The Real Looters of Hurricane Katrina
The images of survivors of Hurricane Katrina, for the most part images of poor African-Americans "looting" neighborhood supermarkets and grocery stores exemplify this nation's fetish with stigmatizing, criminalizing, and dehumanizing black people, even in the midst of a great tragedy.
Last Friday, as I watched CNN, a reporter referred viewers to a blog entitled "The Daily Dish" (www.andrewsullivan.com), which had links to photos of the interior of a local Winn Dixie. Apparently, New Orleans residents had cleaned the grocery of the food products and the pharmacy of much of the medicine during the hurricane.
While the photos provided evidence of the survival tactics of the Katrina victims, I continued watching, perplexed, in an attempt to identify the truly newsworthy element. Hadn't major news outlets broken the story of "looting" occurring more than a week ago? Yet the reporter, a white woman, continued to encourage viewers to log on to view more pictures of the "looting."
By highlighting the act of "looting," this news report isolated the act from the struggle to survive, a situation in which many Katrina victims found themselves in the days following the hurricane. Other news reports have taken the same myopic approach of identifying one act of survival, "looting," and not providing ample context to justify that action. At a community meeting in Houston my mother, a nurse, who drove to the Houston Astrodome from New York to help, said that one young evacuee from New Orleans, fifteen, spoke of how he had to do what was necessary to provide what was needed for his family. During the hurricane, his grandmother pointed at his chest and said "Now you're the man of the house. You gotta help us survive." The national hysteria and anxiety over the "looting" seems displaced and not cognizant of the desperate situation in which New Orleans residents found themselves: waiting for days for adequate food, water, and shelter. In the same situation, what exactly would you do?
Major news outlets also disseminated stories of widespread violence, including one of a child being raped, babies being killed, and bodies piled on the floor of the New Orleans Superdome. As of last Tuesday, The Guardian newspaper reported that New Orleans police had been unable to confirm any such reports of violence in the Superdome. The preponderance of stories of violence and "looting" attributed to the predominantly black New Orleans residents makes me question not just the journalistic integrity of our major news outlets but the racial consciousness of a nation that would allow such falsity to be projected by the news media.
Both the persistence of the media to cover the "looting," and the difference in the language used to describe the "looters" perpetuate a criminalistic image of the black survivors of Katrina. The now-famous photographs issued by separate press agencies of a white person "finding" food and of a black person "looting" food attest to the inextricable and subconscious way racism manifests itself in the media. The language used to describe the black and white looters/finders provides evidence of the racist bed in which many in this country continue to comfortably lie in.
Given the racial and class realities of New Orleans, with more than 70% of the population black and 23% living in poverty, the manner and tone in which the media continues to perceive and portray New Orleans Katrina survivors hardly comes as a surprise. Indeed, last Tuesday, Barbara Bush declared the response to Hurricane Katrina, criticized by many as seriously flawed, a success for evacuees who "were underprivileged anyway." The constant and repetitive images of "looting" and the rumors of murderers and rapists running rampant are consistent with this nation's historical pattern of viewing blacks as "shiftless, lazy, thievin', triflin asses," which surfaces continuously in sit-coms, soaps, reality shows, movies and other media.
As major news outlets daily furnish the national narrative with memories of this disaster of historic proportions, it is more than shameful that the media perpetuate, unconsciously perhaps, common racist stereotypes of blacks. Instead of stories and images depicting the remarkable restraint and incredible grace of the overwhelming majority of the survivors, major news outlets have taken to looting the national narrative of truth. In so doing, they have directly contributed to the entire festering swamp of stigmatization and racist language surrounding the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
WRITER BIO: Nzingha Tyehemba was born and raised in Harlem, N.Y. and is a senior at Amherst College. She was one of the organizers of Project: "We Got Your Back - Pack," an effort to collect school supplies such as notebooks, looseleaf paper, pen, pencils, rulers, crayons, coloring books and other educational materials for distribution to the children and families impacted by Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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