Profiles in Black and White: Race and the Presumption of Innocence

A lot has been made of Rolling Stone’s cover feature Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but not a lot has been said to explain and contextualize the “controversy.”  Rather we have gotten more “crossfire” type discourse that does little to advance these conversations. Polls and reducing everything to questions of free speech does little to push critical engagement.   Recognizing the raw wounds in Boston, it is an important moment to go beyond “should Rolling Stone have done this cover” as many issues are in play.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is both white and a racial other; he is “us” and “them.” This in-between place – neither white nor a dark-skinned terrorist; neither white nor a black criminal – manifest itself with the reactions.  The yearning to deploy narratives reserved for white males and the discomfort when attached to his body reflects the racial ambiguity and the ways that innocence/criminality or innocent/terrorist binary operates through America’s racial schema.

At one level, the outrage over the “rock star cover” reflects a discomfort with the image not fitting expectations of what a terrorist looks like.  It defies dominant stereotypes of who a terrorist is, what a terrorist looks like, and where a terrorist lives.  It operates outside the racial schema of America’s terror discourse; it also defies the popular narrative, popularize by Bill Maher, that terrorism is an outgrowth of sexual frustration of males.  The image works in contrast here.

In this sense, the outrage stems from the belief that a terrorist doesn’t look like the boy next-store; a monster doesn’t mirror a rock star.  The image demonstrates that in fact a terrorist does look like a heartthrob rock star that should be heading to prom not prisons. And that is disconcerting; that causes anxiety.

In “The Inconvenient Image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,” Ian Crouch questions the controversy surrounding the image, arguing instead that the outrage is not so much at the image but at the disruption of the stereotypical (and racist/xenophobic) construction of the terrorist body. “Many commenters on Facebook have complained that the image gives Tsarnaev the “rock star” treatment—that his scruffy facial hair; long, curly hair; T-shirt; and soft-eyed glance straight at the camera all make him look like just another Rolling Stone cover boy, whether Jim Morrison or any of the many longhairs who appeared in the magazine’s nineteen-seventies heyday.”  While I don’t necessarily think this is the case, given how his identity is overdetermined by his bodily meaning within the national landscape, Crouch raises an important point as to why the image elicited such a reaction: it wasn’t because the photo makes Tsarnaev into a national hero but the thought and realization that Tsarnaev looked like a rock star disrupts our flattened construction of who is a terrorist.

The reaction, and the race-colored vision of a terrorist helps us understand why the images of the Columbine shooters, or the stories of Adam Lanza or alleged Aurora, Colo. shooter James Holmes don’t elicit outrage in terms of ‘glorification’ and turning ‘killers into celebrities.’  The fact that the images of these young white males (notwithstanding that white males account for over 70% of mass shootings in the U.S., a number that represents twice population size) did not prompt outrage reflects a willingness to see a level of innocence and how race, class, and religion all plays out here. This shows how many readers don’t see Tsarnaev as white or even as Matthew Frye Jacobson describes as “whiteness of a different color”; he is different in their imagination from Lanza, Holmes, Kleebold and others.  He thus should be seen; he should not be heard; he should not be humanized.  In this context, the cover does all the wrong things for the wrong person. Such covers are for white males only.  Crouch makes this clear:

What perhaps we longed to see in our grief, or anger, or confusion, were any familiar images of the Islamic terrorist. The stories didn’t match the crime, either: the pot-smoking kid, the skateboarder, the student at the diverse Cambridge high school, the anonymous undergrad at the state college. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, fit our expectations much better.

Yet, I also think the controversy focuses on the wrong issue.  The question should be why is there an effort to explain how a “promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster” and not a similar desire to hear, see, and learn about Middle- African American or Latino gang members, Middle-Eastern “terrorists” – in actuality these efforts are dismissed as “excuse making.”   As I wrote in January, in “The Unbearable Invisibility of White Masculinity: Innocence In the Age of White Male Mass Shootings”:

The consequences are clear in Newtown and Aurora, yet these are not the only victims. The killers themselves are reconstituted as victims. …Yet, we look elsewhere. We look for excuses and make moves to reposition whiteness as victim needing protection. We use moments of tragedy to reassert the value in whiteness and the importance in protecting white bodies. We work to ‘blame’ something or someone other than Mr. Holmes, Mr. Lanza, Mr. Klebold, and countless others? With a narrative about” good kids” in hand and an insatiable need to ask, “Why?” and “How could he have done such a thing?” we continually imagine violence, barbarism, and terror elsewhere.…In reality, this kind of violence is in many ways a part of our violent history and culture. We have to accept that there is a “typical” face of mass murder in the United States – it is not the black kid killing people in gang shootings, the Mexican cartel member, or the “Muslim terrorist.” It can be, often is, will probably remain the innocent, white, suburban boy next door.

