The effect? Black and brown people are often framed as “other” — their American bona fides revoked. And since American identity was historically defined by white (read: European) racial heritage, reporters like Matthews and King placed the perpetrators as far outside that paradigm as possible. Even after Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were positively identified, Matthews focused on their “ethnic” Chechen heritage. He appeared intent on distinguishing it somehow as “different” and went as far as to praise Boston’s historically prominent Irish-American community.
But the Tsarnaev brothers offer a much-needed challenge to America’s antiquated ideologies on race. Hailing from Dagestan and Chechnya, nation states of the former Soviet Republic in the Caucasus region, the Tsarnaevs are quite literally “Caucasian” — and, by any racial trajectory, are simply considered “white.”
Salon’s Joan Walsh pointed out how some conservative news sites have claimed that the brothers’ Chechen heritage makes them “nonwhite.” Ironically, Walsh notes, the same logic was used with respect to Italian, Irish, Jewish and Eastern European immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. Over time, and with assimilation — including the collective oppression of African Americans — “whiteness” became more loosely defined.
Why does any of this matter? America’s original sin has left an indelible stain. The “white” race, inasmuch as it has been politically construed, does not exist. Neither does a “black” race. Both were designed to justify a social caste system of degradation and white rule. These levers remain in place, despite so much social progress. And in 21st-century America, Muslims are becoming the new black: de facto suspects, victims of unwarranted violence and xenophobia. Not even the ascendance of an African-American president — with a Muslim name — could change that.
The miscalculation made by both the media and ordinary citizens was not that these terrorists couldn’t be “white” but that they couldn’t be “Muslim” and “white.” How serendipitous it is, therefore, that they are.
White men have become a kind of protected class — whose ill behavior is often excused, dismissed or pardoned. As a result, terms like “white-on-white crime” are considered misnomers. Profiling of white males as domestic terrorists, rapists, drug dealers and perpetrators of gun violence never occurs — though they commit the majority of violent crime, according to FBI data.
Valarie Kaur, a Sikh American and founding director of Groundswell, appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry’s eponymous program last Sunday to remind viewers that the last incident of domestic terrorism before the Boston bombing was the attack on a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis., last year. The perpetrator, Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, fatally shot and killed six people and wounded four others. Kaur posited, “In the wake of that tragedy, we did not see calls for white people to be profiled. The way our country diagnoses a problem when it’s a white perpetrator is [that] it’s an individual problem. When it’s a person of color, suddenly an entire community is deemed dangerous.”
Could this moment, as tragic as it is, be the dawning of a post-xenophobic age, in which Muslims are no longer narrowly defined? Will American citizens — and their media — educate themselves against the broad-stroke profiling that has adversely affected Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Arabs? Or will the status quo remain — offering immunity to a few, while declaring others guilty before proved innocent?
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.