Boston Marathon Bombings: Does Race Matter?

If the wait for a suspect(s) in the Boston Marathon bombings was a game of bingo, the revelation of the two men once identified by blurred photos, the game itself would have turned out to be a bust.

Terrorists? Supposedly.

Foreign? Foreign enough.

Muslims? Yes.

Middle Eastern? No — (shocker!

White — ?

And we’ve hit the roadblock. But does it even matter?

The natures of race, in addition to religion have been heated topics driving the event of the bombings since their conception. The United States is forever haunted by the events of September 11th, the “war on terror,” Afghanistan and Iraq. Oftentimes in a quest to make sense out of acts of violence, we are quick to label a common enemy in our collective need to make someone (or a group of people) pay for the crime of one (or a few). A fear of Middle Eastern/Islamophobia reemerging in full strength has the capacity to follow if the Boston Marathon suspect(s) turned out to fit the stereotypical person of color profile of a terrorist. This was highlighted by David Sirota’s piece in Salon titled “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.”

I think we would all prefer for there to be no bombers at all. And while I would be the first to welcome healthy discussions concerning race, I can't help but question: have we come too far in equating the race factor in arenas where it shouldn’t matter? In the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, the answer is yes. Dark-skinned or not, their ethnicity does not change the fact that their tangible criminal charges could have been committed by anyone. Yet the bizarre immigrant vs. Americanized debate the media seems to be pushing showcases the reasons why we need to talk about race and not talk about race at the same time.

In Sirota’s piece, he quoted anti-racist author and educator Tim Wise on the merits of white privilege

“White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for your group to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening or threatened with deportation,” Wise wrote.

As noted in a different Salon piece, the Tsarnaev brothers hail from the Caucus region, which make them fit the Caucasian bill. The U.S. Census Bureau, for all intent and purposes, labels their ethnicity as white.

In summarizing Sirota’s point, author Joan Walsh wrote, “a white Boston bomber wouldn’t trigger a destructive new wave of racial profiling, anti-Muslim agitation or generalized xenophobia. Somehow it’s hard for the right, and even for many in the media, to see white abortion-clinic bombers, or even Timothy McVeigh, as every bit as guilty of terrorism as the Tsarnaevs, if not more so.”

As Walsh points out, there are conservatives who don’t consider the brothers to be white. The Tsarnaev brothers didn’t get the pass of white privilege from the media either — but rather, spiraled into a dialogue seemingly wanting to enforce how “American” they were, as if any relation back to their foreign status would prove damning. The uncle of the brothers, Ruslan Tsnari even called them “losers” for not fully integrating into American culture. However, the beauty of America is that it is a melting pot of multiple nationalities — you can consider yourself an American, but be Chechen, Pakistani, or Latino as well. One identity isn’t inherently better than the other.

So is it worthwhile to talk about race? Of course — issues such as harmful stereotypes, profiling, xenophobia and more need to be combated. Issues where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev isn’t viewed as being white despite fitting the technical description is problematic.

(Perhaps if he was American born and anything else but Muslim — do you see where I’m going with this?)

But, is race an important factor to focus on moving onward in the detainment of Dzhokhar? No. Because at the end of the day, he is still a suspect in a fatal tragedy. And that’s what counts — the loss of three lives and the injuries of hundreds of others, not whether or not his identity fits a particular mold of blame.