When Are Haitians Looters And When Are They Just Hungry?
The news media could be repeating the mistakes of Hurricane Katrina.
An arresting Damon Winter photo of a Haitian child graces the cover of the Sunday New York Times. A boy of about 10 wearing a bright red, oversized Polo shirt is caught mid-stride by the camera, dashing through the streets of Port-au-Prince, eyes gazing purposely ahead, gripping a white plastic bag.
The caption gives a seemingly "objective" recitation of the facts. "Haitians fled gunshots that rang out in downtown Port-au-Prince Saturday. Tons of relief supplies had arrived for delivery." It is up to the viewer to connect the dots, and connect them to another front-page article below the fold: "Looting Flares Where Order Breaks Down."
So was the kid looting?
Nearly five years ago, when you could see photo captions of white Hurricane Katrina survivors side-by-side with black survivors, the racial double standard in the news media covering a catastrophic tragedy were obvious. Hungry, desperate white survivors were "finding food" while hungry, desperate black survivors were "looting" for food.
Since the earthquake hit Haiti, I don't know what is more troubling: That so many observers, including political strategist and New Orleans native Donna Brazile, have been drawing facile parallels between the two cities. Or that so many of those comparisons are turning out to be true.
Start with this "the devil" cursed Port-au-Prince business. I discussed the truth about how Haitians managed to defeat the French army, without a Satanic assist in this essay. And Kathleen Parker uncovered the source of this urban legend (turns out it was a 1791 voodoo ceremony).
But this devil talk also came up in the wake of Katrina. Another so-called Christian, Pastor John Hagee, one of John McCain's high-profile backers, told NPR's Terry Gross that Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans. "New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God," Hagee said, because "there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came."
Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post believes that Hurricane Katrina helped pave the way for loosening standards for how graphic images can be published in the news media. He calls the graphic nature of the images coming out of Port-au-Prince dehumanizing. "Bodies caked in dust and plaster, faces covered in blood, the dead stacked in the streets without sheets to hide them -- these are all violations of the unwritten code [how] death can only be seen, in the established etiquette of the mainstream media," he wrote in a recent essay.
"[Haiti] was a country tossed aside, seemingly consigned to the status of a street person whose needs are intractable...The camera is recording something elemental that will affect everything to do with the future of this troubled country. It is asking if these are people, like us. It is asking if we believe they are human."
I am inclined to find the Port-au-Prince images so far more illuminating than exploitive. But Kennicott's larger point about the way the camera views brown people is totally sound. The lynching scene depicted in the Sunday New York Times was appalling. It is one thing to "find" bread; it is quite another to break into stores and score bolts of carpet and luggage while intimidating people with machetes and guns.
Eyewitnesses told the journalists Simon Romero and Marc Lacey that police yanked a man accused of looting off a truck, and watched as he was beaten to death, and set afire by an angry mob. Since there is no photographic evidence and the reporters reported the scene second-hand, it is hard to know with 100 percent certainty that this happened.
But what is 100 percent true is that that awful scene had nothing to do with the child in the red shirt whose photo was snapped as food and supplies were being given away. In general, that photo conjures an image of black anarchy, aka The Horror.
Maybe most telling when it comes to parallels between Katrina and the Haiti earthquake is the debate over what to call the displaced people. In the first days following Katrina, news outlets, big and small were calling the American citizens displaced by the hurricane "refugees."
I was teaching journalism to university undergraduates at the time, and one of my students vigorously defended using the word refugee in that context. When pressed for a definition of "refugee," which Webster's called "a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution," he held firm. "They are refugees. I watch CNN; I know what they look like."
The confusion is worth remembering in the coming months and years, when there will be actual refugees coming to the United States' shores. They will be brown. They will poor. They will be desperate.
Whatever we call them, the media images of them will tell a truth of their own.
Natalie Hopkinson is The Root's media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter