Does leading presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s rejection of former KKK leader David Duke’s endorsement mean he is automatically not a white nationalist? Analysis may provide clues
By Marques Travae
The time has nearly come for Brazilians to choose the leader they believe to be most fit to address pressing issues in the country such the economy, unemployment and public security. On Sunday, October 28th, Brazilians will hit the polls and choose between the PSL candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, and the PT candidate Fernando Haddad. Over the course of his campaign, Bolsonaro has been able to stoke the flames of anti-PT sentiments that blame all the problems of the country’s current condition on the PT into a sizable lead over the PT’s Haddad. The latest numbers show Bolsonaro leading by a count of 58% to 46%. For those who don’t know, PT presidents Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) ruled Brazil for almost 14 years before Rousseff was ousted in a well-organized coup impeachment in May of 2016.
Although during its 14-year reign the PT managed to help more Afro-Brazilians have access to a college education, middle class status and lifted millions of Brazilians out of adverse poverty, the party became the face of political corruption that had gripped Brazilian politics in a number of recent political scandals leading to the imprisonment of numerous multi-millionaire businessmen and high-profile politicians, including Lula himself who was imprisoned in April of this year.
A scenario that opened the door for a controversial, extreme-right politician such as Deputado (Congressman) Bolsonaro to step in and take advantage of anti-corruption sentiments of the Brazilian people. Bolsonaro has represented himself as an anti-corruption politician, a conservative, former military captain who is capable of restoring law and order with a desire to restore this law and order through the barrel of a Military Police gun.
Along the way of his political ascension, Bolsonaro has managed to piss off a number of groups (blacks, Indians, women, LGBT) with his firebrand, prejudice filled declarations that many define as hate speech. As if mirroring his fighting violence with violence message, his outrageous commentary has provoked followers to initiate a wave of violence and assaults against supporters of the PT or any policy that is considered leftist. Estimates of the number of physical aggressions on the part Bolsonaro supporters range from 50 to over 100, with at least two people being murdered during this wave of violence.
Interestingly, Bolsonaro is as contradictory as he is provocative. He claims to stand for Brazil, which in certain ways associates him with nationalism, but on the other hand, he declares his admiration for the United States and privatizing Brazilian assets. The candidate is associated with extreme-right conservatism, advocating the shooting of one of Brazil’s biggest representatives of neo-liberal politics, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002), for handing over Brazilian oil reserves to foreign capital but then hires one of the most liberal Brazilian economists, Paulo Guedes, to lead the Ministry of Finance.
As anti-PT as the candidate known as “The Brazilian Trump” presents himself, he agreed with the PT on project votes dealing with private sector benefit concessions, tax incentives, credit installments and subsidies, for example. One of the programs most hated by middle-class, conservative Brazilians is the Bolsa Família program created under the PT, a small governmental financial contribution to the poorest families to assure they didn’t live in abject poverty, is supported by Bolsonaro officials. As Abraham Weintraub, one of Bolsonaro’s advisors, tells us, “We will not extinguish anything. Bolsa Familia is a liberal program based on (American economist) Milton Freidman’s proposals, we are 100% aligned with Bolsa Família.”
What’s the deal here? Are Bolsonaro supporters voting simply based on the man’s rhetoric and image or do they really understand what he’s actually said he supports in terms of policies? How can he be really be so anti-PT but then support some of the policies associated with the PT?
But wait, there’s more.
As race is a major focus on this blog, I was intrigued by a story that broke sometime last week when long-time white American nationalist David Duke came out in support of Bolsonaro’s campaign. At a certain point of his October 9th radio program, Duke said that Bolsonaro:
“…is a European descendant. He looks like any white man in America, in Portugal, Spain or Germany and France or UK. He is talking about the demographic disaster that exists in Brazil and the enormous crime rate that exists there, like in the black neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. He sounds like us. He is also a very strong candidate. He’s a nationalist,” said Duke not hiding his joy in seeing “nationalist movements which are basically pro-European are definitely sweeping the world, even in countries you never thought of.”
And how did Bolsonaro react to this endorsement? Although Duke saw a clear connection between the PSL candidate and pro-white movements taking place around the world, Bolsonaro rejected the endorsement. In a tweet written in English, Bolsonaro responded by saying:
“I reject any type of support coming from supremacist groups,” clearing speaking on Duke’s associations with not only white nationalist movements, but also his former position as Grand Wizard of the racist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s and 1970s.
Bolsonaro continued, “I suggest that, for consistency, they support my adversary, the candidate of the left party, who loves to segregate the society,” finishing his statement by claiming Duke’s words were offensive to the Brazilian people, who are, in his view, “the most beautiful and mixed-race people in the world.”
Are you surprised by this declaration? David Duke clearly saw similarities between Bolsonaro, himself and other white nationalists around the world, so why would Bolsonaro reject such an endorsement? Well, if you know the way in which Brazilian-styled racism functions, this wouldn’t be surprising at all. You see, Bolsonaro is simply the latest in a long line of prominent and everyday Brazilians who simultaneously proclaim they are not racists even harboring clearly racist sentiments. Brazil, as I’ve demonstrated repeatedly on this blog, can be and is as racist as any other country in world, but admitting it would mean officially parting ways with the country’s official belief in the “racial democracy” myth. The candidate’s referring to Brazil’s official discourse of mixed race pride once again hides the fact that beneath the promotion of miscegenation as a source of Brazil’s beauty is the official policy that predicts the demise of the black race through decades of interracial unions.
These are a few of the reasons why 92% of Brazilians can admit to knowing a racist but not personally holding any racist views. This is why a white Brazilian can easily hurl racist comments/jokes in the direction of black Brazilians but still proclaim that they are not racist. Director of journalism at Globo, Brazil’s top TV network, Ali Kamel, went as far as penning a book called We Are Not Racists to further support the denial with fallacious arguments. This is why Brazilians can claim their country doesn’t have racial problems but often react in shocking manners when they see black Brazilians outside of “the place” that Brazilian society has reserved for them.
In reality, although most Brazilians outwardly reject the openly racist ideals of white supremacists organizations, there is still a parcel of the population that supports ideologies associated with racial extremism, although most won’t assume it publicly and we’ve seen numerous examples of this. Last year, a black lawyer found a threatening poster in front of his home with KKK image on it in the state of Santa Catarina. In 2015, a similar flyer threatening blacks, Communists, gays and Muslims was found in a city in Rio state. Then there are the numerous reports of neo-Nazi activity throughout Brazil that clearly show us that there is quite a bit more support for white nationalism than one would assume in a country such as Brazil. There has been so many signs of allegiance to neo-Nazi ideals that researcher Adriana Dias has been documenting the phenomenon since the early 2000s. I wonder how many of these KKK/neo-Nazi inspired organizations are supporters of Bolsonaro’s campaign. We many never know.
But how can Bolsonaro disassociate himself from certain views that clearly mark him as harboring white supremacist views?
Remember when he said black quilombolas were lazy, compared them to animals and said they aren’t even fit for reproducing? Black quilombolas have been fighting for the rights to lands that their slave ancestors escaped to for hundreds of years, but Bolsonaro said these lands could be sold. He has also stated on the record that not one centimeter of indigenous or quilombo lands would be demarcated. How about the fact Bolsonaro admires death squads (often composed of off duty Military Police) operating in majority black states such as Bahia that are responsible for the extermination of thousands of black Brazilians? Or how about the fact that he declared that, if elected, he would give Military Police “carte blanche” to kill in poor, primarily black favela peripheries? In this latter declaration, he didn’t actually refer to black Brazilians as the primary target for murder, but did he really have to? In the collective mind of the Brazilian population, it is the preto/pardo (black/brown) population that represents the criminal element in society.
Bolsonaro denies the existence of racism in Brazil even though it has been well-documented by academic studies since the 1940s. He also believes that the enslavement of millions of Africans during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was the fault of Africans themselves because, in his understanding of history, “the Portuguese didn’t even set foot in Africa.”
