Race of Boston bombing suspects plays a role in fallout from attack (Participation)

Race of Boston bombing suspects plays a role in fallout from attack


by James Braxton Peterson | April 23, 2013 at 9:37 AM
This combination of undated file photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. The FBI says the two brothers are the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, and are also responsible for killing an MIT police officer, critically injuring a transit officer in a firefight and throwing explosive devices at police during a getaway attempt in a long night of violence that left Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar captured, late Friday, April 19, 2013.This combination of undated file photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. The FBI says the two brothers are the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, and are also responsible for killing an MIT police officer, critically injuring a transit officer in a firefight and throwing explosive devices at police during a getaway attempt in a long night of violence that left Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar captured, late Friday, April 19, 2013.

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


12 thoughts on “Race of Boston bombing suspects plays a role in fallout from attack (Participation)

  1. I agree with what is being said in this passage. The tendency to point the finger at an entire group of people for acts of individuals is a common and ridiculous occurrence. It is a know sociological fact that race and even religion are socially created. Therefore there is no certain gene or personality type that runs in one race or religion that does not run in the other. Just because the boys who committed the bombing practice Islam as their religion, does that make all Islamic people violent? Or just because a two crazy white kids murdered fellow classmates at Columbine High School does that make all white people murderous? The answer is a resounding no. The second example I gave may seem outlandish to some but the fact is still the same. Blaming Islamic people for the Boston bombings is the same as blaming an entire race of white people for violent acts committed by people who happen to be white. Overall race and religion are socially constructed so lets therefore not look to hasty generalizations of an entire facet of society and look for the sociological issues that have created an environment which facilitates violent behavior.

    • I think you pointed something out here that is very important to remember. We discuss in my Sociology of Ed class that almost all the mass shootings have been by white males, but we don’t question “why are white males doing this?” If it were Latina women the conversation would turn to this group of individuals. Here the focus has turned to their religion and race rather than seeing them as two individuals who did something. Whenever it is a minority or underrepresented group… we automatically assume that it must be that group that is different than the rest of the group; therefore, more likely to commit these crimes.

  2. In American society we tend to view the actions of individuals as a representation of an entire group and as a result from that racial profiling becomes a common occurrence as well as institutionalized racism which continually oppresses a certain group of people. The fact that racism in America is socially driven and not biologically driven has played a role in the fallout of acts of terror such as the Boston Bombing. If the perpetrators would have been Islamic or “dark skinned” as a whole Americans would have categorized all these peoples as being potential terrorists which is exactly why in society today we have such a large case of Islamophobia. America needs to drop the penchant of categorizing a whole group of people based off the heinous crimes of individuals.

    • I agree, A Muslim student came around and explained to people that the bombing in no way reflected what the rest of the Muslim community felt.

  3. After reading this article, the main thing that stuck out to me was the mentioning of the question “Are the Tsarnaev brothers white?” Personally I do not understand why the question was asked at all. Crimes are committed all the time by white people but in those cases the race never comes into the situation. Because these suspects are dark skinned and Islamic, it becomes a huge deal what their race and religion is. The media makes this such a large issue that people begin to fear that said race. This has never been a problem for the Caucasian race. Even though there are many crimes committed by white people all the time they never focus on race as the issue. Personally I find this to be the problem. We need to stop focusing on race as a reason and realize that there are problems dealing with the individuals committing the crimes.

  4. Everything the article talked about was correct in my mind. There most likely will people that will disagree with me but that is what people do. I believe everyone should and does have a different view on certain topics. People should not be made to believe in one certain way about every topic. The thing that was the most interesting was that America is socially constructed rather than being biologically based. This point out those peoples views on certain things are developed by other people, things, and most of all the media. This also means that not all the people in certain ethnic groups act the same way, each person has their own way of thinking. This should say something to the people that believe the people behind terrorist crimes are Islam’s’. People need to stop believing in everything the media says and start to think for themselves.

