Racist slur used in Uruguay football match ignites national debate

Estimated read time 5 min read

A row at a Monday afternoon football match in Uruguay has ignited a national debate on prejudice and discrimination in a country which has previously resisted a reckoning on race and racism.

The incident began when a player for Miramar Misiones was sent off in the final minutes of the team’s 20 May match against Liverpool Fútbol Club. Miramar’s Argentinian coach, Ricardo Caruso Lombardi, confronted referee Javier Feres and was clearly heard to call him “negro de mierda” (Black piece of shit).

Video of the incident spread quickly on social media; Lombardi was sanctioned by the Uruguayan Football Association and resigned from the team. He publicly apologised to Feres, but still faces an investigation by public prosecutors for incitement to hatred.

The unusually swift and high-profile consequences for Lombardi’s abuse have been seen as a potential turning point in Uruguay, a majority white-country where discussion of racism normally runs up against “colourblind” discourse – and where analysis of social inequality routinely ignores ethnic factors.

Feres, who has kept a low profile since the incident, confessed to feeling uncomfortable at finding himself at the centre of a national debate, but said he had felt obliged to register a complaint over Lombardi’s insult to set a precedent.

“Generally we referees are harassed a lot but I had never experienced something like this, so individual. What I see as positive is how society and the public prosecutor’s office reacted,” he told the Guardian.

Ricardo Caruso Lombardi was heard using a racist slur against the match’s referee.View image in fullscreen

Activists have also welcomed the response, although they noted that Lombardi was already controversial among Miramar fans because of the team’s poor results – and they warn that the incident represents just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discrimination in Uruguay.

“The immediate prosecutorial investigation into a flagrant act of racism at a football match sets an important precedent,” said Susana Andrade, a lawyer, former legislator and co-founder of the Afro-Uruguayan organisation Atabaque. “But experience obliges us to celebrate every achievement with great caution. In matters of rights for Black people, you take three steps forward and a hundred steps back, because racist violence has many supporters and sentinels.”

Jorge Señorans, a sports journalist and author, expressed hope that the case could prompt broader changes in Uruguayan football. “Racist chants used to be common, but I haven’t heard any for some time. In that sense, there is a growing awareness,” he said.

But the roots of the problem, however, remain untouched, said Orlando Rivera, a consultant and activist: “Progress has been made in symbolic, but not in substantive terms. The hard core of racism persists: deep inequality and barriers in access to opportunities, which are disproportionately concentrated in the white Uruguayan population.”

Unlike neighbouring Argentina, whose official narrative has made Black people and Indigenous people invisible to create a homogeneously white and European imaginary, Uruguay has a vibrant Afro-descendant community, which makes up 10% of its population and created one of the main hallmarks of national culture: candombe, an extremely popular rhythm and dance.

Javier Feres gestures during a match between Montevideo City Torque and Nacional at a match on 27 August 2022 in Montevideo, Uruguay.View image in fullscreen

But Black Uruguayans experience the worst social indicators in the country and one of the most pronounced income inequalities in the region. “Afro-Uruguayan identity is widely recognized, but there is a lack of empathy, and people are still ignorant about the reality of life for the Black population,” said Rivero.

Uruguay has the lowest poverty rate in Latin American, according to a 2020 report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the United Nations Population Fund. “However, the percentage of Afro-descendants living in poverty is around three times that of non-Afro-descendants,” it found.

“In Brazil it is 2.2 times higher, in Peru it is twice as high, and in Colombia it is 1.5 times higher. This highlights the fact that ethnic-racial inequalities can persist – and even worsen – even in contexts of low poverty or a marked reduction of this phenomenon.”

What set apart the Miramar Misiones incident was the fact that it was widely discussed – and criticised, said Rivero and Andrade. “In Uruguay, there are countless episodes of racism that go unnoticed because the police and judiciary are ineffective and so these human rights violations become sadly endemic,” said Andrade. “People who experience [racist] aggression do not report it because ‘nothing ever happens’. It has a double negative effect: the problem becomes invisible and impunity continues.”

Laws to combat racism exist, but they are rarely enforced, said Rivera.

Since 2013, for example, public bodies must by law allocate 8% of their jobs to people of African descent, but the rule is rarely followed, as the government itself acknowledges.

“Despite the statistics, there is still no understanding of how racism operates and the impact it has on the Afro-Uruguayan population,” said Rivero. “Without understanding the causes, it is difficult to design policies that address its consequences.”

Source: theguardian.com

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