The country is still reeling from the attacks in Boston. At present count, three people have died and over 180 have been injured from detonation of the dual bombs that shook the Cradle of Liberty just a few hours into the annual Boston Marathon. The shock hasn’t worn off, even as authorities have identified brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnev as the chief suspects in the bombing. Although the elder Tsarnev, 26, was apparently killed in a shootout with police two days after the bombing, the 19-year-old Dzhokhar remains in critical condition following his apprehension on April 19.
Even with the relief of putting names to the faces of those possibly responsible for the tragedy, the four-day media frenzy leading up to their identification raises troubling questions about how our media coverage treats issues of terrorism and ethnic identity. Almost as quickly as the headlines about death and destruction wrote themselves, so too did the questions about what kind of person might be capable of such a ‘cowardly’ act. And advocates for social justice everywhere felt the familiar churning in their guts, the sensation that comes from knowing you’re about to witness a really awful social phenomena that will cause you to doubt the positive in humanity.
I’m talking, of course, about the racism that goes positively viral in the wake of events that cause America to pause. And if you think it doesn’t happen, you’re positively wrong. The reaction to such visible tragedies in this country is virtually formulaic at this point. It starts with an act of terrorism in the most unexpected of places, culminating in accusations and speculations of the guilty party as a person from a community of color.
Part of it is that white America has always enjoyed numerous privileges, including the privilege to assume that the guilty terrorist is some other color. These same privileges protected German and Italian Americans from being deported to concentration camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor that preempted American involvement in World War 2. It’s not a new tactic.
Yet part of it is because we’re living in an era that elected a president who identifies as a man of color. But the election of Barack Obama wasn’t won on the merits of race, and neither did his victory usher in a “post-racial” society. In fact, as Nsenga Burton writes for The Root, a society with Obama as president seems like a great time to be a racist:
“Yes, the country that likes to pretend that it is far removed from its racist past has engaged in the verbal equivalent of a throwback jersey,” she writes. “Is this the postracial era that so many people theorized about following the election of the nation’s first black president? Try post-Reconstruction, because the harmful slurs and images being tossed around the Internet and in public spaces hark back more to a racist past than to a racially ambiguous future.”
Burton is on to something with how cultural attitudes harken back to days when folks of color were only considered three-fifths of a person, but some of our language has been adapted to include particularly evocative and ugly terms to speak to our uniquely modern prejudices, such as ‘terrorist’.
Of course, that description has been thrown at Obama a time or two or six, and the unfounded slandering is having an effect. A month before the 2012 election, the Associated Press published the results of a shocking study which established that a slight majority of Americans express racial prejudice. The numbers are even higher when the respondents submit to implicit tests, revealing that 64 percent of Republicans and 32 percent of Democrats subscribe to some kind of racial prejudice. Those numbers jump considerably when pressed on anti-black sentiments, to 79 percent for Republicans and 55 for Democrats.
As Mario Powell concludes, “It comes down to this: a biracial, Harvard-educated, former law professor at the University of Chicago has not been able to sway the considerable portion of the electorate who hold anti-black attitudes and sentiments is astonishing. Intrinsic racism is alive and well.”
Of course, we only need to look at the reactions to the tragedy in Boston to confirm that assertion. Among the touching stories of truly heroic acts from the likes of peace activist Carlos Arredondo to former Patriots guard Joe Andruzzi and too many anonymous faces to count, is the unfortunate reminder that our ability to be inspired by our fellow folks is limited only by our ability to place those same folks in conscripted boxes. Like terrorists being invaders in our country, rather than products of it.
The post-Boston sociopolitical roundup is already capitalizing on the unknown status of the suspects to further their own agendas. In addition to C-list ‘celebrities’ adding their fuel to the fire, moves are being made to strengthen anti-immigration sentiment. Steve King, a prominent House conservative from Iowa, has already attempted to maneuver a legislative agenda around the idea that Boston might not have happened if America didn’t play fast and loose with student visas for folks from Saudi Arabia.
Which might be helpful, except that the vast majority of experts (read: people not updating their Twitter accounts with stupid, racist drivel) recognize the flaw in utilizing racial profiling when it comes to terror-based attacks. Especially since so many incidents of terror committed on American soil are, in fact, “homegrown.” That means most of the perpetrators of these crimes are American citizens, not exclusively imported cannon for the cause.
And most aren’t Muslim. In fact, the number of terrorist plots involving American Muslims has dropped by more than half in the last three years. According to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, there were only nine in 2012. A key distinction, notes Spencer Ackerman in an article for Wired, is that the Triangle Center only tracks indictments, not convictions.
Under the Bush administration, the lens of counterterrorism materials and training focused on Islam itself. Despite an Obama-ordered overhaul of national security attitudes and resources to depart from the rhetoric of his predecessor, the government utilizes the same attitudes reflected in the lowest common denominator of society as means to satisfy their ends. The FBI, for example, routinely geo-maps locations where Muslims live and work, with no discretion for communities of American-born Muslims or those who have never committed a crime. When watchdog groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), learned about the ethnically targeted domestic surveillance program, they were swift to make a Freedom of Information Act request to learn the details. Michael German, a policy counsel representative for the ACLU, argued that the “profile…will certainly not help stop crime.”
Despite the backlash, the FBI has stood by the methodology, defending that it’s a necessary measure to assist in solving crimes. At least, crimes that don’t point to white perpetrators. As Conor Friedersdorf notes in an article for The Atlantic:
“Since 9/11, many Americans have conflated terrorism with Muslims; and having done so, they’ve tolerated or supported counterterrorism policies safe in the presumption that people unlike them would bear their brunt. (If Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD sent officers beyond the boundaries of New York City to secretly spy on evangelical Christian students or Israeli students or students who own handguns the national backlash would be swift, brutal, and decisive. The revelation of secret spying on Muslim American students was mostly defended or ignored.)”
Friedersdorf goes on to ask, “What if white Americans were as likely as Muslims to be victimized by those policies?”
The question isn’t even rhetorical. In a brilliant essay circulating plenty of Facebook statuses, Tim Wise answers Friedersdorf’s postulation with his own: the very nature of white privilege means that presumably non-Muslim, white Americans will never be victimized by the same policies currently victimizing presumably non-white, Muslim Americans:
“White privilege is knowing that even if the Boston Marathon bomber turns out to be white, his or her identity will not result in white folks generally being singled out for suspicion by law enforcement, or the TSA, or the FBI. White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for whites to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening, or threatened with deportation.”
Wise also points out that white privilege also normalizes the treatment of the detaining a student from Saudi Arabia who fled the scene because, you know, a bomb had just gone off. But racism, particularly from The New York Post, lead to the belief that police had a “Saudi suspect in custody” even after the police refuted the story.
Already, news outlets can’t resist the opportunity to take a stab at the supposedly Muslim element of the Tsarnev stories. That’s far more terrifying because the lives of the Tsarnevs seem every bit the American Dream. Tamerlan had won two lucrative Golden Glove tournaments and had aspirations of becoming a professional boxer. Dzhokar, who attended the same prestigious high school as Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is in his second year of medical school at Dartmuth. If, indeed, the Tsarnevs pulled off a tremendous hat trick of radical nationals moonlighting as All-American boys, we have even more to be afraid of then we thought possible.
Because it means even in our zealotry to pin the would-be terrorist crimes on the would-be terrorist groups, we’re ignoring the threats within our own borders from our own citizens. Even if the Tsarnevs turn out to be Islamic radicals, our gravest mistake would be to buckle down an ever-increasing circle of scrutiny on our communities of color while ignoring the problems resulting from institutional white privilege.
To put into perspective how our war on Islamic terrorism has garnered nine plots with no death toll, a USA Today analysis of gun-related slayings established more than 900 people have died from mass shootings, just in the last seven years. It further found that the dominant majority of shooting sprees are carried out by white men who are familiar to their victims. In other words, you’re more likely to be gunned down by a white man you know in your ordinary life, than you are to die in an act of terrorism committed by an American (or international) Muslim.
But when white men commit mass murder, their demographic information is suspiciously absent from the postmortem hot sheets endlessly pontificating the reasons why a senseless act of violence occurred at all. White men are ‘lone wolves,’ who go on killing rampages because they’re mentally ill or simply evil. Race and religion, which so frequently serves as the basis for conviction in the court of public opinion, is rarely mentioned.
It’s too early to tell whether Islamic radicalism had anything to do with what took place in Boston. Americans would do well to remember that even if the Tsarnevs are found guilty for this act, there is always the possibility that they are terrorists who happen to be Muslim, not necessarily Muslim terrorists. The distinction is an important one to free us from the rhetoric of terror talk that paints all communities of color with a fear-mongering brush.