Monday, April 29, 2013

Race-Making in Practice: Are Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev the New Sacco and Vanzetti?

A terrorist attack, small in scale but brutal in effect, shocks the nation. The leading perpetrator is an American with foreign connections, apparently linked – at least in his own mind – to a worldwide movement of violent extremists. Furthermore, this young man in his late 20s with the unpronounceable name had attracted suspicion in the past and struck some observers as unstable, although even members of his own family did not suspect he was planning such a spectacular crime. 
In the aftermath of the attack, some people assume it was the work of a sinister global conspiracy against America, despite little evidence. Others see an unemployed and alienated loner, unable to connect to the promise of the American dream, who turned to extremism out of personal despair or mental illness. Many political commentators call for a crackdown on immigration, the restriction of civil liberties and an aggressive military-style counterattack against anti-American radicalism, both at home and abroad. As the nation’s energetic young president puts it, counteracting this tide of violence is the most significant question facing the United States, and one that could even endanger the nation’s future. 
Sounds familiar, right? Except that I’m not talking about the Boston bombing and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I’m talking about the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by an unemployed 28-year-old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, a traumatic but poorly understood event that was one of the crucial pivot points in early 20th-century history.  
My posts on the topic of racial formation, Whiteness, and the Boston Bombing suspects are finally complete.

Are Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev white?" Of course they are. But, that question still lingers in the air as white Americans--and some others--try to reconcile "terrorism" with a sacred view of "American" identity as benign, safe, harmless, exception, and non-violent. 

If the circumstances were not so tragic Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev's saga would be the stuff of a comedy skit. Race-making is also darkly tragic. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev's supposed exploits fit that script perfectly.

Andrew O'Hehir has written a great essay about race-making, immigrant identity, and the country's long history of xenophobia over at Salon. I like his work; we who are thinking about these questions are the Borg.

As is my rule, I do not try to improve upon writing that is better than what I would have offered up--thus, one of my pieces on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, and racial formation is replaced by Andrew's piece. 

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev fit the immigrant script of white anxiety about the perennial alien Other--especially the quasi-white Other--perfectly. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are also object lessons in racial formation. Thus, why so many articles will be written about how Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev emonstrate some of the most basic principles of critical race theory in history, and the social sciences, more broadly.

As Chechens, they were considered "black" in Russia (and what was the former Soviet Union). As Chechens, they can migrate to the United States where they then become honorable or quasi-White. Like other whites with malleable and/or contingent citizenship, as Chechens, a group newly inducted into full Whiteness during the last six or so decades, they are still on review. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are also Muslims. The latter category complicates matters.

In post 9-11 America, such a religious identity is a mark of being the Other. The sum total of this race-making project is that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are contingently White, and after their accused terrorist acts, Chechen are now marginalized as some type of "non-white" in some parts of the American (white and conservative) popular imagination.

Yet, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are from the Caucuses. "Caucasians" are quite literally in the common sense pseudo-science language of racial convention "white" by definition. But, post-Boston, such people, "those Chechens," are now at risk of being racially ostracized. 

The mental gymnastics of the White Right and their efforts to exile and reject white folks who are "terrorists" in the service of a racially chauvinistic White conservative political project would be funny if the stakes were not so high, and the consequences so damn serious, for all people who live in the United States. White privilege and White domestic terrorists are a preeminent threat to the national security of the United States of America. The White Right and the Tea Party GOP would rather kick "unsuitable" and "undesirable" whites out of the tribe than confront a threat to the country's collective safety, health, and security. 

Madison Grant would be proud; We all suffer from how White privilege prevents a basic acknowledgement of the centuries-long history of white domestic terrorism in the United States. The psychic wages of Whiteness are lethal--again--to all parties across the colorline. Yet, so many "real Americans" are loathe to acknowledge such basic facts.


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Lee Viola said...

OT, but related. You may want to check this one out by O'Hehir, too. I'm glad he's extended himself beyond Holloywood. He's one of the few decent voices left at Salon:

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chauncey devega said...

Will do. His range is very impressive and comments usually quite strong.

Lee Viola said...

He also destroyed via review Empty Chair/Empty Brain/Empty Soul Eastwood's movie on that criminal, Hoover. Seems that Hoover made life very uncomfortable for O'Hehir's leftist family.

Dustin Jaquez said...

Thanks for the response. As for the "exceptional whiteness" bit, I was merely positing that the notion that race as an identity allows for the logic of racial superiority. But nevermind that, let's focus on the real problem...

"Of course white is a made up word and social category."

Agreed. If this is the case, then how is it possible to answer the question "Are these men white?" without trafficking within the false binary of that discourse? The fact is, you are trafficking within this discourse when you assert that "yes of course they are white."

Yes, the right wing is vexed by the notion that a person can be both "white" and "terrorist," and the left media is making sure they realize it (e.g. "Let's hope the Boston Bombers are white Americans" by that one columnist who writes for that one Salon place). Yes, the right wingers would like to kick the "unsuitable" and "undesirable" whites into the Other; it is similarly mischievous to try and push them back into whiteness.

If you had answered the question "the media believes they are white, or they believe they are white," instead you answered "they ARE white" as if this was an objective term. It is clear, upon reading your response, that indeed you recognize that the term whiteness is a perception, and if we can answer the question with the a change of subject "These men believe, society believes..." then the reader is not to be mislead.

If we agree that whiteness is a discursive category defined by both internal and external perception (double consciousness Frederick Douglass style), and these men were considered "black" in their country (external perception), are non-European (internal and external), and anti-thetical (by their own words and own internal perception) to the American identity, then how are these men, by their own perception as well as those around them, white? I'd have to argue that Tamerlan did not perceive himself as white and neither did those around him. Djhokhar, however, by mere virtue of his skin color, seemed to have had a more ambiguous perception of his own identity.

So, I'll say that the answer, if we word it correctly, still involves a complex interplay and counter-play that shaped the perceived (internal and external) identity of these men. The answer is not simple, and I don't think "yes of course they are white" is a sufficient response.