Friday morning’s naming of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing disappointed a wide variety of observers who had staked sociological claims around the attack.
After five days of speculation that brought arcane racialist theories out of academia and into popular discussion, authorities revealed that the suspects are 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed by police early this morning, and his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who remains at large.
This brought strong reactions from observers who have argued that the public reception of the suspects would vary depending on their racial, religious and citizenship status. “Media, Stop talking about the suspect’s ‘heart of gold’ especially after you referred to previous suspects #whiteprivilege #racism,” wrote tweeter @ThatGirl405, apparently referring to media interviews with the suspects’ friends, and to some abortive speculation by CNN’s John King on Wednesday that police had detained a “dark-skinned male.”
The brothers were in fact Chechens who apparently hailed from the Russian region of Dagestan. Tamerlan appears to have been a devout Muslim who worshiped at a mosque in Cambridge that welcomed radical critics of U.S. and British anti-terrorism policies.
The suspects’ identities – Central Asian Caucasians whose horrific acts may have been informed by a militant strain of Islam – have proven tricky for commentators who had hoped to frame Monday’s bombings as a lesson on racial politics and what they believe to be pervasive bigotry in contemporary America.
Shortly after Monday’s attack, before any suspects were named, Salon writer David Sirota published a widely ridiculed piece expressing the hope that the bomber would be a “white American.” Sirota based his logic on an academic discipline known as Critical Race Theory.
“If recent history is any guide, if the bomber ends up being a white anti-government extremist, white privilege will likely mean the attack is portrayed as just an isolated incident — one that has no bearing on any larger policy debates,” Sirota wrote.
Although his hope proved vain, Sirota claimed vindication on his Twitter page on Friday. “My Twitter time line proves my original point,” he wrote. “b/c suspects are (allegedly) Muslim, there’ll be a much more severe – and bigoted – backlash.” Separately, Sirota contradicted his earlier wish for an American bomber by tweeting, “Our reaction to terrorism shouldnt [SIC] be predicated on the demography of the terrorists.”
Other commenters took solace in the alleged bombers’ status as white people. “ATTENTION, RACISTS: The Boston bombing suspects are from the actual Caucasus region, meaning they *literally could not be more Caucasian*,” tweeted @YesYoureRacist.
It is unclear whether the suspects have or have not benefited from “white privilege” — a theory put forth by proponents of critical race theory and described on Tuesday by “antiracist essayist” Tim Wise in this way: “White privilege is knowing that even if the Boston Marathon bomber turns out to be white, his or her identity will not result in white folks generally being singled out for suspicion by law enforcement, or the TSA, or the FBI.”
Wise’s comments received wide circulation and became the basis of a meme featuring the “Success Kid” icon. Additonally, the #whiteprivilege hashtag has been very active on Twitter.
Although critical race theory is an obscure field unknown to most Americans, it has considerable cachet in academia and is the brainchild of the late Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell, who held that race is “an indeterminate social construct that is continually reinvented and manipulated to maintain domination and enhance white privilege.” Bell was publicly praised by Barack Obama (a Harvard Law School student and one-time editor of the Harvard Law Review) shortly before he was elected president.
Although the Tsarnaev brothers’ background has proven a complex fit within the cartoonishly simple parameters of critical race theory, their Chechen heritage has fit into another popular trope of terrorism: that terrorists are primarily products of deprivation and suffering.
The New York Times quickly headlined a profile of the brothers “Far From War-Torn Homeland, Trying to Fit In.”
In fact, the Tsarnaevs were living comfortable lives in the Boston area. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev attended Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. At least one of the brothers was a naturalized U.S. citizen. Both brothers appear to have had broad networks of friends and family members in the Boston area, many of whom have spoken with the media throughout the day.