“Ignorance is stubborn and prejudice is hard.” – Adlai E. Stevenson
Europe’s history is one of tense race relations influencing the political and social stage across the continent, and beyond. From the moment European powers advanced the Euro-American Slave Trade, to the long colonial history of conquest and domination in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and beyond the construction of concentration camps and the attempted extermination of those who did not fit the Aryan mould, unequal race relations and discriminatory hierarchies have been established by European leaders in constantly-evolving Nation States. One of the earliest and most influential, in this sense, was Portugal, whose era of exploration changed the global order, from Brazil to Macau. Its history is still relevant today, when the far-right party Chega is feeding intense feelings of racism and xenophobia while rapidly growing in the polls, and democratically elected Members of Parliament are receiving death threats.
The memory of the colonial period, particularly in Africa, which mostly ended for Portugal in 1975 with the war between the government in Lisbon and the independence movements in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Principe (the only exception being Macau, which was officially transferred to China in 1999), is still fresh for many citizens, while being a completely abstract concept for others. The result has been a mixture of resentment and indifference, creating a generalised environment of highly disguised racist ideologies, with minimal resistance or opposition. The long-held belief that racism has never infected the Portuguese society has led to complacency in the face of normalised discrimination. Moreover, an education system which has supported the suppression of stimulating conversations about racism and its place in society and politics has fostered a counter-productive dialogue that is based on outdated and incomplete notions of racism – that is, founded in the idea that racism must automatically involve conscious discrimination and violence of some sort, thus negating the societal structure, so deeply rooted as to be unconsciously perpetuated, built to elevate white people and disregard any racial minority. While direct apologists are rare, those who remember the colonial period with fondness, sometimes even defensive assertiveness, are very vocal – and not exclusively in conservative circles. In the past year and a half, their voices have been further amplified by the emergence of a new populist right-wing party whose foundation was almost completely based on the return to the Christian, conservative, pre-globalisation values of the last century. Furthermore, the rapid growth in prominence of this party, now called Chega (Portuguese for ‘Enough’, inspired by the feeling of impatience at the ‘destruction’ of the nation at the hands of the established political system), is a direct reflection of the unheard wishes of the forgotten conservative interior and the right-wing supporters who feel either nostalgia for what they perceived to be the simpler and more organised life under the authoritarian regime of Salazar only 50 years ago, or contempt for the ineffective socialist governments of the past decades, often alongside disdain for the international outlook of the European Union since Portugal’s accession in 1986. Their win of one Member of Parliament (the party leader, André Ventura) came as a shock to the democratic establishment, but not as a surprise to those who had been observing their support bases increasing enormously, as those who had failed to identify with a soft right wing or an almost all-encompassing left wing suddenly found a voice in party politics.
It is in this context that the Black Lives Matter discussion arrived in Europe’s port in early June. The social tensions related to cultural and ethnic diversity were already felt, but active opposition had for the most part been silent and scarce – the vocal condemnation of structural racism triggered a louder support for the idea that Portugal has not only been unaffected by a deep-rooted discriminatory system like that of the United States, but also that it is an example of a truly post-racial society (which is presented as a negative, more often than not). A protest enacted by Chega in early August, vocalising the idea that Portugal is not a racist country, was attended by hundreds of people – more than that, it was labelled a “right wing counter protest”, to show that the “spectre of racism” must not enter (quotes by Ventura, translated from the Portuguese). The ultra-nationalist speech of the party thus disregards, on one hand, the history of a country that has had much to answer for in terms of the racialisation of the world, but also the contemporary need for an open debate about the very real biases present in the political hierarchy. Of note is that this protest came in the wake of the shocking murder of black actor Bruno Candé, in the middle of the day in a busy Lisbon street, after being sent death threats by his killer, which included several racist insults, only days prior.
Not long after, a group of masked individuals, members of the nationalist conservative group Resistência Nacional (which not only gathers supporters from PNR and Chega, the two far right parties in Portugal, as well as other independent neo-Nazis, but is also lead by a militant member of Chega itself), stood outside the headquarters of SOS Racismo, an organisation for the end of racial discrimination, which had already been defaced with graffiti the previous month with the words “War to the enemies of my land” (translated from Portuguese). These demonstrators, with faces covered by white masks and carrying torches, claimed to protest against the “anti-national racism” (quotes from their Facebook page, translated from Portuguese) that had been growing in recent months. The following day, on the 12th of August, SOS Racism reported receiving an email with a list of ten individuals, including three left wing Members of Parliament and the leader of the organisation itself, along with death threats unless they were to leave the country within 48 hours. The email also contained the words “August will be the month of the fight against the nation’s traitors and their supporters. August will be the month of the nationalist rebirth” (translated from Portuguese). With an ever more divided society, between those who continue to support extremist measures to deal with difference and diversity and those who fight for tolerance and stronger governmental and popular action against blatantly racist attacks, some have affirmed that the Ku Klux Klan has arrived in Portugal and that the escalating racial tensions will continue to worsen, leaving many to fear for their lives and social liberties.
While this conclusion may seem extreme, it is hardly deniable that the dismissal of racial divisions in Portugal has provided a blank space in Portuguese politics for a highly racialised speech, which Chega filled with its charismatic leader, then leading to the consequent validation of ultra-nationalism and conservative ideas of societal organisation, articulated most vocally by the aforementioned neo-Nazi group. Further dismissal of the need for a serious review of the system that silences the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities in Portugal will most likely lead to a new, more demanding and forceful, conversation about race and its part in social relations, such as the one now being observed across the USA, stronger social divides along ideological lines, and unmanageable unrest, given the resources and scale of security forces in Portugal at the moment. Continuous efforts to crackdown on violent attacks and hate speech – without interference in simple inoffensive freedom of speech and opinion – will mark the following months, as this situation develops. Inaction has proven, time and time again to be detrimental in the long term. Right now, social cohesion in Portugal, and in Europe, depends greatly on the active challenge to racist structures.