Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Boston Bombers Were White. Any Questions?

As is the case whenever an event or incident which causes America to consider it's founding principles and self-identity, notions of race appear soon afterwards. Now that the pictures of Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev,  the perpetrators of the first completed terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11, are ubiquitously distributed, one question being asked is: Are the Boston Bombers White?

Peter Beinart says the answer to this question is clearly yes in a thoughtful piece in The Daily Beast in which he discussed the historical shifting of racial categories in America, especially the conflation of racialization with religious affiliation.
But the bombers were white Americans. The Tsarnaev brothers had lived in the United States for more than a decade. Dzhokhar was a U.S. citizen. Tamerlan was a legal permanent resident in the process of applying for citizenship. And as countless commentators have noted, the Tsarnaevs hail from the Caucasus, and are therefore, literally, “Caucasian.” You can’t get whiter than that.


Think about American history and you can understand why. For centuries, Americans were legally segregated by race. Thus, when newcomers from the Middle East came to our shores, Americans had to decide which side of the line they were on. And in the struggle to be classified as white, Middle Eastern Christians had an advantage: Jesus. In the 1915 case Dow v. United States, a Syrian Christian successfully argued that he was white because Jesus, the original Middle Eastern Christian, was too.


Today, Americans still often link Islam and dark skin. What’s changed is which category we consider more dangerous. For much of American history, the problem with being Muslim was that you weren’t considered white. Since 9/11, by contrast, one of the problems with not being considered white is that you might be mistaken for Muslim.


You can also glimpse this conflation of religion and race in the demand, which surfaces after every terrorist attack, to single out Muslims for special scrutiny at airports and the like. Often, the politicians and pundits most eager to profile Muslims are the same folks who in the 1980s and 1990s defended the “racial profiling” of blacks. And listening to them, you sometimes get the sense that they think the process would work the same way: just look to see who the Muslims are.
You should really go read the entire piece yourself. The only part I would quibble with is that Beinart does not explicitly use language saying that race is a social construction, a figment of our society's imagination, although the notion of its fluidity is clear throughout his piece. Just saying so does not undermine the very real impact that race has on the lives of very real individuals, but acknowledging its fictional nature is important when discussing it.

What do you think?

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