Color me devastated.
News reports tell us of the widespread looting that is going on in hurricane-ravaged areas hit by Katrina. Photos I have seen feature many dark-colored people running around with television sets and the like in their arms. The hues of the humans do not matter: Sixty-seven percent of New Orleans’ residents are assumed to be of African-American descent (though who knows for sure?), so it is logical that most of the poor stranded there would be brown-skinned. That so many pictured match that description isn’t the problem. What is horrifying to see is that in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, people trying to take advantage of the situation for personal gain. It’s disgusting: Stealing is wrong.
But something at least as horrifying is taking place as well. Of course, bigots are on the loose: Take a look at “white”-supremacist and anti-Semitic web sites that feature postings and comments thanking Hurricane Katrina for ridding the nation of people these sites consider undesirable and unfit to live. That doesn’t surprise me at all. But when such thinking seeps into the mainstream media, well, the result can crush a person’s soul.
The blog Booker Rising, which bills itself as a “news site for black moderates and black conservatives,” found something disturbing in mainstream coverage of the Katrina disaster.
This Associated Press photo is captioned thusly: “A young man walks through chest-deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005.”
Meanwhile, the above Agence France Press photo is captioned with a slight variation: “Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans, Louisiana.”
As Shay of Booker Rising notes, “Now all the folks involved have bags or backpacks, from their trip to grocery stores. So why the different coverage? I know, I know…”
My heart fell to my toes after viewing the pictures and reading the captions. I turned to Spousal Unit and fell into his arms, tears pouring from my eyes. It becomes germane here to note that I have some African ancestry and my skin is brown-colored. SU is Irish and has pinkish-colored skin.
“What’s wrong?” the spouse asked, suddenly concerned. I sat up, took a deep breath to center myself, and showed him the photos and captions.
“Oh my god,” he intoned.
“Imagine if you and I were in this situation,” I said. “You and I — poor, hungry, stranded — coming out of a grocery store, each with a loaf of bread and a bottle of Pepsi. They’d say that you had found food and that I had looted it.”
SU looked at me and we both sighed in despair.
“It’s a sick fuckin’ world,” the spouse said. “Imagine how many people see this sort of crap and don’t question it.”
Imagine, indeed. It appears this country has deeper issues than the havoc wrought by a natural disaster.
A day later, more light appears regarding this story. Yahoo News, inundated with complaints, released this statement:
News photos are an especially popular section of Yahoo! News. In part, this is because we present thousands of news photos from some of the leading news services, including The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France Press. To make this volume of photos available in a timely manner, we present the photos and their captions as written, edited and distributed by the news services with no additional editing at Yahoo! News.
In recent days, a number of readers of Yahoo! News have commented on differences in the language in two Hurricane Katrina-related photo captions (from two news services). Since the controversy began, the supplier of one of the photos � AFP � has asked all its clients to remove the photo from their databases. Yahoo! News has complied with the AFP request. …
Yahoo! News regrets that these photos and captions, viewed together, may have suggested a racial bias on our part. We remain committed to bringing our readers the full collection of photos as transmitted by our wire service partners.
Photographer Chris Graythen, who shot the picture of the “finders,” made a statement on the controversy (some already excerpted in the Blogcritics comments section) on SportsShooter.com (spelling his):
I wrote the caption about the two people who ‘found’ the items. I believed in my opinion, that they did simply find them, and not ‘looted’ them in the definition of the word. The people were swimming in chest deep water, and there were other people in the water, both white and black. I looked for the best picture. there were a million items floating in the water – we were right near a grocery store that had 5+ feet of water in it. it had no doors. the water was moving, and the stuff was floating away. These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics. They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow. I wouldn’t have taken in, because I wouldn’t eat anything that’s been in that water. But I’m not homeless. (well, technically I am right now.)
I’m not trying to be politically correct. I’m don’t care if you are white or black. I spent 4 hours on a boat in my parent’s neighborhood shooting, and rescuing people, both black and white, dog and cat. I am a journalist, and a human being – and I see all as such. If you don’t belive me, you can look on Getty today and see the images I shot of real looting today, and you will see white and black people, and they were DEFINATELY looting. And I put that in the caption.
I do believe him. Graythen’s photos on Getty Images, along with his captions, treat all of his subjects with dignity. Take a look — his work paints a compelling picture of the goings-on in New Orleans.
Of course, Graythen wasn’t the one who labeled a subject as a looter.
Phone calls to the Associated Press regarding the photo of the brown-colored person bearing food have not yet been returned.
Questions remaining: Was this brown man really “looting”? Did the photographer opt to use the word “looting” as a nonjudgmental semantic choice? I will continue to investigate.
In the meantime, it appears that in this instance, the proximity of the photos and the captions triggered revulsion and despair. Obviously, it was unintentional. But the issues remain: The bigotry that exists in the US — covertly and otherwise — is a player in the Katrina tragedy. See the comments of “white’ supremacists. Read the words of those blaming the victims. Consider the attitiudes of rank-and-filers who equate “poor” with “bad” — and media outlets that make it appear that the heinous actions of a few (such as the repugnant stealing of appliances, shootings, and rapes) are representative of the whole and deserve a lion’s share of its coverage. (Prime example: Fox News reportedly has been giving major airtime to supposedly rampant chaos using an onscreen crawl reading, “Looters and Thugs.”)
As Washington Post columnist Terry Neal notes in his “Talking Points Live” online chat:
…[S]ome of the reporting on this has failed to differentiate from the relatively small number of people stealing TV’s out of Wall Mart [sic], and the number of people who are looting for food, diapers, shelter, etc. Nor does it accurately reflect the fact that most people are not involved in this type of foolishness.
I mean, the city of New Orleans is going to be shut down for months probably. If you have a starving baby, you just don’t know what you might do.
My comments should in no way be construed as condoning these idiots who are acting like Katrina was Santa Claus come early. They should be punished, and I’ll be happy when they get what’s coming to them.
But let’s have some level of empathy. People are starving, hot, desperate, crowded, smelling, dying. And I’m more worried about those people–the vast majority of whom are comporting themselves in stellar, civilized manner, considering the circumstances–than I am about the few buffoons carting off DVD players from the local Target.
Like it or not, the image emerging with the help of the mainstream media is that much of the Katrina problem is about “black looters.” This is an incorrect and unfair image, but that is the message being delivered through a variety of sources. Like it or not, there are lots of people who will have different thoughts if they see me walking through floodwaters clutching a loaf of bread or if they see Spousal Unit in the same situation. And yes, as the spouse says, it is sick.
Granted, pigmentationism — and that is what it is — poisoned this nation and this world long before Hurricane Katrina blew into the Gulf Coast. It should be no wonder that people already upset over the disaster would be touchy about adjacent photographs.