A few things I learned about us after Boston
This was the dark-skinned suspect that turned the world upside down last week.
As the media takes its time to catch its breath after the coverage of the Boston blasts, it’s interesting to review how race played a major part in coverage from the very beginning.
I mean, really, how did we get that first description of a “dark-skinned suspect”?
The main source was John King of CNN, who said on April 17:
“I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources, who is a law enforcement official, that this was a dark-skinned male.”
Of course, he’s since tweeted a clarification, but not really an apology.
King admitted he got it wrong, sort of, and that “the source of that description was a senior government official. And I asked, are you sure?”
In his own defense, King wrote: “But I’m responsible. What I am not is racist.”
Maybe not, but King “got played” by someone. And like others in his viewing audience, I trusted him.
When I first heard it reported on CNN, I tweeted this out:
Relax all u white terrorists: They’re looking for someone w/dark skin, accent, and black t-shirt. Police work courtesy of #ProfilesAreUs — Emil Guillermo @emilamok 15 Apr
A few days later when the first surveillance videos and photos were made public, and the suspects weren’t dark-skinned at all, I tweeted:
How do xenophobes feel about #Bostonsuspects who look like avg American guys w/ball caps&backpacks? How do you profile Blurry-Americans? — Emil Guillermo @emilamok 18 Apr
To me, I couldn’t tell who the suspects were, or where they were from. Is there a small country somewhere called “Blur?”
Perhaps the media’s mantra of Back Bay should have been a paraphrase of the famous battle cry of nearby Bunker Hill: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their skin.”
If they had, the media would have gotten that part of the story right.
Perhaps John King shouldn’t feel so bad.
One Dallas station actually identified “New Girl” star Zooey Deschanel as a bombing suspect.
No harm, no foul?
Maybe. But then there was Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student, missing since March 16. Last week, he was wrongly identified as the Boston bomber. His body was found just today.
WHITE PRIVILEGE ON DISPLAY
The knee-jerk reaction of “terrorism=dark-skinned Muslim” does expose our unhealthy attitude about white privilege.
We still honor it. Especially when “bad things happen.” Does the perp always have to be a “dark person”? Must whites always get a pass, especially when it comes to terrorism?
In that sense, the brothers Tsarnaev have challenged the dominant cultural assumption.
But really, have we not seen enough pathological behavior from whites to grant them at least some bad-guy equality? Doesn’t one Charles Manson count for at least several hundred thousand dark-skinned thugs?
Manson, not enough?
Then how about John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Buford O. Furrow?
They appear to have misused their cultural passport of Whiteness.
People of color go through life without that skin color visa. They can make up for it in other ways. Like getting a good education, sustaining a decent career, living a good and decent life that gains them entry into the broad American middle class and beyond.
But for the Tsarnaevs, their whiteness wasn’t enough. And their experience of struggle in America is really more like many Asian immigrants than you’d think.
MORE LIKE DZHOKHAR THAN WE ADMIT?
It should elicit a little sympathy for the brothers. A friend of mine wrote a piece called “I am not the Tsarneavs.”
OK, sure. The Tsarnaevs don’t speak for or represent all Muslims. But they do share something with many of us from immigrant communities. They were legal immigrants who came to America and were simply looking to find their place in the world. And at least when it came to Dzhokhar, the younger surviving brother, there was a real yearning to understand his past.
When Dzhokhar was 16 and assigned to write an essay on something he was passionate about, he chose Chechnya, his ancestral homeland, according to a report in The New York Times.
And then he wrote to Brian Glyn Williams, a professor at U.Mass Dartmouth, who said Dzhokar “wanted to know more about his Chechen roots.”
He wanted to be grounded and find out more about the wars raged by Russia that killed 200,000 Chechen rebels.
He was a kid in America hungry for knowledge.
It reminded me of my days when I lived not far from what would be Tsarnaevs’ neighborhood in Cambridge. As an off-campus student, being Filipino at Harvard in the ’70s was not much different from being a Chechen in the U.S. I used to joke about majoring in alienation. I just wasn’t white like he was.
Like Dzhokhar, the route I found to a sense of self was history. It’s the call of ethnic studies. When I heard it, the only books on Filipino immigration to the U.S. back then were unpublished theses in Widener Library.
But I admit I had a big advantage over young Dzhokhar.
I wasn’t influenced by a radicalized older brother.
THROWING THE BOOK AT HIM
The most surprising conversation I had about Dzhokhar this week was with a long-time friend, who was all over me before I could say “Miranda rights.”
“Miranda?” he said, “Are you kidding? They should throw the book at him. Better yet, maybe the book is too good.”
My friend was all for Dzhokhar being treated as an enemy combatant. That would get him some kind of Dick Cheney treatment. And I don’t mean a quail hunting trip.
But the truth is, they didn’t need to charge him with that.
“They could get all kinds of information from him,” my friend insisted.
“You mean you don’t want to take the time to let a judge and jury decide, like they do in a strong democracy?” I asked.
“Why,” asked my friend. “We saw it all on TV.”
My friend is no legal expert. He’s a regular guy, the kind who would make up what I’d call a “joop”–“jury of one’s peers.”
He’s a well- educated, high-earning professional. And the thought of Dzhokhar made him agitated and incensed like I’ve never heard.
An extreme sense of patriotism? Or reverse xenophobia? Reverse Islamic zealotry?
You see, my friend is also an immigrant, a naturalized citizen from a continent known for its dictatorships and lack of freedom.
If you have had similar conversations yourself, we all must remember that we are still a great country–of laws.
And that democracy will prevail only if we can show the world that a person like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserves justice.
People like my friend, who want to string him up now, should remember that Tsarnaev was willing to die when he set off the bombs.
Indeed, we should give him what a free country affords, a fair trial.
And then we should resist giving him what he wants–a death that will inspire other violent radicals.