Decoding the Invisible Whiteness In Boston Bombing Coverage (Participation)

Decoding the Invisible Whiteness In Boston Bombing Coverage

Reporters congregate at the Montgomery Village, Md., home of Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of the suspected Boston Marathon bombing suspects, on April 19, 2013. Photo: Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Watching professional broadcast journalists attempt to compete with social media hobbyists for any nugget of information during last week’s manhunt for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, many us felt a familiar dread. We know, either intuitively, through direct experience or via professional training, that media have a collective power to help diffuse or fuel the fear and tension that so often triggers racial violence in this country. Despite all of the post-9/11 reflection and lessons learned, it seems that some members of traditional media cannot help but have a racist response to the unknown. The hysteria of social media users—who enjoy the luxury of using handles rather than their names and faces—serve to intensify the racist response.

So despite their public atonement, it still appears as if people with power don’t understand the impact of their decisions.

American history shows us time and time again that without an incredible amount of resistance to and clarity about the white supremacy undergirding our culture, mob rule serves as the default.

So although some media members have made public apologies for the racism they fed into via silence, doublespeak or rote reporting, there is still work to be done. A lot of work. One way to begin is by examining the language we use when we’re doing our jobs.

Let’s probe the Monday mea culpa from Reddit general manager Erik “@hueypriest” Martin. He described the racist behavior of some the site’s users as a “witch hunt.”

In 2013, on the Internet, “witch hunt” can apply to the post-9/11, Islamophobic, and racist branding of Sunil Tipathi, the Indian-American student missing since March 16.

But the centuries-long American usage of “witch hunt” refers to the 1692-1693 trials in Salem, Mass., of more than 200 women accused of practicing “the Devil’s magic.” All of the authorities and most of the victims in this shameful chapter were what we today consider white. Yet people use “witch hunt” in a racially neutral way because Salem, at the time, was an English colony. So “England” was the oppressor, “Puritanism” and “religious intolerance” was the problem, the victims were “women” and nobody’s white except for the “Caribbean slave” Tituba.

The redditors who “crowd sourced” the wrong information about Sunil Tipathi and the blogs that spread the conjecture were not conducting a witch. They were mimicking the behavior of American white supremacist mobs.

Now, think about how CNN’s John King reported the nonexistent arrest of a phantom “dark skinned man” last Thursday afternoon during the manhunt, then tweeted that evening a self-defense that declared, “…What I am not is racist.” As several Twitter users helpfully pointed out, the system of racism is about outcomes for the multitude of men in this country who don’t appear to be white, not John King’s perception of himself.

This is how the United States of America does racism. We live in an ahistorical culture that continually attempts to deny the white supremacy that determines who is and isn’t defined as a U.S. citizen, a criminal, a terrorist or a victim. But a trip through our history is instructive.

Human Mob Theory

Because living things have trouble coping with pain, let’s start with something neutral about how mobs behave.

In an interview over email, Nicole Monteiro, a clinical psychologist from the United States who currently teaches at the University of Botswana, explained:

“Mobs allow for [the] diffusion of responsibility, anonymity, the illusion of authority and ‘othering.’ Racist ideology provides a fertile breeding ground for all of these dynamics because it lures adherents with the promise of clear-cut, unambiguous identities and allegiances,” she wrote last week. “Modern media reinforce racist ideology via repetition of stereotypes and by presenting a racially biased, ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality as objective fact.”

Monteiro, who was watching American news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings from Botswana, added, “The broadcast media is definitely looking for the ‘Muslim,’ ‘foreign’ or ‘other’ angle to re-establish that ‘mainstream,’ ‘wholesome,’ white America.”

Many Americans talk about the dynamics of American white supremacist mob rule as a series of isolated “tragedies.” The outcome of this behavior is 100 percent tragic. But American white supremacist behavior and the media that fuel it aren’t some cosmic accident.

Let’s look at where we’ve been.

It’s impossible to tell the whole thing here. I’d like to start in Memphis, 1892. The African-American journalist Ida B. Wells began her eight-year investigation into the ritual of white mobs kidnapping, hanging, burning, castrating and otherwise torturing black men for the alleged rape of white women. In response to an editorial about the lynching of three of her friends published in The Free Speech and Headlight—a black newspaper she co-owned—a white mob destroyed The Free Speech office.

