Watching professional broadcast journalists attempt to compete with social media hobbyists for any nugget of information during last week’s manhunt for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, many us felt a familiar dread. We know, either intuitively, through direct experience or via professional training, that media have a collective power to help diffuse or fuel the fear and tension that so often triggers racial violence in this country. Despite all of the post-9/11 reflection and lessons learned, it seems that some members of traditional media cannot help but have a racist response to the unknown. The hysteria of social media users—who enjoy the luxury of using handles rather than their names and faces—serve to intensify the racist response.
So despite their public atonement, it still appears as if people with power don’t understand the impact of their decisions.
American history shows us time and time again that without an incredible amount of resistance to and clarity about the white supremacy undergirding our culture, mob rule serves as the default.
So although some media members have made public apologies for the racism they fed into via silence, doublespeak or rote reporting, there is still work to be done. A lot of work. One way to begin is by examining the language we use when we’re doing our jobs.
Let’s probe the Monday mea culpa from Reddit general manager Erik “@hueypriest” Martin. He described the racist behavior of some the site’s users as a “witch hunt.”
In 2013, on the Internet, “witch hunt” can apply to the post-9/11, Islamophobic, and racist branding of Sunil Tripathi, the Indian-American student who had been missing since March 16.
But the centuries-long American usage of “witch hunt” refers to the 1692-1693 trials in Salem, Mass., of more than 200 women accused of practicing “the Devil’s magic.” All of the authorities and most of the victims in this shameful chapter were what we today consider white. Yet people use “witch hunt” in a racially neutral way because Salem, at the time, was an English colony. So “England” was the oppressor, “Puritanism” and “religious intolerance” was the problem, the victims were “women” and nobody’s white except for the “Caribbean slave” Tituba.
The redditors who “crowd sourced” the wrong information about Sunil Tripathi and the blogs that spread the conjecture were not conducting a witch hunt. They were mimicking the behavior of American white supremacist mobs.
Now, think about how CNN’s John King reported the nonexistent arrest of a phantom “dark skinned man” last Thursday afternoon during the manhunt, then tweeted that evening a self-defense that declared, “…What I am not is racist.” As several Twitter users helpfully pointed out, the system of racism is about outcomes for the multitude of men in this country who don’t appear to be white, not John King’s perception of himself.
This is how the United States of America does racism. We live in an ahistorical culture that continually attempts to deny the white supremacy that determines who is and isn’t defined as a U.S. citizen, a criminal, a terrorist or a victim. But a trip through our history is instructive.
Human Mob Theory
Because living things have trouble coping with pain, let’s start with something neutral about how mobs behave.
In an interview over email, Nicole Monteiro, Ph.D.,* a clinical psychologist and professor from the United States who currently teaches at the University of Botswana, explained:
“Mobs allow for [the] diffusion of responsibility, anonymity, the illusion of authority and ‘othering.’ Racist ideology provides a fertile breeding ground for all of these dynamics because it lures adherents with the promise of clear-cut, unambiguous identities and allegiances,” she wrote last week. “Modern media reinforce racist ideology via repetition of stereotypes and by presenting a racially biased, ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality as objective fact.”
Monteiro, who was watching American news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings from Botswana, added, “The broadcast media is definitely looking for the ‘Muslim,’ ‘foreign’ or ‘other’ angle to re-establish that ‘mainstream,’ ‘wholesome,’ white America.”
Many Americans talk about the dynamics of American white supremacist mob rule as a series of isolated “tragedies.” The outcome of this behavior is 100 percent tragic. But American white supremacist behavior and the media that fuel it aren’t some cosmic accident.
Let’s look at where we’ve been.
It’s impossible to tell the whole thing here. I’d like to start in Memphis, 1892. The African-American journalist Ida B. Wells began her eight-year investigation into the ritual of white mobs kidnapping, hanging, burning, castrating and otherwise torturing black men for the alleged rape of white women. In response to an editorial about the lynching of three of her friends published in The Free Speech and Headlight—a black newspaper she co-owned—a white mob destroyed The Free Speech office.
Now, lets try 1910. From the online version of the photo book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America”, here’s an account of a white supremacist mob-lynching of a black man named Allen Brooks in Dallas. (Text italicized for emphasis):
The H. J. Buvens family had esteemed Allen Brooks a trusted servant until Flora Daingerfield, a second servant, claimed to have discovered Brooks with their missing three-year old daughter in the barn. Dr. W. W. Brandau examined the child and concluded, rather vaguely, that there was “evidence of brutal treatment.” A local newspaper described the alleged crime as “one of the most heinous since the days of Reconstruction.” Immediately following Brooks’ arrest, a mob attempted, but failed, to kidnap him from authorities. But while his trial was underway, a second mob, of two hundred whites and one “conspicuous Negro,” entered the courtroom and successfully overwhelmed a “defending force” of fifty [sic] armed deputies and twenty [sic] policemen.
Of course mobs are formed to protect whiteness from more than black people in America. Let’s move to 1943, in Los Angeles, during World War II. In this setting the leading threat is supposed to be “Communism” and Japanese Americans, whom the United States government rounded up by the thousands and trapped in internment camps. But we also end up with the so-called Zoot Suit Riots, which according to an American Experience summary, lasted from May 31 through June 9 of that year.
In this episode of white supremacist violence, we have white military servicemen leaving the Naval Reserve Armory and trolling downtown L.A. with the purpose of street-harassing young Mexican-American women, and of trading antagonisms with young Mexican-American men wearing the baggy, colorful “zoot suits” associated with black bandleader Cab Calloway. On May 31, a white serviceman grabs the arm of a Mexican-American teen and ends up severely beaten. In retaliation, mobs of white men representing the United States Armed Forces come into the city to beat up people they see as Mexican.
In the major papers, such as the Los Angeles Examiner and the Los Angeles Daily News, it’s reported as “riotous disturbances” by “zoot suit hoodlums” provoking “revenge-bent servicemen.”
And two years later, in a report from—not making this up— the “Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California” we learn that “zoot suits,” “Negro and Mexican youth” and “Communism” are to blame for the actions of a pack of white males who rushed into a movie theater, beat up 13- and 14-year-old Mexican-American boys, stripped them near naked and burned their zoot suits. An excerpt from the 1945 report:
The Pachuco, or so-called “zoot-suit,” fad among Negro and Mexican youth in Los Angeles’ east side was a golden opportunity for Communist racial agitation. The riots that occurred in June of 1943, together with the activities of certain Communist front organizations and the vociferous charges of the Communist press, forcefully brought the situation to the attention of the Committee. …
Gangs of Mexican and Negro boys, garbed in the fantastic costumes now generally known as ‘zoot-suits,’ had been roaming the streets of the east side of the City of Los Angeles since early in 1941. Many of these boys were armed with clubs, knives, brass knuckles and links of chains. Every properly attired ’ zoot-suiter’ wore heavy-soled oxfords. In extreme cases the soles of these ‘zoot-suit ’ oxfords were in excess of an inch thick and when properly used in a gang fight became formidable weapons. United States sailors and soldiers were assaulted on the streets and in cocktail bars by groups of ”zoot-suiters” and violent disturbances were reported from time to time. Early in June of 1943, the long-smouldering antagonism flared into violence.
We can’t skip over September 11, 2001, of course. The years of mob violence that ensued are ongoing. Under George W. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, we have “targeted drone strikes” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, that routinely kill brown people—including children—that we don’t see. In this country, we’ve had racially motivated attacks on Sikhs and other brown folks.
And now, in April 2013, with all of our “democratized” media and “crowd sourcing” we quickly began forming mobs in search of “dark-skinned” suspects, Arab-American joggers, missing Ivy League students with foreign names, Muslims—those who would threaten whiteness. The whole effort was initially thrown into confusion by the fact the actual suspects were literally Caucasian.
But then as Sarah Kendzior pointed in an Al Jazeera essay, the Tsarnaev brothers were soon found to be “the wrong kind of Caucasian.” To wit, we witnessed absurdities such as the attempt by TMZ.com to link the terror-producing, deadly behavior of 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen who grew up in Boston, to the suddenly novel concept of hip-hop consumption.
The older brother who was killed and suspected in the Boston bombings was deep into hip hop, and it appears he belonged to a fan website that touted that genre of music. …
The site provides information about hip-hop artists and upcoming DVD releases.
What’s interesting … hip hop lyrics are notoriously violent and often degrading to women. Tamerlan Tsarnaev has a boxing profile in which he says he doesn’t take his shirt off much because he doesn’t want women to get bad ideas, adding, “I’m very religious.” This statement is significantly more conservative than the hip hop genre.
And today and indefinitely, we’re going to hear details of how 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his Caucasian brother were “radicalized” by Islam. In an Associated Press report, we learn of the ominous figure “Misha,” a bald, bearded man whom reportedly befreinded the older Tsarnaev and turned him to the dark side of Islam. AP reports that days of searching, it was unable to actually find a trace of this mysterious man. Nobody’s white in this equation.
In fact, the label “terrorism” demands they cannot be white, according to Princeton professor Imani Perry, Ph.D., J.D., author of “More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.”
“Efforts to try to fit [the Boston Marathon bombing] into the standard racialized narrative didn’t work. That became clear once the names and photos of the Chechen brothers were released and the speculation about whether they were Muslims or terrorists and Caucasian started,” Perry said in a Wednesday interview. “I think it’s a reflection of how [media] language of ‘terror’ registers as the vulnerability of whiteness, because ‘American’ is read as ‘white.” To capture the label of ‘terrorism’ it has to be whiteness threatened by ‘The Other’.”
*Post has been updated for clarity since publication.