Soon after the arrest of the Tsarnaev brothers, author Sonia Faleiro tweeted out: "John King: 'Not being racist, but Uncle Ruslan sounds like a #darkskinnedman.'" It was a tongue-in-cheek jab at the CNN correspondent's inaccurate report that authorities had arrested a "dark skinned male" as a suspect in the Boston bombings.
King has since apologised but his gaffe inadvertently revealed an unspoken conflation of race and religion. "Because in public conversation in America today, 'Islam' is a racial term. Being Muslim doesn't just mean not being Christian or Jewish. It means not being white," notes Peter Beinart in an excellent must-read essay on Daily Beast.
In the leadup to the arrests, of the many likely bombing suspects -- be it white rightwing extermists or Al Qaeda operatives or a white Christian-turned-Taliban a la John Walker Lindh -- one profile remained unimaginable, ie white Muslim. And then the Boston police identified Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
"Suspects are Chechen. So white AND Muslim? What ever will Fox News do with this fact!?" quipped former Onion writer @baratunde.
Answer: They airbrushed the white bit out. "Looks Like Boston Bombing Suspects Not ‘White Americans’" read the triumphant headline on the right-leaning Newsbusters.org. Peter Wehner in Commentary echoed the sentiment using exactly the same words -- "[T]he perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not 'white Americans'" -- preferring to describe them instead as "two young men who were radicalized and became jihadists."
The claim is, of course, inaccurate on both counts. Chechens are quite literally Caucasian, as in from the Caucus region, and hence incontrovertibly white. And at least one, Dzhokar, is a US citizen. So what explains this wilful need to paint the Tsarnaev brothers brown? Why are they more threatening than say a Lindh Walker, the all-American kid from Northern California who turned ?
Beinart argues that the notion of a white Muslim strikes at the very heart of the definition of what it means to be 'American': "Since America’s founding, being white has meant, both culturally and legally, being 'one of us.'" This equation of brown with Muslim has repercussions, he points out, not just for Muslims in America but also other communities of colour. And hence, in post-9/11 America, "one of the problems with not being considered white is that you might be mistaken for Muslim." A preconception that has led to innumerable tragic deaths, including the Sikhs who were gunned down in a gurdwara in Wisconsin.
A white Muslim also makes blase justifications of racial profiling more difficult. And a little harder for white guys like athiesm evangelist Sam Harris to argue in favour of targeting brown people as just plain common sense. "I don’t think I look like a jihadi, or like a man pretending not to be one," Harris wrote in his essay "In Defense of Profiling," which attacks the "tyranny of fairness."
"We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it," concludes Harris. In the wake of the Boston bombings, however, that person "who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim" has grown absurdly and impractically broad. And Dzokhar Tsarnaev, "a pothead, a devotee of hip-hop, a lifeguard, a high-school wrestler, an aspiring dentist" -- as Beinart describes him -- has made the irretrievably blurred the line between "us" and "them." As Joan Walsh notes on Salon.com, "We still know comparatively little about the Tsarnaev brothers, but they seem to have more in common with other American mass murderers than with al-Qaida terrorists of any race and ethnicity." Young, white, male and angry, their mindset and motives may be closer to the Columbine killers than to the average jihadists.
But these broken stereotypes come with their downside: greater uncertainty is likely to heighten rather than diminish paranoia. The notion that anyone can be a terrorist creates a dangerous sense of helplessness that racial profiling helped alleviate. The silver lining of challenging racist assumptions aside, Americans will find little comfort in the whiteness of the brothers Tsarnaev.
Read Beinart's essay in its entirety on the Daily Beast website.