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric in terms of racial issues is perfectly fitting for the Brazilian discourse on race. In Brazil, one can harbor extremely racist views, but as long as you don’t violate the code by openly declaring yourself a racist and not having any affiliations with openly racist groups, you can declare yourself not racist. If you have a black grandmother or grandfather, husband or wife (see note one), as in Bolsonaro’s case, you can be automatically excluded from any accusations of racism because, after all, according to Brazilian thought, how can one be racist and have black people in the family? Nevermind the studies and essays that show that racism also exists in interracial families. Bolsonaro himself has made sure to consistently make references to his dark-skinned father-in-law, Paulo Negão (whose photos I’ve never actually seen), in order to deflect accusations of racism against him. He has also made sure to divulge photos of himself at the side of fellow PSL politician, the very dark-skinned congressman, Hélio Negão. Negão and Negão, huh? No, these aren’t surnames but commonly used nicknames in Brazil denoting “a big black man”, “a dark-skinned black man” or a “straight up black man”. Bolsonaro’s surprising support among black/brown voters also works in his favor against claims that he could be a white nationalist, the obvious question being, if he were a racist/white nationalist, why would so many non-whites support his campaign?
Is it possible that Bolsonaro has mastered a sort of “code speech” that speaks directly to whites who privately harbor white nationalist thought that flies right over the heads of the average black/brown Brazilian who fully consumes the idea that “we are all equal”? How else do you explain the 12-year white kid who told the only black girl in his private school that when Bolsonaro becomes president, she will need to find another school because Bolsonaro will end will end all of mixture? In her study, “Sim, nós somos racistas: estudo psicossocial da branquitude paulistana” (Yes, we are racists: a psicossocial study of whiteness in São Paulo), Lia Vainer Schucman also identified this sort of differentiating themselves between “us whites” and “others/blacks” among whites in São Paulo. In her 2001 book Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil: Color, Race and Racism in Urban Brazil, anthropologist Robin Sheriff reports a moment during her research in Rio in which she was in the company of a group of white Brazilians, one of which said, “We whites need to stick together”. When Sheriff asked the man to repeat his comment, he remained silent. This is the sort of white unity, nationalism if you will, that lurks between the rhetoric of “we are all equal” that may explain Bolsonaro’s popularity among a certain segment of Brazil’s white population. It’s not hard to imagine. As one report pointed out, “Bolsonaro se apóia nos brancos e nos mais ricos” (Bolsonaro is supported by whites and the richest). The same report showing that the PT, at the time (April) still represented by Lula, garnered far more support in the poorer, blacker regions of the northeast.
So how, having all of these qualities that would sound alarms of racist, does the PSL candidate skate somewhat free of the racist label and even proclaim his opponent’s party to be the segregationist party? It’s actually quite simple. Brazil has declared itself a “racial democracy” in which all are equal pertaining to issues of race since the 1930s even though a decree in its constitution of 1945 clearly states:
“the necessity of preserving and developing, in the ethnic composition of the population, the most convenient characteristics of its European ancestry.”
Brazil has long been a society divided along lines of class and race, not in a legally sanctioned manner, but in a way of behavior in which everyone knows the higher one goes up the class hierarchy, the whiter it gets, and those with white skin make it very clear that those with darker skin are not very welcome. It was the PT (Workers’ Party) that created policies that allowed more black Brazilians options to enter the middle classes than ever before in the nation’s history, but Bolsonaro accuses the PT of being the party that segregates.
So, it comes as no surprise that Bolsonaro would reject the endorsement of a white nationalist such as David Duke. Brazil’s brand of racism prides itself on citing differences between itself and the US in terms of race, even though Brazil is arguably more successful at keeping black people in “their places” than its neighbor to the north. The sin is acknowledging it. As such, when you really look at it, Bolsonaro’s rejection of the support of the likes of David Duke is really nothing surprising at all. It’s slicker. It’s more deceptive. It’s Brazilian.
- The candidate’s wife, while not very visible publicly, also plays a role in Bolsonaro’s participation in Brazil’s discourse on race. Although of African descent, Bolsonaro’s wife, like her brother who has defended the candidate against accusations of racism, is quite light-skinned. It is very common to hear light-skinned and white Brazilians to speak of having a black grandmother or grandfather, particularly when they are accused of being racist. Bolsonaro participates in this sort of justification by consistently referring to the dark-skinned father of his wife. Like any everyday Brazilian, his reference to black father (in-law) nor his marriage to a black (mulata or even white for many) woman doesn’t diminish his clearly European (white) image. His publicly visible and very white politician sons from a previous marriage also contribute to a whiteness that is not challenged in any way by a light-skinned wife or reference to a dark-skinned father-in-law. It would be more interesting to see if o support would affected in any way if his wife had been a darker-skinned, more visibly African woman given Brazil’s rejection of dark skin.