by Edward Williams
posted April 24, 2013 by The Root
The Boston-bombing suspects show that it’s time the media and the public redefined their view of Islam.
The American story has too long been told through a racial lens and always vis-à-vis “whiteness.” This is a dangerous premise — fortifying the principles of white supremacy, entirely incongruent with the nation’s democratic values. In no area is this problem more apparent than the American media — and news reporting in particular. The Constitution’s First Amendment protection of “freedom of the press” has morphed inexplicably into a safe haven in which stereotypes, falsehoods and outdated racial codes are protected under the law — allowing poisonous lies to masquerade as fact.
Last week the media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings led to numerous instances of misinformation being reported. In the wake of confusion following the events, there was a rush to judgment as many desperately searched for answers. (Sophisticated online-media platforms and the ability to receive information in real time have no doubt created a new filter for defining journalistic integrity standards in the 21st century.)
But a blatant display of Islamophobic rhetoric and racial profiling became a benchmark of many reports, proving what some had already suspected — that xenophobia and racially tinged, anti-Muslim sentiment have become tacitly accepted byproducts of post-Sept. 11 American society. Most disturbing was that these attitudes were readily articulated by standard-bearers of credible news outlets, whose profession it is to disseminate “facts” without bias.
The most widely (and embarrassingly) covered misstep occurred at CNN. Senior correspondent John King erroneously reported that the FBI had made an arrest and that the suspect was “a dark-skinned male.” This led MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to ask, “What news value exists in the adjective ‘dark-skinned’?”
King was widely criticized for a lack of due diligence and catering to latent racial animus. His words relieved those looking for an easy target to blame — namely Arabs from the Middle East or North Africa — and cast a shadow of doubt and suspicion upon every black and brown male in Boston’s metropolitan area.
Unsurprisingly, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly — an occasional “accidental” racist himself — came to King’s defense, claiming that it was an “honest mistake.” Meanwhile, the New York Post (a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.) ran a cover story with a photo of what appeared to be two nonwhite males, under the headline “Bag Men: Feds Seek These Two Pictured at Boston Marathon.”
The truth? Both were innocent — never implicated in the bombings. Salah Barhoun, whose face the Post distributed both in print and online, turned out to be a 17-year-old high school track star interested in running the marathon. Murdoch and the Post issued statements but no apology.
And the misconceptions weren’t limited to conservatives or the right wing.MSNBC’s Chris Matthews wondered aloud if there was a way to identify the suspects’ race just by looking at the photo. “Are there people at the FBI that can look at the picture, study it ethnographically and figure what the odds are on a fellow like that being from different parts of the world — say, Yemen or any other parts like that?” Matthews had prefaced his question by saying, “Not to be racial profiling, but … ” Naturally.
Sadly, King and Matthews are hardly relics of their time. The Federal Communications Commission reports that American media — from owners of television and radio networks to reporters on the beat and newsroom — is becoming less diverse. Former trends showing more women and minorities being hired are strangely reversing. That phenomenon is not lost on the viewer, as white reporters, relying on white editors and producers, often tell stories through a narrow, biased lens.
The effect? Black and brown people are often framed as “other” — their American bona fides revoked. And since American identity was historically defined by white (read: European) racial heritage, reporters like Matthews and King placed the perpetrators as far outside that paradigm as possible. Even after Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were positively identified, Matthews focused on their “ethnic” Chechen heritage. He appeared intent on distinguishing it somehow as “different” and went as far as to praise Boston’s historically prominent Irish-American community.
But the Tsarnaev brothers offer a much-needed challenge to America’s antiquated ideologies on race. Hailing from Dagestan and Chechnya, nation states of the former Soviet Republic in the Caucasus region, the Tsarnaevs are quite literally “Caucasian” — and, by any racial trajectory, are simply considered “white.”
Salon’s Joan Walsh pointed out how some conservative news sites have claimed that the brothers’ Chechen heritage makes them “nonwhite.” Ironically, Walsh notes, the same logic was used with respect to Italian, Irish, Jewish and Eastern European immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. Over time, and with assimilation — including the collective oppression of African Americans — “whiteness” became more loosely defined.
Why does any of this matter? America’s original sin has left an indelible stain. The “white” race, inasmuch as it has been politically construed, does not exist. Neither does a “black” race. Both were designed to justify a social caste system of degradation and white rule. These levers remain in place, despite so much social progress. And in 21st-century America, Muslims are becoming the new black: de facto suspects, victims of unwarranted violence and xenophobia. Not even the ascendance of an African-American president — with a Muslim name — could change that.
The miscalculation made by both the media and ordinary citizens was not that these terrorists couldn’t be “white” but that they couldn’t be “Muslim” and“white.” How serendipitous it is, therefore, that they are.
White men have become a kind of protected class — whose ill behavior is often excused, dismissed or pardoned. As a result, terms like “white-on-white crime” are considered misnomers. Profiling of white males as domestic terrorists, rapists, drug dealers and perpetrators of gun violence never occurs — though they commit the majority of violent crime, according to FBI data.
Valarie Kaur, a Sikh American and founding director of Groundswell, appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry’s eponymous program last Sunday to remind viewers that the last incident of domestic terrorism before the Boston bombing was the attack on a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis., last year. The perpetrator, Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, fatally shot and killed six people and wounded four others. Kaur posited, “In the wake of that tragedy, we did not see calls for white people to be profiled. The way our country diagnoses a problem when it’s a white perpetrator is [that] it’s an individual problem. When it’s a person of color, suddenly an entire community is deemed dangerous.”
Could this moment, as tragic as it is, be the dawning of a post-xenophobic age, in which Muslims are no longer narrowly defined? Will American citizens — and their media — educate themselves against the broad-stroke profiling that has adversely affected Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Arabs? Or will the status quo remain — offering immunity to a few, while declaring others guilty before proved innocent?
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.