin America (and perceptions about Latin Americans racially) in the United States. If the African-American experience is any clue to this future, it will be a dramatic event but it could take a century before the dominant, still racist ideology is replaced.
Without context, the term “racial democracy" implies that there is a democratic state that is specific to one’s race, which is not the case. In fact, in his definition of democracy in line with the Spanish connotations of the word, the democracy in question is more of a “brotherhood" than a distinct political structure. With this in mind, the concept of racial democracy, from its beginnings as envisioned with the inclusionary views of Freyre, is very much a valid sub-structure that exists in the case of Brazil, in particular and social science theories as well as the use of a cultural perspective lend credence to the concept. In fact, not only is the idea of racial democracy alive in Latin America, many elements of culture and politics (which are interconnected by nature) rely on this base ideology.
It should be stated that there are no distinct value judgments being offered here on the idea of racial democracy, only a statement attesting to its existence; it is neither a wholly positive or negative idea. While it provides what might be a more suitable model than the United State’s segregation model, it does create the problem of what Sawyer terms “inclusionary discrimination" (xx) which provides the context of what he believes to be the “myth of racial democracy" (xx). Value judgments aside; to be faithful to the question posed, racial democracy does indeed exist, although its nature and possible benefits and drawbacks are questionable as are its rootedness in white supremacist notions.
At the beginning of his book, Telles notes the ideological divides in conceptions of race between the United States and Brazil, stating that whereas ancestry, even in “one drop" was the identifier of race in America, in Brazil race is based on appearances physically. The suggestion is that this division in race perception more generally forms the basis of the entirely separate racial conceptualization between the two countries. Furthermore, Telles suggests that this, combined with the differences in democracy and its historical point of development, the racial democracies emerged differently as well. This is one of the defining distinctions that typifies race perception in Latin America, especially when viewed in the context of the United States and its history of segregation, biological determinism, and the notion of extreme racial hierarchy. While Sawyer notes that in Cuba there was far less drastic racial segregation, per se, even with this more homogenized conception of race as more of a cultural rather than biological determinant to culture and politics, this alone does not eliminate racism, thus the reason behind Sawyer’s contention that racial democracy is a “myth."
While blacks were excluded from participation in American democracy, it should be understood that the democracy precluded (or at least coincided) with race relations whereas in the case of Brazil, democracy did not exist at all until they became part of it in a process of natural inclusion by historical circumstances. The basis of racial democracy extends back before Freyre’s assertions and is rooted in both historical and cultural circumstance rather than any conscious decision-making. Elements contributing to what Freyre would later notice include a Portuguese openness to mixing with other cultures due to its subjugation by the Moors, for instance, a lack of gender equilibrium, and the process of “whitening" which was historically explicitly encouraged. More importantly, and what these elements are symptomatic of, is a striking difference in racial perceptions between the United States and Brazil where race itself was classified according to an entirely different taxonomy that was far more cultural than biologically-determined.
With a basis in historical and racial comparisons between Latin America (Brazil in particular) and the United States, Telles demonstrates how the two countries diverged in terms of their understanding of race, suggesting that while North America was obsessed with finding classifications and boundaries for racial distinction, Brazil was able to view this mingling of different ethnicities as a valuable contributor to national identity. The final outcome for Brazil was first truly suggested by Freyre and his celebration, rather than condemnation, of miscegenation (despite its slight bias toward white supremacy in its notion of the “whitening" effect) and thereby the idea of racial democracy was born. As it is a living theory and can be witnessed in Brazil in particular, even still, Sawyer’s contention is that this is a myth that is akin to the American concept of being “colorblind." In his analysis of the Cuban experience, he contends, “Cuba has not become a racial democracy, but has done more than any other society to eliminate racial inequality" (Sawyer p. i).
Racism manifests itself through class and other cultural distinctions but what the course of Latin American versus American racial history shows is that this emphasis on the central tenants of racial democracy creates far more stable political/racial/cultural paradigms. Again, this is not a value statement, it is rather a suggestion that by a more integrative approach to racial perception using the “brotherhood" concept implicit in the term “democracy" as used in (“racial democracy") culture informs race attitudes and vice versa—far more, and in a far more constructive way—than in the United States, at least as evidenced by the cases of Brazil and Cuba.