Now, lets try 1910. From the online version of the photo book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America”, here’s an account of a white supremacist mob-lynching of a black man named Allen Brooks in Dallas. (Text italicized for emphasis):

The H. J. Buvens family had esteemed Allen Brooks a trusted servant until Flora Daingerfield, a second servant, claimed to have discovered Brooks with their missing three-year old daughter in the barn. Dr. W. W. Brandau examined the child and concluded, rather vaguely, that there was “evidence of brutal treatment.” A local newspaper described the alleged crime as “one of the most heinous since the days of Reconstruction.” Immediately following Brooks’ arrest, a mob attempted, but failed, to kidnap him from authorities. But while his trial was underway, a second mob, of two hundred whites and one “conspicuous Negro,” entered the courtroom and successfully overwhelmed a “defending force” of fifty [sic] armed deputies and twenty [sic] policemen.

Of course mobs are formed to protect whiteness from more than black people in America. Let’s move to 1943, in Los Angeles, during World War II. In this setting the leading threat is supposed to be “Communism” and Japanese Americans, whom the United States government rounded up by the thousands and trapped in internment camps. But we also end up with the so-called Zoot Suit Riots, which according to an American Experience summary, lasted from May 31 through June 9 of that year.

In this episode of white supremacist violence, we have white military servicemen leaving the Naval Reserve Armory and trolling downtown L.A. with the purpose of street-harassing young Mexican-American women, and of trading antagonisms with young Mexican-American men wearing the baggy, colorful “zoot suits” associated with black bandleader Cab Calloway. On May 31, a white serviceman grabs the arm of a Mexican-American teen and ends up severely beaten. In retaliation, mobs of white men representing the United States Armed Forces come into the city to beat up people they see as Mexican.

In the major papers, such as the Los Angeles Examiner and the Los Angeles Daily News, it’s reported as “riotous disturbances” by “zoot suit hoodlums” provoking “revenge-bent servicemen.”

And two years later, in a report from—not making this up— the “Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California” we learn that “zoot suits,” “Negro and Mexican youth” and “Communism” are to blame for the actions of a pack of white males who rushed into a movie theater, beat up 13- and 14-year-old Mexican-American boys, stripped them near naked and burned their zoot suits. An excerpt from the 1945 report:

The Pachuco, or so-called “zoot-suit,” fad among Negro and Mexican youth in Los Angeles’ east side was a golden opportunity for Communist racial agitation. The riots that occurred in June of 1943, together with the activities of certain Communist front organizations and the vociferous charges of the Communist press, forcefully brought the situation to the attention of the Committee. …

Gangs of Mexican and Negro boys, garbed in the fantastic costumes now generally known as ‘zoot-suits,’ had been roaming the streets of the east side of the City of Los Angeles since early in 1941. Many of these boys were armed with clubs, knives, brass knuckles and links of chains. Every properly attired ’ zoot-suiter’ wore heavy-soled oxfords. In extreme cases the soles of these ‘zoot-suit ’ oxfords were in excess of an inch thick and when properly used in a gang fight became formidable weapons. United States sailors and soldiers were assaulted on the streets and in cocktail bars by groups of ”zoot-suiters” and violent disturbances were reported from time to time. Early in June of 1943, the long-smouldering antagonism flared into violence.

We can’t skip over September 11, 2001, of course. The years of mob violence that ensued are ongoing. Under George W. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, we have “targeted drone strikes” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, that routinely kill brown people—including children—that we don’t see. In this country, we’ve had racially motivated attacks on Sikhs and other brown folks.

And now, in April 2013, with all of our “democratized” media and “crowd sourcing” we quickly began forming mobs in search of “dark-skinned” suspects, Arab-American joggers, missing Ivy League students with foreign names, Muslims—those who would threaten whiteness. The whole effort was initially thrown into confusion by the fact the actual suspects were literally Caucasian.

