Thursday, September 08, 2005

Of Looters, Race and Spirituality: View from the Eye of the Hurricane

Another post on Katrina may seem remiss given my own commentary on disaster pornography, but I had a few insights into crime and practical spirituality.

Our hearts should go out to the people of New Orleans, yes, but the way that some people have been feeling is hardly useful. Compassion is great, but feeling guilt or sorrow does not help people squatting in shelters. If you become less useful at your job, with your family, all because you feel terrible about a tragedy far away, you are wasting your time, I'm afraid. What makes me impressed is doing, not feeling. A man smiling as he serves soup or reunites families impresses me more than a man crying himself to bed at night in a posh apartment because of the horrible tragedy.

Yes, this is Buddhism in action. Emotions form attachments, the attachments that cause suffering. Me suffering for you is useless. Me feeling your pain and helping conquer our joint suffering is noble and vital.

Of course, per usual, White Amerikkka's sympathy extends only so far. Russell Steele, a conservative blogger (, had the audacity to say that we suffer from a lack of respect for personal responsibility, as evidenced by the fact that individuals in New Orleans didn't leave. Sorry, Russ, and Bill O'Reilly, and Dave Horowitz, and Bush: Not everyone in this country was lucky enough to be born white or be the beneficiary of our eocnomic system. Some people, far as this may be from your (and, to be honest, my) perceptions, do not have a car, a TV, a radio; any way to hear emergency announcements, communciate with family, leave in a timely manner, protect their children, insulate themselves from disease... It is not so easy to pick up and leave everything you have, especially if you rely so much on what you leave behind, if that forms such a large portion of what you can call your own.

As Tim Wise made in one of his typically excellent commentares: "This is what we choose to believe, some of us, apparently: that people we call animals, whose humanity we refuse to recognize even in the midst of tragedy, actually conspire to stick around in a rotting cesspool, all so they can score some candy bars from the Rite-Aid, or Nikes from Foot Locker...

And while there is every reason to suspect whites are looting in heavily damaged parts of the metropolitan area where they predominate, the television coverage, by virtue of being concentrated in downtown New Orleans--an area that is three-fourths or more African American on a normal day, and which is probably 90 percent black now, given that most whites living downtown had the means to evacuate--gives the impression to the weak-minded who don't understand the laws of statistical probability, that looting and blackness are inextricably linked at the hip.

Then, as if this weren't bad enough, photos widely circulated on with captions yesterday, presented an image of a black man with a garbage bag full of God knows what, side by side with a picture of two white folks wading through waist-deep water with bags of food in their hands: the captions? The black man, according to the news, had "just looted" a store. The white man and woman had "found" food from a flooded store. White people find things. Black people steal things. Got it?

In another photo, taken in an outlying area, one white man and one black man are pictured: the former is walking away from a clearly looted store, looking through his stash, while the latter is jumping through the store's broken front window. But instead of labeling the shot, as "two looters standing outside a ransacked business establishment," AP tells us that the white man is "looking through his shopping bag." White people shop. Black people steal things. Got it? "

Never mind that looting has mostly been of needed supplies; never mind that horrible crimes such as rape and murder have occured in the mostly white refugee areas. Damn starvation, capitalism full speed ahead!

Don't forget that coverage in a situation like this will be sparse at best, and likely highly inaccurate: . This article from a newspaper trade magazine also concedes that criticism of the racialization of the looting is likely very fair, and also points out that even well-off journalists have difficulty communicating and verifying information in a storm of this magnitude.

But the media does not only communicate a constant script of despair; not only does it gloss over broad social issues in favor of racialized coverage and tepid criticisms of Bush (courageous insofar as CNN, especially Anderson Cooper, goes, but not nearly far enough); it runs this stream 24/7, keeping viewers glued rather than helping New Orleans or their communities.

Sorry, America, it isn't Russia that screwed up here. Or even Bush. It was the imperial priorities that we all help shape. Feeling guilt over that or sorrow for what happens in New Orleans does very little. And refugees seem to agree. I remember a heart-wrenching speech on CNN by a man bursting into tears, asking (in essence) "You've held 50 press conferences and children are still starving?! Why?! What do you have to gain!" They do not need us admonishing our children to eat their vegetables because, hey, Timmy might be in Louisiana right now. They need help. And so does the system.



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