Monday, January 18, 2010

Institutionalized Racism, Media Edition

There’s a lament going around the intertubes imploring the media to stop calling earthquake refugees who have lost everything and are trying to get food and supplies “looters.” And I for one am glad that ordinary people are aware and sensitive to this even if our news media is not. Perhaps our media elites could learn a few things from us regular folks, who seem to be a little savvier than we are given credit for being.

Remember those reports of looters breaking into the UN warehouses? Turns out, not so much:
Some 6,000 tons of food aid will be distributed shortly in Haiti, a U.N. spokeswoman said Friday, adding that reports that U.N. warehouses in Haiti had been looted were overblown.

Officials checked four U.N. food agency warehouses in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on Friday after receiving reports from local partners of looting, said Emilia Casella, a World Food Program spokeswoman.

"The food is there," Casella told The Associated Press. "They are also working on getting a peacekeeper contingent to secure the locations."

Well, isn’t that special. We just knew “those people” were going to loot, didn’t we?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all is peachy keen in Haiti. The people there have suffered a horrific disaster. Tens of thousands are without food, clean water, and supplies of any kind. People trying to survive are not “looters,” they are disaster refugees. So, dear Western media, please check your elitism (and labels) at the door and cut these folks some slack as you follow up on every rumor you hear.

Check out this story from the Wall Street Journal. In addition to the banner headline, the story refers to “looter” and “looting” no less than a dozen times. These are people trying to get food, soap and wash basins from a grocery store, not carting off television sets. In a few cases, store owners actually helped distribute the supplies:

Still, just a few blocks away on the road, a store owner was calmly overseeing an orderly emptying of his broken shop. He was using a kind of bucket-brigade of some 30 young men stretching over the store's shattered roof, handing out goods can by can.

Is it looting when the store owner is actually handing the stuff out?

Of course, I’m immediately reminded of this media low point from Hurricane Katrina. The Associated Press labeled a photo of a black man wading through chest-high water as “looting” a grocery store, while a virtually identical photo of a white couple identified them as “finding food.” Apparently the only difference between “finding” and “looting” is the color of someone’s skin.

This is an example of the subtle racism and “framing” that goes on in our culture on a daily basis, and rarely gets questioned. Our media elites happily flogged the Harry Reid “Negro dialect” fauxtroversy, getting wrapped up in the minutiae of a dog and pony show while never addressing the actual topic of racism the opportunity presented. And God forbid they should look at the actual racism that exists in their own organizations.

So it’s left to the blogs, once again. Over at Future Majority I found this interesting post about how the media reinforces racial and class stereotypes when it covers disasters like Haiti and Katrina. Here’s a quote from Dr. Kathleen Tierney, professor of sociology and behavioral science and director of the Natural Hazard Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder:

There is an institutionalized racism in the way these poor black disaster victims are treated. The victims of Katrina were treated with so much presumption, as if you could assume they were going to loot, because they were black. Just like we know that the people in Haiti are bad because they’re black. Black men especially are demonized. During Katrina, the media picked up on every rumor—whether it was raped four-year-olds in the Superdome or people shooting each other. Actually, for a paper me and a couple of my graduate students wrote called “Metaphors Matter,” we found some transcripts of TV programs in which members of the media expressed regret. They were saying, “We really blew it during Katrina; we acted on all of these rumors.” I myself was on Jim Lehrer’s show, where they were asking about the looting [in Katrina], and I got into it with a police officer, and he ended up agreeing with me that it was a myth. It’s not real...

I appreciate that reporters on the ground in a place like Port-au-Prince or New Orleans post-Katrina are doing an extraordinarily difficult job under harsh circumstances. And I don’t know how much of this kind of “framing” is a product of the biases of those on the ground, or their editors/producers safely back home.

I just know that we have to stop reverting to type and repeating these same stereotypes about people in the grip of unimaginable suffering.