Whiteness, Non-Whiteness, and Criminal Justice
In response to the shoot-out, manhunt, and arrest of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, some people are proclaiming that America’s rampant racism and/or Islamophobia is on display when comparing the reactions to the Boston bombing and other recent instances of mass violence:
Young white men and white people in general were never profiled, harassed, assaulted or collectively blamed for the actions of Lanza, Holmes or the countless other white males who’ve gone on a shooting rampage in the recent past.
Even now, investigators are unsure about what provoked Lanza and Holmes aside from a potentially undiagnosed mental illness.
More recently, the media has speculated that Adam Lanza was motivated by bullying he experienced during his time as a student at Sandy Hook Elementary. Conversely, not a single person has inquired about the mental wellbeing of the Boston Bombing suspects. Experts in psychology, violence and mass murder haven’t appeared on cable news or written op-eds for the New York Times and Washington Post with insight into what causes people to snap. No one has speculated about bullying that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s may have experienced, particularly Tamerlan, who was in middle school when he immigrated to the United States, an age when bullying is at its peak.
Of course, all of these questions are rhetorical since we already know the answer: Adam Lanza and James Holmes are Christian white males whose names have the appropriate number of consonants. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are Muslim (which cancels out white) males who immigrated to the US from a region of the world where names are difficult to pronounce (for us).
Other people are proclaiming that the only reason anyone cares about the rights of the Tsarnaev brothers in the wake of the bombing is because they are white:
You know, the detached academic in me is sort of having fits of laughter/sympathetic embarrassment/epic schadenfreude over how massively the WHITENESS machine is showing its gears.
This is 900000% “Ignore the man behind the curtain.”
Everyone’s sinking their claws in to figure out a way to either delegitimize or enshrine the whiteness of the Tzarnaevs in this massively transparent Big Top show.
Now, there are OBVIOUSLY complicating factors such as the religious background of the Tzarnaevs, not to mention their immigration status (I know one brother was fully naturalized, but I’m not sure if both were, either way, they were/had gone through the immigration system). But, that does not deny that they had the capability of passing and capitalizing on their white appearances.
In other words, it seems that there’s no good way to talk about civil rights in the wake of terrorism and mass violence … if you’re talking to people who regularly proclaim their social justice bona fides.
In the first instance, a blogger asserts that the bombers are being treated as non-white because they’re Muslim immigrants. In the second instance, a blogger asserts that the bombers are afforded all the privileges that redound to white people because they look white.
The presumption of the second blogger is that anyone who thinks civil rights matter only thinks they matter for white people (even if they are ethnically diverse because they still appear to be white). This makes the person who speaks up for civil rights a racist or at least someone who epitomizes white privilege.
And if one doesn’t speak up for the civil rights of these white people (who are ethnically diverse and yet appear to be white), then one is a racist or Islamophone for denying the civil rights of those who aren’t members of the privileged race or religion (even if they appear to be white).
My position is straightforward: The desire to toss around the “enemy combatant” label whenever someone does something terrible allows us to walk all over the civil rights of American citizens (as in the cases of Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and in Lindsey Graham’s wishful thinking about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) and the human rights of people around the world. When someone commits a terrible crime, there are always calls to suspend their rights, whether or not they appear to be white; we all ought to work dilligently to ensure that — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or nationaliy — our laws are being applied consistently. The fact that our government has meted out justice unfairly for much of the nation’s history doesn’t mean that we ought to continue to mete it out unfairly or that we should swing the pendulum in the other direction for a little while to balance things out a bit. It means, instead, that we ought to agitate for equal treatment in every case.
In other words, when a person is suspected of committing a crime, he should be apprehended and subject to both the privileges and penalites of our criminal justice system. We shouldn’t be asking if he’s white, black, Christian, or Muslim before we decide how or if the law applies to him. This means standing up for the rights of the accused in all cases, which is difficult in and of itself in the aftermath of horrific crimes; it’s even more difficult when people who normally care about civil rights are squabbling about race and privilege rather than standing together to demand equal treatment under law.