"It must be because of my skin color that you're asking me whether I condemn or don't condemn" police violence, Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who is of Indian descent on his father's side, told the inquiring legislator.
Members of the Republican Assembly, Portugal's parliament, shouted, threw up their arms in astonishment and banged on their tables at Costa's comment. The chamber's speaker urged restraint and appealed for calm.
The parliamentary debate took place amid tensions between police and some black residents of Portuguese communities who have accused officers of racist behavior, including in their use of force. Costa, a 57-year-old center-left Socialist who has governed since 2015, was reacting to center-right lawmaker Assuncao Cristas, who is white. She asked Costa whether he supported the police as they fought acts of vandalism which some have linked to the racial tension.
Costa's race has never been a political issue. Portugal, like other European former colonial powers, is home to large numbers of Africans and their locally-born descendants. Authorities are investigating accusations that police officers needlessly and excessively beat a group of black people when they went to break up a fight in a low-income neighborhood in Seixal, a town 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Lisbon, last weekend. Police said officers were physically attacked when they responded to the fight.
An anti-racism group joined dozens of local people for a peaceful protest in Seixal on Friday. Many immigrants and their descendants from Portugal's five former African colonies live in poor suburban areas in the Lisbon region.
In the past week, trash cans were set on fire, and cars and a bus were torched in troubled neighborhoods with high rates of delinquency. Police haven't tied the incidents to the complaints of police racism, saying the damage could be routine acts of vandalism.
No damage was reported Thursday night.