Hey look it’s Rio! Yeah. I didn’t get to go to Rio. Photo by Agustín Diaz on Unsplash

What Does It Mean to Be American?

Comparing the Population Histories of Brazil and the United States

My real work recently sent me on a work trip to Brazil, which gave me cause to brush up on my Brazil facts and history. Being who I am, I was naturally curious about Brazil’s demographic history. I rapidly found myself more than idly curious, and extremely interested in Brazilian national and ethnic identity compared to the United States. I vaguely recalled being told that racial relations in Brazil were very good, something about a “racial democracy,” but didn’t know much more. I knew, of course, that Brazilian slave-buyers coerced the immigration of over 5 million enslaved Africans as well as enslaving numerous natives, and that mortality on the Brazilian plantations was far higher than in the U.S. And I knew that Brazil had maintained slavery until 1888, when it abolished it; I’d learned both facts when researching the history of U.S. slavery.

And of course as a student of international migration, I knew Brazil had received huge amounts of immigrants in the 1890s up through the 1920s at least, partly in an effort to offset the newly freed black population. But beyond that… I really didn’t know very much. This post is written, then, really as a result of an attempt to self-educate a bit, but I think others will find it interesting as well.

Comparing Population Histories

Let’s start with the very most basic thing: historic population. Here’s the Westernized population of the territories that would eventually become the US and Brazil from 1550 to the present day.

The US is bigger, but Brazil is very big. Both have seen extremely rapid modern population growth.

But you could easily miss out on a key point in this data thanks to the huge scale required to show modern populations. Let’s zoom in to the period before 1776 to get a closer look.

Now do you see it? Brazil had a nearly 100-year head start on the United States, and remained more populous until sometime in the mid-1700s. The wave of enslaved and indentured migration into Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania during that period launched the USA ahead of Brazil.

During these early years of American settlement, the overwhelming majority of settlers came from Great Britain, just as the overwhelming majority of early Brazilian settlers came from Portugal. Or rather, for both settlement areas, the overwhelming majority of free settlers came from those colonial overlords; both regions received extremely high enslaved inflows.

There’s a neat way we can look at these historic growth trends. We can shift their population time series to have a common starting date (“initial settlement”), and we can take Brazil/USA population as a share of the combined population of the colony and its original colonial overlord. I’ve plopped Australia vs. AUS+Great Britain in there as well. The result is striking.

Despite being settled at different times, having very different geographies, and receiving very different waves of immigrants at different periods in their histories, the US and Brazil have followed incredibly similar growth trajectories versus their colonial originators. And this needn’t necessarily have been the case: Australia’s growth path has been very much unlike the US or Brazil in relation to Great Britain.

The US and Brazil have many differences, but on this one historic question they turn out to be very similar. And indeed, Portugal’s much lower population growth than Great Britain’s during the period of settlement and colonization probably is one of the main reasons why the US is so much more populous than Brazil. Sure, tropical diseases probably matter too, but there is no shortage of comfortably habitable land in Brazil, and much of the United States was a malaria-infested swamp too when it was first settled.

Comparing Immigration Histories

We can look at the actual settlement process for Brazil as well. Let’s start by comparing a particularly important source of settlers, indeed the people who did most of the real work in making Brazil and the US viable colonies, enslaved people. The graph below provides my best estimate of forced migration of enslaved people into Brazil and the future US.

As you can see, there’s only one year where the USA coerced the immigration of an even remotely comparable number of enslaved people as what Brazil did, and that one year, 1807, was largely caused by the impending ban on the trade in enslaved people within the territory of the USA. Over this whole period, I place enslaved arrivals in the eventual territory of the USA at around 640,000 people, whereas Brazil is probably around 5.4 million.

Represented versus contemporary populations, the rate of inflow of enslaved people for the two countries looks like this:

Okay, now, this kind of blew my mind. Arrivals of enslaved people from the 1600s until the mid 1700s routinely exceeded 4 or 5 percent in Brazil. That’s insane. There were some years in which for every 11 people already resident in Brazil, a new enslaved person arrived. The US never, ever had a remotely similar volume of enslaved arrivals. Heck, we barely even had that much of any kind of immigration. Here’s my estimates of total immigration into the US, included forced migration of enslaved people, versus arrivals of enslaved people in Brazil.

From the first even quasi-reliable US migration data I can build in the 1650s, Brazilian enslaved arrivals are routinely at a higher volume than all arrivals in the United States. This blew my mind when I first realized it. If we assume some very simple things about birth rates and non-enslaved migration into Brazil, we can then approximate what mortality must have been. Because I don’t want to communicate too much excess of precision, I won’t do a graph, but I find implied crude mortality figures in Brazil ranging between 8% and 16% from 1600 to 1750. Brazil’s crude death rate today is 0.65%. The highest crude death rates in the world today are under 3%. 8–16% population losses in a single year are comparable to Bubonic Plague death tolls (recall that wiping out ~1/3 of Europe’s population took something like 5 years of epidemic spread).

Imagine Bubonic Plague death tolls every year for almost two centuries. That was Brazil. Sugar slavery, in case you didn’t know, is hell. And of course much of that mortality would have occurred very shortly after enslaved people arrived in Brazil. And I should note that these figures do not include the cataclysmic depopulation experience of indigenous peoples. I’m only looking at the westernized population.

We can supplement enslaved migration to Brazil with other forms of migration. I use data from Brazil’s statistical agency, filling in gaps as I’m able, to get a best-guess at Brazil’s historic immigration.

Data for Brazil after 1975 are pretty rough, and the non-enslaved component of migration before 1820 for Brazil is also fairly impressionistic, so don’t take that Brazil line as gospel. It’s there to give you an impression of trends.

Thanks to its monumentally vast coercion of enslaved people, Brazil had higher inflow rates than the US until 1830, when Brazil restricted immigration. By 1835 when restrictions had been loosened Brazil bounced back, receiving more inflows than the US, but the sharp rise in American migration in the 1840s gave the US a solid lead in immigration that would not fade until the 1890s. During that decade, poor economic conditions in the US, growing labor demand in Brazil, and favorable Brazilian immigration policies all conspired to give Brazil a higher immigration rate. But the US soon got back in the game, Brazil has not had a higher immigration rate than the US for any meaningful period in the 20th or 21st centuries.

How We See Ourselves

Americans, speaking here in hemispheric, not national, terms, are, or at least can be, a new people. Every country in our hemisphere was founded by a mixture of labor migrants, colonial populations, enslaved groups, and indigenous peoples. The exact mix of these groups can vary, but at the most basic level the big question facing the Americas is whether we will ever become a new people. How long before it stops being meaningful to cite your settler-origin? How long until we have a new race, the American race? This view of “American” identity is quite old, and while many of its early proponents drew strict lines suggesting the new American identity could never include natives, blacks, or Asians, the wiser prophets of our history always anticipated the mixing of many peoples. One of my favorite of all historic American thinkers is the German immigrant-politician Carl Schurz. In his speech “On True Americanism,” he says:

While the coast of Virginia is settled by a motley immigration, led and ruled by men of ideas and enterprise, the sturdiest champions of principle descend upon the stony shores of New England. While the Southern colonies are settled under the auspices of lordly merchants and proprietaries, original democracy plants its stern banner upon Plymouth Rock. Mercantile speculation, aristocratic ambition and stern virtue that seeks freedom and nothing but freedom, lead the most different classes of people, different in origin, habits and persuasion, upon the virgin soil, and entrust to them the task of realizing the great principles of the age. Nor is this privilege confined to one nationality alone. While the Anglo-Saxon takes possession of New England, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Frenchman plants his colonies on the soil of French Florida and the interior of the continent; the Hollander locates New Netherlands on the banks of the Hudson; the Swede, led there by the great mind of Oxenstiern, occupies the banks of the Delaware; the Spaniard maintains himself in peninsular Florida, and a numerous immigration of Germans, who follow the call of religious freedom, and of Irishmen, gradually flowing in, scatters itself all over this vast extent of country. Soon all the social and national elements of the civilized world are represented in the new land. Every people, every creed, every class of society has contributed its share to that wonderful mixture out of which is to grow the great nation of the new world. It is true, the Anglo-Saxon establishes and maintains his ascendancy, but without absolutely absorbing the other national elements. They modify each other, and their peculiar characteristics are to be blended together by the all-assimilating power of freedom. This is the origin of the American nationality, which did not spring from one family, one tribe, one country, but incorporates the vigorous elements of all civilized nations on earth.
This fact is not without great importance. It is an essential link in the chain of historical development. The student of history cannot fail to notice that when new periods of civilization break upon humanity, the people of the earth cannot maintain their national relations. New ideas are to be carried out by young nations. From time to time, violent, irresistible hurricanes sweep over the world, blowing the most different elements of the human family together, which by mingling reinvigorate each other, and the general confusion then becomes the starting-point of a new period of progress. Nations which have long subsisted exclusively on their own resources will gradually lose their original vigor, and die the death of decrepitude. But mankind becomes young again by its different elements being shaken together, by race crossing race and mind penetrating mind.

So I have to ask. Are we accomplishing these goals? Is race crossing race and mind penetrating mind?

Well, the easiest way to do this is to look at the mixed-race share of the population.

The above graph shows the best estimates I could come up with of mixed-race populations in Brazil and the US. As you can see, there’s a bit of a difference. While the mixed-race share is rising in both countries, the rise has been far faster in Brazil at least over the 20th century, from a lower base, and to a much higher current level.

Brazil, of course, had a much more diverse genetic stock to begin with. Its white settler population was smaller for many centuries and more male-biased, meaning there was more intermixing with enslaved African or nearby indigenous populations. Those indigenous populations were themselves both more numerous and more durable than most North American groups, in no small part thanks to Brazil’s more impenetrable geography. And of course Brazil’s vastly larger and less regionalized enslaved population made the racial question there somewhat different than in the US: a bigger population is somewhat harder to outright ignore and legally oppress.

So if we take the creation of a new phenotypic race as what it means to create this new American people, then Brazil is almost certainly way ahead of the US. And beyond Brazil, it’s worth noting that Hispanics in much of Latin America are a pretty thorough blending of Spanish and indigenous genes, so Hispanics are in some sense already this new American people.

But let’s be honest. It’s not genes we’re talking about here. What we really care about is self-identification. How do people perceive themselves; what people do they see as “part of the tribe”?

In 1998, Brazil’s statistical agency surveyed that question. The chart below shows the share of Brazilians who claimed their “ancestry/origin” as “Brazilian” versus the share of American respondents who, in the 2000 Census, claimed “American” as their ancestry/origin.

As you can see, there’s a difference. Now, some of this may be slightly different survey questions. But more broadly, I’m actually pretty convinced that Brazilians actually have “assimilated” better than Americans, that is, they’ve come to see themselves, in terms of their ethnic culture, as primarily Brazilian. Insofar as they may also be Italian or Japanese, it might be better to call them Brazilian-Japanese than Japanese-Brazilian.

Americans have not formed this kind of identity. It’s not easy to say why. Brazilian self-identification occurs at similar rates for different races in Brazil; that is, it doesn’t actually proxy for pardo race. Whatever it means to people to “identify as Brazilian,” it has little to do with race. “American” does proxy for race, with the vast majority of “ancestral Americans” being white.


You can tell a story, of course, about how low-American-identification is actually American-ness in spades. We’re an immigrant country, we have a diverse culture, we celebrate diversity, difference, and tolerance, so really the most American thing you can do is contribute to this cacaphony by identifying as German or Sudanese. That view appeals to me. That seems like at least a piece of Schurzian True Americanism. But I have a hard time accepting that it’s the whole story, especially in the time of extraordinary national disunity in which we currently find ourselves. Surely we do actually want people to, someday, forget the borders of 19th century Europe? Surely there is some sense in which the American project is not merely a carrying forward but a leaving behind, that is, we do expect at some point for it to not mean anything to say you have Irish ancestry? Isn’t it on some level un-American for ancestry to say anything about who you are as a person?

I have worried loudly and publicly about the decline in American ancestral identification, and suggested that when ethnic/ancestral identification vanishes, pure racial identification will replace it, and is far worse. But, especially in light of Brazil’s experience of still-troublesome but far less severe racial tensions than in the US, I can’t help thinking our goal should not be the infinite perpetuation of European ancestral identification, but the creation of new American ancestries. We should want “Delawarian” or “Mainer” or “Boisean” to mean as much, to have as much cultural and historical cachet, to be able to make as much or more claims on identity and personal history as “Irish” or “Thai” or “Parisian.” Surely that’s the actual goal. I suppose that’s my goal at least; and if that were the kind of identity we all tried to encourage one another to have, I can’t help thinking our country would be at least a little bit better off.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

If you like this post and want to see more research like it, I’d love for you to share it on Twitter or Facebook. Or, just as valuable for me, you can click the recommend button at the bottom of the page. Thanks!

Follow me on Twitter to keep up with what I’m writing and reading. Follow my Medium Collection at In a State of Migration if you want updates when I write new posts. And if you’re writing about migration too, feel free to submit a post to the collection!

I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.