The teachers should be better equipped to tackle the issue of institutional racism and the curriculum should be reviewed too, Cristina Roldão considers. / Photo: Anna Pöysä

Black students in Portugal struggle with institutional racism

Interview. Sociologist Cristina Roldão's research focuses on the situation of the black students in the Portuguese school system. The results reveal significant differences between the white and black students. Roldão calls for political measures and an open discussion regarding institutional racism. 

Sociologist Cristina Roldão’s latest research, Students of African Descent in the Portuguese education system, shows that the nationals of previous Portuguese colonies in Africa are more often grade-retained and referred to vocational courses instead of academic courses than those with Portuguese nationality. The research analysed the situation of black students from the perspective of institutional racism.

Roldão adds that the research shows that instead of more inclusive and diversified approaches eurocentrism and nationalism are present in the official principles of education, which also affects the situation of the students of African descent.

The school as a space for promoting nationalism

In the study materials, the Portuguese age of discoveries is celebrated, and colonialism is represented as a pacific process, while the anti-colonial wars of liberation are silenced. This approach is also confirmed by Marta Araújo’s and Silvia Rodríguez Maeso’s research on Portuguese school manuals.

Cristina Roldão

  • is a Portuguese sociologist.
  • works in Centre for Research and Studies in Sociology of University Institute of Lisbon
  • Her latest research, Os afro-descendentes no sistema educativo português (Students of African Descent in the Portuguese education system, 2016), analysed the situation of black students from theperspective of institutional racism and was published together with Pedro Abrantes, Teresa Seabra, Sandra Mateus and Adriana Albuquerque.
  • The book Caminhos escolares de jovens africanos (PALOP) que acedem ao ensino superior, by Teresa Seabra (org.), Cristina Roldão, Sandra Mateus and Adriana Albuquerque, will be published in December 2016, and focuses on youth that has the nationality of one of the PALOP and are attending higher education.

– Here in Portugal the idea of school as a space for promoting nationalism is explicit. The school’s task is to maintain and promote Portuguese history and values, Roldão resumes.

Together with the idea of colonialism as a pacific, non-violent process, an idea of absence of racism in the Portuguese society was constructed.

– It is possible to discuss social exclusion, but there is no space for public discussion regarding institutional racism, Roldão comments.

But while the other factors, such as the social background, are relevant, racism cannot be ignored, she underlines.

To find out the numbers of children of African descent in the Portuguese public schools Roldão had to base her research on nationality. Therefore, the numbers refer to children with nationality of one of the previous Portuguese colonies in Africa – Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé & Príncipe. These are called PALOP (Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa) – African Countries of Portuguese Official Language.

Those with a nationality of the PALOP also include students who were born in Portugal. According to the nationality law of 1981, the children born to parents with a foreign nationality are given a residence permit and can only later apply for Portuguese nationality. Before 1981 nationality was granted based on the birthplace.

– In Portugal is illegal to collect data regarding the population’s ethnicity or race, so there are no official numbers about the black population in Portugal.

Regardless of the challenges in collecting the data, there are alarming signs of institutional racism.

Access to higher education is blocked

– During the first cycle children with a nationality of one of the PALOP countries are grade-retained three times more often than the children with Portuguese nationality, Cristina Roldão tells.

First cycle refers to the first four years, while the situation continues in a slightly lesser form throughout the whole primary school, until the 9th grade.

In numbers this means 16 % of the nationals of the PALOP during the first cycle, against the 5 % of Portuguese nationals. The data is based in the school year of 2013-2014, when the number of those with the nationality of an ex-colony in the first cycle was 2940, while the total number was 18255, including the first three cycles of primary school and the secondary school.

­– I expected these results, but what shocked me was that 80 % of the black secondary school students are referred by their teachers to professional courses instead of a general course which permits access to higher education, Roldão says.

This means that teachers, who are responsible for study guidance and counselling, recommend professional courses and subsequently lower education professions to the black students over twice as more often as to the white students.

– Their access to higher education is this way blocked, she says.

School system demotivates black pupils

– There is no child that wouldn’t be anxious to adapt during the first days of school. They hope the teachers like them and dream of good results. But after 1-2 months the black children realise they are positioned differently from the white children, Cristina Roldão describes.

She gives an example from an interview of a student who had gone to primary school in Cape Verde. In Cape Verde he was a good student, but the situation changed when he moved to Portugal.

– The teacher wouldn’t look at him when asking complex questions. No one expected the best from him anymore, Roldão describes.

The repeaters – some of whom repeat the same grade more than once – are usually grouped together, which further stigmatises the students. It is illegal to form this kind of classes, but it happens.

– There is an idea of not mixing the good pupils with the less successful students, in order to not to ‘ruin’ those with potential, she describes the phenomenon in which she is planning to focus on in her post-doctoral studies.

These situations together with referring the black students to professional courses can also be considered from the perspective of life-long learning.

– Officially it is possible to enter higher education even after taking a vocational course. In practice, it is difficult, due to the limited and unequal access to scholarships and study materials, Roldão says.

Moreover, the previous experiences often discourage the potential adult students.

Political measures are required

To improve the situation of the black students Cristina Roldão considers that data regarding the ethnic and racial background should be collected as soon as possible.

While the absence of this data is often defended as a form of avoiding further divisions and protecting minorities, it permits monitoring racism and discrimination and reveals their institutional forms. Without this data, it is also difficult to implement measures against them.

For these reasons data collection is also recommended by The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) of the Council of Europe and United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of the Racial Discrimination.

– The lack of this data is an obstacle in the struggle for better conditions.” The Roma population of Portugal would benefit from this too, she adds, and sees it as an important ally in the struggle.

Teacher education is a key to change too.

– They should have a better notion of racism and of their position as a part of a major system”, she considers. The teachers should also be conscious of the Pygmalion effect; of the way, how their low expectations towards pupils can result in low performance and vice versa. Better representativeness would also be important, since currently the teaching staff is very homogenous.

An important measure would be an active policy of desegregation of classes and schools, together with quotas.

– The change cannot rely on the goodwill of the teachers and school directors. The state has to step in, study the statistics, create new laws and force change in the most disastrous situations.”

Open letter to the Council of Europe to eliminate racial discrimination

In December 5th 2016 different associations and collectives of people of African Descent in Portugal signed and sent an open letter to United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of the Racial Discrimination as a response to a report submitted by the Portuguese state.

The State claimed to consider racism from a “integrated/holistic” viewpoint, and as a global issue, and hence have not proceeded to create specific measures considering Portugal’s black population. The letter contained data and cases regarding for example education, police violence and justice, and housing, confirming the necessity for affirmative actions. The response of CERD to Portugal’s official report was in line with the demands expressed in the open letter.

UN has declared the decade 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent with the theme “People of African descent: recognition, justice and development.”

Correction 17.12.: The open letter was sent only to the UN, not also to Council of Europe.