Haiti earthquake: Is the term 'looting' racist? Past Kanye West comments fuel debate
Old comments by rapper Kanye West about Hurricane Katrina are being dredged up in a debate on how race plays into the coverage of natural disasters, including the 7.0 earthquake in Haiti last week.
In the wake of the Haiti earthquake, bloggers, twitter users, and radio talk-show hosts are replaying a debate that emerged in the US after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and its majority black population: Does race effect how the media covers natural disasters and how the US responds?Skip to next paragraph
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Much of the discussion has centered around the slow flow of aid to Haitians and whether that compares to the chaotic and slow response to the flooding of much of the crescent city. While complaints of a slow response might have some merit in the case of New Orleans -- a city in the continental US plugged into the interstate highway system and with a major international airport -- Haiti seems a far different case, as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere whose government collapsed in the wake of the earthquake that struck last week.
The US and international response so far has been massive -- with warships heading to Port-au-Prince to deliver aid, food and medical drops by air, and military teams working to reopen the damaged port and keep aid flights cycling through the capital city's one-runway airport.
That of course has not been enough for tens of thousands of Haitians, since many roads are still blocked and moving supplies from the airports to the people who need it most has been difficult. And the human need in Haiti and the way it's being depicted have reopened the wounds from Katrina for many.
US rapper Kanye West touched off a small controversy five years ago when he bitterly complained about the way the press had covered Katrina on a telethon for its victims.
"I hate the way they portray us in the media," he said at the time. "If you see a black family, it says they're looting. See a white family, it says they're looking for food."
Those comments were largely spurred by a pair of photos that made their way around the internet at the time. One of a black man in New Orleans wading through water with a caption that said "a young man walks through chest deep water after looting a grocery store" and another photo moved the same day by the Associated Press of a white man and woman captioned "two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store."
Though the two pictures were taken and captioned by different agencies, with different internal standards and styles, they fueled allegations of racism in media coverage. Similar allegations are surfacing now.
There's no question that on the rubble-strewn streets of Port-au-Prince, roving bands have been breaking into stores and taking whatever they can get their hands on. The description of all this as "looting" (a term the Monitor has used in some of its coverage) has prompted some outrage.