The image and the article itself fall into this trap, providing explanation as to how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a terrorist; he this good kid who looked a model could become a monster.  Rolling Stone does not turn him into a rock star but instead turns him into a good boy who because of his family and society became a monster.

The question and outrage should not be at a picture but why we seek to reimagine white male killers, white male terrorists, and white male criminals through such narratives.  Why do we seek a story, evidence, and a reason for how a suburban white teenage boy (whether from the Caucus region, Connecticut or San Diego) turned evil? Where is this yearning in other contexts? The picture and the headline operates through this vision that he was good, he was the boy next door, and that something changed him. It turns him into a victim. Despite the important critique from The New Yorker, Crouch falls into this mindset:

Instead, the Rolling Stone article is about the still largely mysterious backstory of a young man who transformed, in what appears to be a short amount of time, from a seemingly normal college student into an alleged terrorist. The facts of his life are important, the larger social implications of his biography are important—and so this story has the potential to be a valuable contribution to the public record and to the general understanding of one of the most serious incidents of domestic terrorism in American history.

The story and the image should give pause as it reveals how society works to understand him (and not others); we seek to humanize him and learn how he became a terrorist; whereas the stories of why kids join gang in Chicago are rarely told; the backstory of the Mother’s Day Shooters in NOLA is neither sought nor delivered.  “The white supremacist narrative will have it no other way: Its goal has always been to control the tale,” writes Kimberly George. “But the truth is there are new and more powerful narratives to write—and creating a world in which Trayvon would still be alive depends on it.” The photo and the outrage reflects this white supremacist desire to “control the tale” and to produce narratives based on an order and a racial schema that points to white male innocence and the civility of whiteness.

In a week where some whites across the country celebrated the acquittal of George Zimmerman, where the picture of a lifeless Trayvon was posted across social media, and where kids engaged in the practice of Trayvoning, it is hard not to think about double standards when it comes to life and death; black and white; criminal and innocence.  In a week where conservatives seemed to find pleasure in Black Death, where the trauma and pain felt by African Americans across the country has dismissed as “race baiting,” I am left to wonder if the controversy is little more than the “possessive investment in whiteness.”  Edward Wycoff Williams describes this moment as such:

MSNBC’s Joy Reid put it best when she compared the celebratory reactions to disturbing photos of Jim Crow South lynching parties.…”Think about what they’re rejoicing about. They’re rejoicing about the fact that somebody got acquitted for shooting and killing a teenager.”… It is a modern-day lynching party. And conservatives are smiling.

In a week, month, and year where Trayvon Martin was blamed for his own death, turned from a 17-year old boy into a criminal, it is hard not to be critical of Rolling Stone and society as a whole for yet again asking “why” as part of a insatiable yearning to tell the story of white male suburban youth … monsters. Amid a media environment that has done little to tell humanize Trayvon Martin, to tell his story or that of Darius Simmons or Marissa Alexander, much less than those who have lost or taken lives in Chicago, it is hard not think critically about how these “why” and “how” stories are for “whites only.” Amid an environment where Black Death and trauma is disregarded, it is hard not to question the demands to be more sensitive for Boston because Chicago, New Orleans, the Martin-Fulton Family deserve that as well.  Amid a media that routinely plasters mug shots of black and brown bodies, it is hard not to think about the selective outrage of this Rolling Stone cover.

The polar realities of two Americas can be seen in these differential narratives; the profiling of innocent and guilty is on full display.  “Racial profiling is nothing more than a delusion, born of our belief that we can profile danger. We want to believe we can predict who will do the next terrible thing,” writes Roxanne Gay. “We want to believe we can keep ourselves safe. It’s good that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is on the cover of Rolling Stone, tousled hair and all. We need a reminder that we must stop projecting our fears onto profiles built from stereotypes. We need a reminder that we will never truly know whom we need to fear.”  We also need this reminder as it relates to Black and Brown bodies because otherwise the cover is more of the same when it comes to all things racial or better said all things in America.

 

 

One thought on “Profiles in Black and White: Race and the Presumption of Innocence

  1. Pingback: Notable Links: 7-26/13 | BROTHA WOLF

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s