Tsarnaev Coverage Proves Labels Matter

When it comes to the Boston Marathon bombing suspects' identity, religion trumps race in the media.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev competing in the 2009 Golden Gloves National Tournament. (Getty Images)
Tamerlan Tsarnaev competing in the 2009 Golden Gloves National Tournament. (Getty Images)

“Since the identification and apprehension (both dead and alive) of Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan Tsarnaev (reportedly shot and run over with explosives strapped to him, amid unconfirmed reports he was clutching an ‘ACME Co.’ receipt) and [Dzhokhar] Tsarnaev (apprehended as a result of history’s first heroic nicotine fit), there has been a rush to triumphantly point and laugh at liberal commentator David Sirota’s preference that the bombers turn out to be like the cheese on his ham sandwich: white and American,” Tommy Christopher wrote Sunday for Mediaite.

As it happens, both of them turned out to be Caucasian, and one of them was American, but we can’t allow their actions to define all Caucasian-Americans.

“Lucky for white Americans, Sirota was at least half-right: when perpetrators of horrific acts turn out to be white, there is some phenomenon that causes their whiteness to become completely irrelevant, even if they are actually from the place where whiteness gets its name. Until Friday, I always thought ‘caucasian’ was just a name that some fancy racist thought up to make white people sound better than ‘negroids’ and ‘mongoloids,’ but it turns out there’s a real place called Caucasia, and the Boston bombing suspects are from it.

“Despite that fact, and despite the fact that their region of origin has been heavily reported as ‘the Caucasas,’ you would never know that these guys were Caucasian, let alone white, from the way cable news has been reporting on them. With the exception of Sunday morning’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, the only cable news description of the suspects as ‘Caucasian’ came from Massachusetts State Police Col. Tim Alben, during a press conference.

“That’s because David Sirota didn’t count on the one possibility that could nullify a white American bomber: a white American Muslim bomber. . . .”

The issue of racial and religious profiling was one of the themes that followed the capture Friday of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the death of his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Muslims with Chechen origins.

Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of the New York Times, wrote Monday, “The Boston Marathon bombings are closer to the colloquial and legal definitions of terrorism than the Aurora shooting, but not the Oklahoma bombing, or the Arizona attack.

The real difference is that Mr. Tsarnaev is a Muslim, and the United States has since the 9/11 terrorist attacks constructed a separate and profoundly unequal system of detention and punishment that essentially applies only to Muslims. . . .

Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, ruminated on the subject of collective guilt in writing Saturday for the New Yorker website: