The Boston Bombings and White Privilege

The Boston Bombings and White Privilege April 19, 2013

On Wednesday, a report came out that the FBI had a potential suspect in mind, a man who had dropped a backpack at the site of the second bombings shortly before they went off. Several reports said that the man was “dark-skinned,” though those same reports also said the man had already been arrested, which turned out to be false. Rush Limbaugh, of course, immediately seized on this to argue that white men are just so terribly persecuted when dark-skinned people are not:

“If they had news that the perpetrator here was white, we would have had height, weight, clothes, facial hair,” Limbaugh said. “We would know everything. We would know what radio show the guy listens to, what TV network he watches, what publications he reads. We would know everything there is if the guy was white.”

Really, Rush? How would we know those things, given that we have no idea who this man is yet? Does the news media have magical powers to find out things about unidentified white people that don’t work on black people? This is pure idiocy, but used in the service of making his privileged listeners believe that they’re being treated unfairly.

David Sirota, on the other hand, wrote a controversial piece entitled “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.” He argues that society reacts quite differently in such cases than we do to Islamic terrorism:

As we now move into the official Political Aftermath period of the Boston bombing — the period that will determine the long-term legislative fallout of the atrocity — the dynamics of privilege will undoubtedly influence the nation’s collective reaction to the attacks. That’s because privilege tends to determine: 1) which groups are — and are not — collectively denigrated or targeted for the unlawful actions of individuals; and 2) how big and politically game-changing the overall reaction ends up being.

This has been most obvious in the context of recent mass shootings. In those awful episodes, a religious or ethnic minority group lacking such privilege would likely be collectively slandered and/or targeted with surveillance or profiling (or worse) if some of its individuals comprised most of the mass shooters. However, white male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated/targeted for those shootings — even though most come at the hands of white dudes.

Likewise, in the context of terrorist attacks, such privilege means white non-Islamic terrorists are typically portrayed not as representative of whole groups or ideologies, but as “lone wolf” threats to be dealt with as isolated law enforcement matters. Meanwhile, non-white or developing-world terrorism suspects are often reflexively portrayed as representative of larger conspiracies, ideologies and religions that must be dealt with as systemic threats — the kind potentially requiring everything from law enforcement action to military operations to civil liberties legislation to foreign policy shifts.

“White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for your group to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening or threatened with deportation,” writes author Tim Wise. “White privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won’t bomb Dublin. And if he’s an Italian-American Catholic we won’t bomb the Vatican.”

I quibble a bit with the details. Law enforcement won’t make such distinctions. The FBI does routinely infiltrate and keep an eye on domestic groups that have the potential to commit violence, as they did with the Hutaree militia here in Michigan a few years ago (jumping the gun and building a case on little evidence, causing most of the charges to be dropped). But I think the societal response will be much like he implies. People are far more eager and willing to stereotype and condemn whole ethnic groups that are not their own.

My worry in all of this is that it will be used to justify going even further with unconstitutional surveillance and erode the 4th Amendment and other safeguards to our privacy and liberty more than they have already been diminished.

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