But then as Sarah Kendzior pointed in an Al Jazeera essay, the Tsarnaev brothers were soon found to be “the wrong kind of Caucasian.” To wit, we witnessed absurdities such as the attempt by TMZ.com to link the terror-producing, deadly behavior of 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen who grew up in Boston, to the suddenly novel concept of hip-hop consumption.

The older brother who was killed and suspected in the Boston bombings was deep into hip hop, and it appears he belonged to a fan website that touted that genre of music. …

The site provides information about hip-hop artists and upcoming DVD releases.

What’s interesting … hip hop lyrics are notoriously violent and often degrading to women. Tamerlan Tsarnaev has a boxing profile in which he says he doesn’t take his shirt off much because he doesn’t want women to get bad ideas, adding, “I’m very religious.” This statement is significantly more conservative than the hip hop genre.

And today and indefinitely, we’re going to hear details of how 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his Caucasian brother were “radicalized” by Islam. In an Associated Press report, we learn of the ominous figure “Misha,” a bald, bearded man whom reportedly befreinded the older Tsarnaev and turned him to the dark side of Islam. AP reports that days of searching, it was unable to actually find a trace of this mysterious man. Nobody’s white in this equation.

In fact, the label “terrorism” demands they cannot be white, according to Princeton professor Imani Perry, Ph.D., J.D., author of “More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.”

“Efforts to try to fit [the Boston Marathon bombing] into the standard racialized narrative didn’t work. That became clear once the names and photos of the Chechen brothers were released and the speculation about whether they were Muslims or terrorists and Caucasian started,” Perry said in a Wednesday interview. “I think it’s a reflection of how [media] language of ‘terror’ registers as the vulnerability of whiteness, because ‘American’ is read as ‘white.” To capture the label of ‘terrorism’ it has to be whiteness threatened by ‘The Other’.”

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8 thoughts on “Decoding the Invisible Whiteness In Boston Bombing Coverage (Participation)

  1. Throughout the history of the United States responses to terrorism have always resulted in an angry mob of white Americans seeking justice against those who have somehow threatened “whiteness”. From lynchings in 1910 to the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 Americans have always looked at perpetrators of these acts of violence to be people of different color. Mainstream media today continues to reinforce this racist ideology with constant repetition of racial stereotypes in the news as objective to fact. An example of this during the Boston bombing occurred when CNN News anchor John King reported a nonexistent arrest of a “dark skinned man”. Also from day one of the coverage main stream media began automatically assuming possible connections to Al Qaeda or other non-white terrorist groups and never seemed to keep in mind that a U.S citizen could have been responsible for the attack. All in all whiteness has clouded the Boston Marathon bombing because according to Dr. Imani Perry “media language of terror registers as the vulnerability of whiteness” Which fuels a white American mob mentality.

  2. Every time a devastating event occurs in the United States we always here about a group of white Americans getting revenge against those people. The people that the mob goes after always tend to be people of color. One of the reasons for this is the media; the way the media talks about the suspects or the actual people that committed the crime, they tend to make people think or believe that the people behind past, present, and/or future terrorist crimes are people of color. You here the media talk about a Caucasian being behind those crimes rarely causing us to think that all Caucasians “love” our country and would never do anything to hurt the United States or the people. What the media portrays not only make people believe, it also causes them to act. By this I mean that many people decide to take the law into their own hands. Causing innocent people to suffer. If the media could stop portraying that colored people are the cause of most terrorist crimes then people would not see certain people in negative ways and would not decide to take matters into their own hands.

  3. When I was in China, I could always see the Violent attacks in the United States on the TV.Terrorists often do some terrible things to take revenge on society and government, however, this will hurt innocent people. After I come to the US, I paid more attention to these events. In this event of “Boston Bombing”, I felt Shocked and sad. There are so many innocent people were hurt, they did not do anything but they should bear the pain. In my view, the racism is still a big problem in the United States. The condition of “Invisible Whiteness” affects the society.

