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Are Chechens Really White? Racial Formation Theory and the Boston Marathon Bombing

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The Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt for Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev have provided a great lesson in how notions of racial identity and group membership are reproduced by the media and circulate through public discourse.

In trying to frame the narrative surrounding Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev's supposed actions in relation to the Boston Marathon bombing, the public and the mainstream media--both on the Left and the Right--are grappling with how Chechens are (or are not) in fact "white."

This conversation is evocative of the concept known as racial formation theory. As offered by the sociologists  Omi and Winant, racial formation is a process which suggests that race is not natural but rather artificial. It is a category that does political work. There are multiple "political projects" related to race and the reproduction of racial ideologies. Race is contingent, dynamic, and changing where some groups move between the in-group and the out-group. Race is also a historical process that works across time. Race is real; race is also a social construct and a fiction.

Race has no scientific basis. But, it does a hell of a lot of social and political work in both the United States and elsewhere. Race has meaning. It is reproduced through "common sense" and accepted "truths" about society and peoples.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are "white" by definition. Nell Painter's great book  A History of White People details how the very notion of Whiteness was manufactured from the myth of an idealized "Caucasian" past and people. Chechnya is quite literally in the Caucuses. However, because Whiteness is a historically contingent and manufactured identity, the Chechens, along with other Southern and Eastern Europeans, are among the most recent inductees as full members in the "white" race. Moreover, in the United States, Chechens did not "earn" their full Whiteness until the middle part of the 20th century.

I joked on Twitter that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are putting the status of Chechens as full members of the "white race" in jeopardy. I was only half-kidding. Conservatives and others are already trying to reconcile how Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev can be Muslim, "white," "terrorists," American, and from Chechnya.

As we have repeatedly seen in the United States as of late, when white folks do bad things the solution is to focus on how they are individuals who do not represent the group. As we are seeing in the Boston example, folks who are already marked and racialized by their religion can perhaps be kicked out of the category known as "white people."

One of the most powerful implications of racial formation theory is that racial group membership is contingent and can change to fit the dynamics of Power in a given social and political moment.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are reminders of the contingent status experienced by some white ethnics in America. Ultimately, if terrorism by white Chechens becomes a trend in the United States, they may find themselves traded away in a racial draft like the one featured on Chappelle's Show.

Who will Whiteness trade the Chechens away for? White Cubans? White Pacific Islanders and mixed race folks like Keanu Reeves? Some other group of people?