  5. I read about and watched the videos of the bombing when they first happened. I hadn’t had any preconceived notions myself but i did notice that in blogs or on the news or just public forums in general, people were assuming the bombing had to do with Al Kilda. It should not matter what background the boys who committed the crimes were. They bombed a ton of people and their ethnicity or religious backgrounds should not have anything to do with it. When I read the comment about putting more surveillance in Islamic or Muslim communities I thought it was ridiculous. For one it’s a religion and anyone could be Muslim. And two I can think of plenty of times where Caucasian people either bomb or shoot up a bunch of civilians. But no one has suggested spying on whites to assure the populations safety. Neither have they ever (like the reading pointed out) blamed an entire race for the sociopathic actions of the one person or group of people, who committed the heinous acts. It’s completely naive to assume one group is the sole committers of certain crimes and its racist. Racial profiling obviously hasn’t stopped crime.

  6. I completely understand and agree with the theories listed in this story. This happens often in today’s society, especially when people assume that “dark-skinned male suspects” are of one race or another depending on their bias. We also affiliate anyone of that race to be the same, all murderous or crime ridden; ESPECIALLY when this group is an underrepresented group such as minorities. Above there was a good point brought up, when Caucasian people do things like this, do we associate all white people as crazy and murderous? Usually the answer is no, because they are the minority. Personally, when the people around me were conversing over the Boston bombings and the topic of the men’s race came up, people began to talk about terrorism and wondered if these men had any relation to Osama Bin Laden. This to me is completely unfair to anyone of the Islamic religion because they all seem to be assumed to be associated with the typical image of “terrorist”. Personally, when the news of the bombings first came out I assumed that it was an act of terrorism, but I did not assume that it was coming from any specific group- after all we are in a tiff with North Korea and who knows what people are capable of.

  7. After reading this article, I agree with James Peterson. When I found out about the bombing I didn’t think it was anyone from the United States and assumed it was a terrorist like what happened on 9/11 in New York. However, when I found out it was two local brothers, it never came across what race they were from. When people ask if they are white. Should it matter? What the two brothers did was unethical and hurt many people. The last thing people should be thinking about is their race. Its sad to think if they were a different race, the situation would be different. Like stated in the article, “they should be viewed as individuals, committing heinous crimes.” Everyone SHOULD have the same rights.

  8. When I first heard about the bombing, I assumed it was from a group outside the US. I thought an event like this would not have been thought of by two young US citizens. And after the suspects were apprehended, a WSU student and also a Muslim came around to all the fraternities and he wanted to make it clear that Muslims at WSU do not believe in this. He wanted to make sure that people know that the bombing in no way reflects the Muslim community here at school. Something like this should not have been needed, he shouldn’t have felt the need to go around to all the different houses to explain to us that everyone is an individual and that one individual doesn’t reflect the rest. Everybody is different and therefore they shouldn’t be stereotyped because of the color of their skin.

  9. This article can be perceived very differently, depending on the reader and their beliefs. To me, I agree and support the efforts to find any potential people who may be responsible for terrorism or terrorist acts in America. If the FBI has video footage of two men wearing large bags and covering their faces, it is quite apparent that they are up to something. If these two suspects have nothing to hide then why not step up themselves and answer all questions and get their names cleared? I sure would not like a pictures of me up on the social media accusing me of something so serious if I were not responsible. It comes down to the simple fact that they are of the certain race that has executed past terrorist acts on our country, so of course they will be the first suspects. Although it may be profiling, it is needed to keep our country safe. No sane, loving American would ever perform an act like this on their own country. It comes down the fact of why? Why would someone do something so heartless and cruel to people that you don’t even know? I am proud every morning I wake up to be an American for the endless possibilities that await me. If you do not like the country that you live in then leave. Why would you stay here? People often point out that racial profiling in media is wrong, but they have no real response as to why it is wrong. Racial profiling puts scare upon terrorists groups so that they can not partake in these terrorist acts as often as they please, for they know that they are being watched. It is random checks at airports, and police at social activities that keep our country safe. Without the people around us to protect, we would be in constant danger.

  10. i Think that our social media speculates everything and bring everything out of complex. I guarantee you that hundreds of people has some for of duffle bag and you can’t question everyone. In this case they were fortunate enough to have obtained footage of the attack so they have visible witnesses. In this case like everyone pointed the fingers at the two suspects because they were covering their faces, but in this scenario when they were wanting to get questioned they never came forward to clear their names up which brought up tons of suspicion. Its kind of when an officer approaches someone and they run they only bring suspicion to themselves.

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