The fact that race in America is socially constructed (not biologically-based) is a settled debate – at least in the halls of academia. But for those who remain unconvinced of this important sociological idea about race, you need look no further than the media (and social media) coverage of (the identities of) the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.
Joan Walsh’s recent essay: “Are the Tsarnaev brothers white?” poses a rhetorical question that is impossible to answer without considering the arbitrary manner in which racial categorization is deployed in America.
This fact has become all the more complicated in the context of our post-911 malaise, the second term of our first bi-racial president and more so again in this – the immediate run-up to another much-needed round of immigration policy reform.
‘Dark-skinned’ double standard
Last week, in the frenetic coverage of the well-publicized “manhunt” for the suspects, CNN’s John King “leaked” information from a “high-ranking” federal official that law enforcement was pursuing a “dark-skinned” male suspect. The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and others have taken King to task so I won’t rehearse their justifiable outrage here, but as Walsh points out and as it turns out, the suspects in last week’s horrific acts of terror are white according to the U.S. Census’ own racial categorization system. For all of this nation’s racialized islamaphobia, the fact of the matter is that white folks practice Islam too.
If only this realization could affect some of our right-leaning politicos in the same manner it did the late, great Malcolm X – for him, this fact was an awakening that lead to an exorcism of some of his racial demons. For another King – Rep. Peter King (R- New York), and too many in the media, the whiteness of the alleged perpetrators is literally unremarkable.
This week, Rep. King is suggesting that we enhance our surveillance of Muslim communities in America. One has to wonder if white American practitioners of the faith will be subjected to the same kind of surveillance that their “dark-skinned” counterparts will.
Immigration reform hangs in the balance
The Boston Marathon bombing is reportedly making some politicians skittish about immigration reform – so much so that the process will likely be delayed and it is becoming clearer that it will lose some support. If this sounds counter-intuitive to you, that’s because it is.
By all accounts, it seems as if the immigration system worked in this case – the jury is still out on the FBI.
I can’t help but wonder that if the Tsarnaev brothers were black, particularly the elder, Tamerlane, could he have eluded detection, surveillance, and suspicion for as long as he did? Too bad listening to hip-hop doesn’t have the same kind of racialization powers as practicing Islam.
It is a cruel fact of our American reality that people of color carry an extraordinary burden of representation as individuals. It is an equally powerful fact that one vestige of white privilege is to be free from this burden.
Profiling is not based on facts
Stereotypes thrive on our nations historical penchant for super imposing negative characteristics on entire groups of people.
For black Americans, that has manifested itself in a brutal legacy of institutionalized discrimination. It should not come as a surprise then, that many Americans can actually identify with those communities – in this case the Arab-American and Middle Eastern American Islamic communities – who suffer the anguish of persistent racial profiling and harassment.
This profiling is based, not on biological facts or some recently-discovered strain of DNA that codes violent behavior with race and acts of terror. It derives from a collectively socialized and historical way of defining race and over-determining its meaning.
Many have applauded the uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, of the Boston Marathon bombers because of his candor and passion in distancing himself from the perpetrators and his full throttle acceptance of the shame that, according to him, they have brought upon the entire Chechen ethnicity. I don’t recall the McVeigh family or the Lanza family making statements comparable to these.
In fact, in these cases, the perpetrators of these acts of terror are not looked at as representatives of their racial, ethnic, or religious communities; they are viewed as individuals, committing heinous crimes.
It is a strange and psychologically debilitating experience to be considered guilty, violent, or anti-American because of the color and/or complexion of one’s skin; stranger still to breath sighs of relief when, in the midst of the media frenzies that accompany ultra-violent crimes, you learn that the suspects are not of your racial, ethnic, or racialized religious group. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to exist as an individual who is judged largely on his/her own merits.
I do however hope for (and fight for) these same rights to be afforded to all – regardless of color or creed.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson