Color schemes – imported from the Caucasus?

The 'all of the above' identities of the Boston bombing suspects illustrate the conflation of 'color' and religion.

Boston has been experiencing a moment of civic unity in the aftermath of the Marathon bombings. But outside the Hub of the Universe, the commentariat blathers on.

As The Economist's Lexington column put it, "On cable television, leftish pundits murmured about government-hating domestic extremists (ie, please let this bomb make my opponents look bad), while conservatives muttered about Muslim extremism and weak government policies (ditto)."

Even once the two suspects had names and faces, there was a longing to nail down their "identities": Were they "white Americans" or "Muslim immigrants"? Yes. Both.

Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast, in a piece on the language of whiteness, expands on how difficult it is for many to grasp these apparently contradictory simultaneities. "[I]n public conversation in America today, 'Islam' is a racial term," he argues. "Being Muslim doesn't just mean not being Chris­tian or Jewish. It means not being white."

This may be understandable, he suggests, in light of the way all sorts of racial distinctions are written into the law, a legacy of African slavery: "[W]hen newcomers from the Middle East came to our shores, Americans had to decide which side of the [color] line they were on," he says.

Early in the 20th century, Middle Eastern Christians had a better chance of being classified as "white" than did Middle Eastern Muslims. And Armenians, likewise, Christians under Muslim rule, were considered "white" on their arrival in the United States.

But what about the Tsar­naev brothers, who, though in the US for years, were natives of the Caucasus, in the Russian Federation? Don't actual Caucasians qualify as "white" – for whatever that matters?

And how did "Caucasian" ever get to be the 50-cent word to describe what are otherwise known as "white people"?

The credit, if that's the word, for this goes to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist. He first described "white people" (i.e., his lightly pigmented fellow Europeans) as "Caucasians" at the end of the 18th century. His idea was that the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black and Caspian seas, were where white people originated.

The US wasn't the only place where the institution of African slavery affected views of race and identity. Gregory Jay of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has written, "Before the age of exploration, group differences were largely based on language, religion, and geography. Beginning in the 1500s, Europeans began to develop what became known as 'scientific racism,' the attempt to construct a biological rather than cultural definition of race.... Whiteness, then, emerged as ... a 'pan-ethnic' category, as a way of merging a variety of European ethnic populations into a single 'race....' "

In later years, Blumenbach changed his views to something far more progressive. I ran across this intriguingly elliptical bit on Wikipedia: "Later in life, Blumenbach encountered in Switzerland 'eine zum Verlieben schöne Négresse' ('a Negress so beautiful to fall in love with')." This precipitated a revision of his views on the "natural talents and capacities" of Africans, and of others as well, one can hope.

One of the natural talents of humanity is the capacity to move away – eventually – from dumb ideas. As Boston and the country wrestle with ideas of identity and community, abandoning a "color scheme" that sets up false dichotomies would be a step in the right direction.

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