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. Hadnt 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 youre 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?
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 nations historical pattern of viewing blacks as shiftless, lazy, thievin, triflin asses, which surfaces continuously in sit-coms, soaps, reality shows, movies and other media.
Nzingha Tyehemba firstname.lastname@example.org 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.