  4. There have been many events throughout history in the United States that has resulted in the so called “human mob theory”. In many cases, Americans have formed angry mobs in order to gain revenge on someone who threatened the “whiteness” in America. The Boston Bombing coverage in the media is a great example of this. Shortly after the bombing occurred during the Boston Marathon, the media instantly targeted a dark skinned individual as the suspect. Without any sort of concrete evidence, the first suspect was a student from a Muslim country. This individual was accused on many main media stations. This is ridiculous because they instantly thought the suspect was Muslim, without any evidence. I also think the event that occurred with CNN anchor John King also highlight the instant racial profiling of the subject. Within hours after the explosions, media was talking about the possible terrorist organizations that could be behind the attack. I think this is a very understandable topic to bring up, but only if there is concrete evidence that it was an act of terrorism. Shortly after the attack, there was an instant invisible whiteness. I think this is one of the major problems with mainstream media. There should be no assumptions made in the media without having sufficient evidence, especially assumptions made about the race or religion of the possible suspect.

  5. I would have to agree that because of the post 9/11 society, traditional media tend to have a racist response to the unknown. It’s been proven, as this article mentions, that when something occurs and threatens the United States, and that something has a non-white person behind it, it will always be referred to racism and terror; Just the fact that they had called both bombers ‘Caucasians’ and then backed away from calling them that is wrong. This is implying that every white person is innocent of anything and everything, as if they never do anything wrong. What does the media have to say about the mass shootings that have occurred here, if they would have been done by a non-white person, it would have been considered a foreign terrorist attempt. This is simply wrong. It is not fair to those foreigners who come to America for a chance at freedom and the pursuit of happiness. The media coverage is something we all rely on, I believe that they should really be objective as their job tells them, and only publish the facts at hand, don’t alert the public and say extreme things just to be the first one with something new. I think that if the traditional media would remain objective in this post 9/11 society and not accuse someone harshly and pursue someone more meticulously simply because they are non-whites—this needs to no longer happen. We need to maintain objectivity, even though it may be hard for some, it can happen.

  6. It is quite apparent that racism occurs frequently throughout our society and is often taken in many different ways. Most of the time it is indirect, or unintended but still people find ways to characterize racism in the media society. People often look for reasons to find racism in social media either to point out a certain class or race which often makes many mad. Does social media mean to profile people and make racism obvious to the public? The answer is no. It comes down to the statement that facts are facts. The two men who were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings were Jihad immigrants from Russia that planned a terrorist attack. The plane crashing of the Twin Towers were executed by terrorists of the same group. There comes to a point where there is an obvious trend of the type of people that seek terror on America. It is not racism that is pointing out that particular group of people, it is simply the facts and evidence. Is this racism necessary? I think so, for even though it may be social profiling, they are the outlier in the group that brings up the most suspicion, as if a white person were walking throughout the streets of Iran or Iraq. Obvious racial differences like these are so noticeable that they can not be overlooked or taken easily. We, as Americans are responsible to protect the people Blue-Collar people that support our society and our country, and if that means to periodically check and observe the race of people that try to harm our country then let it be done. Back to the Boston bombings, information that the FBI was following the older brother that apparently was killed in a gun battle, is eye-opening to the world, for we even knew and were onto specific terrorists and their actions of terror still occurred. Racial profiling happens not only in America, but all over the world. It is obvious that it is done for many reasons to protect the people of the world.

  7. I think that each time an act of terrorism occurs they are always quick to blame people of the middle east. The media tends to speculate and point out a group or religion that back up the crime. I think its more of a stereotype than it is racism, Sometimes it is racism through either social media or our media outlets that, the first thing they say when the describe the victim its by race not skin color and the second thing they usually say is religion because they always seem to ten religion to their act of terrorism. In this case since the men were Russian and not from the middle east, rather than saying 2 russian did the bombing you heard media outlets describing them by their religion and the media constantly when over how many times a day they prayed and all their religious stuff, because they were stereotyping them through their religion.

  8. When picturing a terrorist, people immediately think of a foreigner. A US citizen is one of the last people that a person would expect to do an act of terrorism on their own soil. I think the media is one of the main reason for picturing a person this way. On facebook, when the unclear pictures of the Boston bombing suspects were released, facebookers commented that they thought the suspects were middle eastern looking. The pictures were blurry and far away and people still thought that they were middle eastern. The media uses this type of racial stereotyping over and over again. The media will guess on things and try to make connections that might not even be there. When the suspects were found, a reporter stated that a bark skinned male was captured.

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