Humans stereotype as a way of understanding a complicated world. Study after study shows that most of us do it, and that we do it even more when the stakes are high.
It might make sense then that following tragedies, like mass-shootings or the recent Boston marathon bombing, that the public and the media want desperately to know the skin color, ethnicity, and background of the people responsible for a horrific event. But when media outlets identify minorities as suspects before the facts are in, they are fanning prejudice that already exists in our country.
Amid the rush to identify the perpetrator this time around, a lot of (brown) people got hurt. On Thursday, The New York Post published a cover story with the image of a 17-year old Palestinian man and a friend with the caption "Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon." A young Saudi man who was badly injured in the bombing was taken in for questioning by the Feds after being tackled by a bystander for "looking suspicious" as he fled from the scene. Many outlets quickly reported that a "Saudi suspect" was in custody. Then Fox News amended that statement, saying that the Saudi suspect was going to be deported. CNN then reported from their anonymous source that a "dark-skinned" suspect was in custody. Finally, there was Sunil Tripathi, a student at Brown, who was quickly dubbed one of the bombers when a person he went to high school with thought she recognized him in the surveillance images.
The problem with all those stories is that they were basically dead wrong.
The "Saudi national" had nothing to do with the attack (and he won't be deported.) Nor did the young Palestinian man the New York Post identified, but his mother remains "sick and upset." Despite the fact neither were involved, their names and images were spread around in tweets and in print, attached to the title of "suspect."
And CNN's so-called "dark-skinned" perpetrator turned out to be two fairly light-skinned Chechen brothers -- Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26.
Since September 11th, the FBI has found a dramatic spike in hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs. Similarly, since the Boston marathon bombing, there have been numerous attacks on men and women with darker skin and of Muslim faith. Abdullah Faruque, a Bangladeshi man who grew up in the Bronx, was reportedly attacked by three Latino men who called him a "a f--king Arab" on Thursday, invoking the events in Boston. On the same day, Heba Abolaban, a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf was punched by a man in Boston, who screamed at her.
"He was screaming 'F___ you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions! F___ you!' " Abolaban told Malden Patch. "Oh my lord, I was extremely shocked."
Another thing we know from social science, is that once learned, stereotypes can be hard to unlearn, even when we're presented with evidence that counters them.
Here's what we actually know about who commits terrorism in America: Sixty-one percent of the 337 people indicted for terrorism-related activities in the 10 years following 9/11 attacks were jihadists, and the rest subscribed to unrelated ideologies, including white supremacy and extreme anti-government doctrines, according to data collected by the New America Foundation. And, since 9/11, more people have died in terrorist attacks in the U.S. that were motivated by ideologies that have nothing to do with jihadist ideas, than those that were, the data set indicates.
Despite the fact that acts of terror can come from anywhere, as evidenced by the many mass shootings in recent years committed by American-born lone-wolf shooters like in Aurora and Newtown, media and society were fast to profile in the Boston bombings.
The actual perpetrators in some ways fit the profile of home-grown jihadi terrorists (seemingly becoming "radicalized" as young men in America) but in a lot of ways they simply don't. For example, Chechen terror is usually aimed at Russia, and not the United States, and both brothers have lived in the United States for over a decade. The younger brother was described as a "nice kid" who "partied" and smoked marijuana, by high school classmates on CNN. Drug use is looked down upon in Islam.
As the Boston bombing case shows, profiling has serious limits and often bad consequences. Newsmakers would do well to remember that the world is much more complicated and nuanced than our own biases.