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  • Racial Antagonism and the 2018 Brazilian Presidential Election
  • Adam Bledsoe

Brazilian president jair bolsonaro's presidential campaign was nationally polarizing. The regional, economic, and racial breakdown of voting patterns in the 2018 presidential election reflected this polarization (Harden, 2018; Carvalho & Santos, 2019). Perhaps the clearest expression of polarization, however, was Bolsonaro's own insistence on discursively emphasizing spatial-racial divisions within the country. Bolsonaro deprecated queer communities, women, immigrants, and racialized populations, and promised to encourage Indigenous genocide should he be elected. Indeed, much of the attention he received during his campaign was for his unapologetically violent attitude toward a number of demographic groups. In this essay, I point out how Bolsonaro politically legitimized himself, in part, through his demonization of Black Brazilian communities. More specifically, Bolsonaro cast rural quilombo and impoverished urban Black communities as internal threats to national stability, which he then promised to neutralize.

While a number of factors contributed to Bolsonaro's electoral appeal, a central strategy of Bolsonaro's campaign was to draw on anti-Blackness as a legitimating discourse. By classifying both rural and urban Black communities as among the major problems that Brazil must overcome, Bolsonaro conceptually reinscribed what I call "lines of enmity" around spaces associated with Black Brazilian populations, and legitimized his candidacy by claiming to know how to deal with these internal enemies. Ultimately, Bolsonaro centered his political approach on reaffirming the societally constitutive phenomenon of anti-Blackness, emphasizing already-established lines of enmity around Black populations' lived spaces, and tying violence against Black populations to ideas of national progress.

rural antagonisms

In 2017, while outlining his plans for the presidency, Bolsonaro spoke on the topic of quilombo communities,1 stating, "Quilombolas are another joke. I went to a quilombo … [and] the smallest Black there weighed [224 pounds]. They don't do anything! I don't even think they're fit to procreate anymore" (SOS Racismo Brazil, 2017). Bolsonaro also famously stated that, during his presidency, there would not be a millimeter of land demarcated for quilombo (or Indigenous) communities. He further suggested that his administration would work so that quilombolas could "integrate themselves in society" and thus put an end [End Page 165] to the widely held belief that quilombolas passively sit by, receive "state resources, and are not productive" (quoted in Bresciani, 2018). Furthermore, on multiple occasions Bolsonaro expressed a willingness and desire to violently displace rural communities that stand in the way of potential development projects. These discursive strategies tapped into well-established national logics of violence.

The figure of the lazy, shiftless Black who must be forced to work harkens back to the racist trope of the ex-slave vagabundo (vagabond) that proliferated in the years following Brazil's 1888 abolition of slavery (Bledsoe, 2015). Just as Bolsonaro cast today's quilombolas as in need of societal integration so as not to live off the state's largess, so too did former slave owners describe ex-slaves as shirking work. Such ascriptions of laziness were used as justifications for excluding Black Brazilians from certain jobs (Fernandes, 1965) and for keeping them subordinated and dependent in other forms of employment (Scott, 1988). Furthermore, the violent displacement of rural Black communities has typified Brazil for centuries—originating in the military campaigns waged against pre-abolition quilombos (Moura, 1993).

In the examples mentioned above, the demonization of quilombo communities is an explicitly racist one, as Bolsonaro ascribes to quilombolas qualities such as being lazy and asserts that they do not contribute to society and therefore require state intervention to become productive citizens. In this case, drawing lines of enmity in the rural sphere overtly seizes on race as a justification for violent state intervention. In the case of the urban sphere, lines of enmity are drawn in a more implicitly racial, but no less pernicious, manner.

urban warfare

In a 2018 interview on Jornal Nacional, Bolsonaro affirmed, "We need a president … that plays heavy in relation to insecurity" (Jornal Nacional, 2018). The issue of insecurity was at the forefront of the collective Brazilian mind in the lead-up to the election, as both unemployment and murder rates had risen rapidly between 2014 and 2018. During the presidential...


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