‘Terrorists’ on Welfare: The Brownification of the Boston Bombers
It’s recently been reported that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received at least some form of government assistance over the last decade. This discovery has been a right wing jackpot. The Tsarnaev brothers were already the embodiment of evils of immigration (See? That’s why you can’t let “them” in.) and a cautionary example of how unsafe we are under President Obama (A terror attack on American soil!). But, now they can also demonstrate the dangerous excesses of the social safety net. Right wing media including Fox News, The Washington Times, The New York Post, the Drudge Report, Breitbart.com, and the Daily Caller have all been caterwauling about “tax-payer funded terrorism.” They have all offered extensive speculative lists about the possible ways the Tsarnaevs could have received taxpayer money – Section 8 housing, food stamps, Medicaid, EBT cards. Some, like Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, also included the cost of the public defender now being provided to Dzhokhar as well as a $2,500 scholarship he received from the City of Cambridge.
The most interesting (and by interesting, I mean disturbing) aspect of the Right’s reporting on the matter is the racial politics.
Discussions of welfare have long served as coded language for perpetuating anti-Black stereotypes in seemingly race neutral language. From Reagan’s tirades against “welfare queens” to the characterization of Barack Obama as the “food stamp President,” this rhetorical move has become so trite we can’t really even call it a “dog whistle” anymore. And it has been astonishing how seamlessly the racist “dysfunctional Black family on welfare” narrative has been grafted onto the Tsarnaev family.
Reports by right wing media reiterate that Tamerlan was unemployed while his wife, who he may have verbally and physically abused, worked 80 hours a week. Meanwhile, Dzhokhar’s friends have said that he not only smoked but also sold marijuana. Rush Limbaugh takes care in reporting on Dzhokhar’s drug habit to point out that his tweets show he wasn’t just “pro-pot,” but also “pro-rap.” The story is complete with intergenerational poverty; Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s parents also received aid while they were in the U.S. And we can’t forget the pathological and unfit mother. Fox News reported Zubeidat Tsarnaeva (the brothers’ mother) has an outstanding warrant for her arrest on a shoplifting charge. Fox has also suggested that she might be responsible for the initial radicalization of Tamerlan. Remarkably little information is included in any of the reports about the father, making him almost, lets say … absent.
So, let’s do the racist Black stereotype checklist:
- Lazy and shiftless Black [Muslim] man? Check.
- Violence and domestic abuse? Check.
- Drug use? Check.
- Drug dealing? Check.
- Random mention of rap music? Check.
- Intergenerational welfare dependence? Check.
- Criminal and unstable mother who is ultimately to blame? Check.
- Missing father? Check.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that the right wing media is portraying the Tsarnaevs as literally Black. But, by grafting anti-Black coded language onto the Boston bombing terrorists, the right invokes the same form of Otherness they have used to define President Obama for years. While his Blackness already marks him as Other in conservative eyes, the right has attempted to maximally other President Obama by claiming he is secretly Muslim and was born in Kenya. This strategy not only creates a type of Presidential Mega-Other, it also works to link international Islamic terrorists, currently U.S. enemy number one, to Obama’s already threatening racial identity. Thus, any connection that can be made between Blackness, foreignness, and Islamic terrorism serves to strengthen the construction of President Obama as the ultimate Other, intensifying the perceived threat he poses to “real” Americans. The Tsarnaevs are a high profile opportunity to intertwine of terrorism and Blackness in a covert way that bolster’s the right’s project of vilifying President Obama.
Think I’m over-reaching? Consider the right wing media’s invocation of the “Obama phone” in their reporting. Limbaugh, speculating wildly, suggested last Wednesday that Tamerlan “might have had an Obama phone.” Fox News’s Trace Gallagher, immediately after admitting he had no actual information on the matter, still couldn’t resist asking if it was “possible that they used cell phones paid for by taxpayers to possibly detonate those bombs.” So, now we can add funding terrorism alongside Reparations to the villainy perpetrated by President Obama though the social safety net.