Salon and the conservative internet apparently responded to the Boston bombings by having a weeklong slapfight over race. David Sirota kicked things off by writing a confused article that openly hoped that the bombers were white so that we can start profiling against white men and denude them of their “privilege.” This of course had the intended effect of trolling the conservative media: Drudge put out an APB and Limbaugh promoted the piece as the way all liberals think. When the identities of the bombers were revealed, these same conservatives declared victory. I was flitting through the radio on the way back from the doctors Friday morning and Laura Ingraham, for instance, was weirdly jubilant and attacked people like Sirota who were speculating the bombers would be right-wing or anti-government extremists. But today Salon has also declared victory in this pointless mini-feud, with Joan Walsh arguing that the Tsarnaev brothers are in fact white and therefore everything Sirota wrote was absolutely right. However, aside from Walsh, ineptly, no one seems to stop and define their terms. What exactly does it mean to be white?
There are, unsurprisingly, numerous answers to that question and the operative response is: as opposed to what? As Walsh notes, the Census Bureau uses the term Caucasian, which encompasses individuals descending from “the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.” This definition is as opposed to the other race classifications offered by the Census Bureau (being of African, Asian, Native American, or multiracial descent). Walsh and many others (including the Daily Show) also note that Chechnya, from which the Tsarnaevs ultimately emigrated, is literally in the Caucasus region. But the term Caucasian can be misleading. It stems from an archaic and vaguely racist division of humanity into five categories: Negroids (i.e. Africans), Mongoloids (i.e. East Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans), Australoids (i.e. Australian aborigines), Capoids (the native people of Southwestern Africa), and Caucasoids (i.e. everyone else). The name Caucasoid refers to the hypothesis that the proto-Indo-Europeans originated from the Caucasuses and from there displaced and repopulated much of Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. Modern genetics has significantly complicated this picture even if the general thrust holds. In addition, not all current residents of Caucasia originated from there: Azers and the many of the people of Chechnya’s neighbor Dagestan are Turkic and migrated to the region from near Mongolia roughly a millennium ago. But the origin of “Caucasian” points to a much broader definition of “white” than I think any of Salon or the conservative media used. Until just recently, for instance, all people from the Indian subcontinent were considered Caucasian rather than Asian by the Census Bureau (as they also hypothetically originate from the Caucasus region). Further, by the current definition, all 19 9/11 hijackers would be Caucasians, and it is relative to these men that Sirota initially defined “whiteness.”
So it seems all participants are using some definition of white that excludes Arabs and potentially others from the Middle East. But which? The obvious one is religion (e.g. Muslims as non-white), but this seems immediately deficient, given for instance, Muslim Bosnians and Eygptian Copts. Another would be language: groups that traditionally speak of Indo-European (or some class of Indo-European) languages are white and all others are not. But this runs afoul of the same problem that “Caucasian” did: one imagines Sirota would not have counted an Urdu-speaking Pakistani or a Farsi-speaking Iranian terrorist as his hoped-for white suspect. Further, it introduces problems with the Finns, Basques, and Hungarians, who do not themselves speak Indo-European languages.
Geography offers a more promising definition: those who originate primarily from the continent of Europe are white and all others are not. This definition works well in most instances and probably most approximates the common usage of “white.” Unfortunately for our purposes, Chechnya lies in the one area where the definition of “Europe” is still unsettled. Commonly, the eastern extent of Europe runs from the Ural Mountains to the Ural River and from there to the Caspian Sea and the southern extent runs through the Mediterranean, the Bosporus Straits, and then into the Black Sea. However, these two lines do not meet directly and a connection must run through the Caucasus region. Depending on where one draws that boundary, Chechnya is either European, Asian, or split between continents. Even if this issue is resolved, using geography just kicks the definition issue over to the word “originate.” Human populations are inherently transient and no one group has been in any location forever. One would suspect the Russians of Novosibirsk or the Mayflower descendants in Boston would still count as European, despite their 400 year or so tenure outside Europe. But what of the Turks of European Turkey, who have only been residents of Europe some 200 years longer? Or the Hungarians, who migrated from the central Asian steppe over a millennium ago? Are they European?
Genetic markers, by tracking people and not places, at first seems to circumvent this problem. The aforementioned Boston brahmin, for instance, have more in common genetically with the English their ancestors fled than the Native Americans their ancestors wiped out. European Turks are still identifiably Turkic while Hungarians appear to have mostly assimilated with the native Slavic and German people they displaced. But the Chechens remain problematic. Though the data are scarce, Chechen mitochondrial DNA (which are inherited almost entirely from the mother) appear to show a large number of polymorphisms in common with other Eastern European populations but their Y-chomosome DNA (which are inherited entirely from the father) show a large number of polymorphisms in common with Middle Eastern populations.* This hybrid pattern is common and typically indicative of repeated invasion/subjugation of the mtDNA population by the Y-DNA population: it is, for instance, common in Mexico and the Caribbean. This also accords with history, as Chechnya has been the site of repeated incursions of Turkic, Iranian, and Arabian peoples into Europe. It does not, however, make the initial question any easier. One would have to take SNP samples of both Tsarnaev boys to see whether they tend more “European” or more “Middle Eastern” (and you might even get the unsatisfactory answer that one but not the other counts as “white”).
So then, are the Tsarnaevs “white?” It depends on what you mean, though the most appropriate response is still “it shouldn’t matter.” Sirota, Walsh, and their various right-wing interlocutors are all wrong for making ill-informed and poorly-examined conclusions about an unknowable irrelevancy.
*mtDNA and Y-DNA experience no recomination unlike autosomal DNA and are thus excellent sources for molecule clocks and tracking genetic ancestry.