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.

Ramon Espinosa / AP
A police officer, holding a weapon, sits in the back of a vehicle as people take goods from a quake-damaged building in downtown Port-au-Prince, Monday. Violence and looting broke up in Port-au-Prince as earthquake survivors scavenged for anything they could find in the ruins.

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?

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.

Writing at the Huffington Post, Michael Shaw asks: "Is it 'looting' if people are starving and desperate, and have no other recourse but to 'steal' food? And then, what are the racial dynamics of using the term 'looting' -- instead of 'stealing,' or just 'taking' -- particularly when the photo specifically features young black men."

Voice of America, for instance, reported on Monday that "Haitian police fired shots into the air to disperse large roving bands of scavenging looters as they swarmed across the capital."

On twitter there has been a flood of posts about the use of the term, many of them including #katrina. The number sign, or "hash tag" is used on twitter to characterize posts as relevant to a topic and allows for the individual post to be found by searching for the word that follows it.

Twitter user "Caremelkeya" wrote "it sickens me to see CNN focus on the looting in Haiti. Relief will alleviate the restlessness of the people. Don't demonize the victims." User "dredful" wrote: "news reported #looting of food from destroyed grocery stores in Haiti that is not looting! #katrina reporting all over again."

Twitter user "pezchaz" wrote: "can we stop calling non-white natural disaster victims who are trying to survive by scavenging supplies 'looters?' "

Natalie Hopkinson, media critic for the Root.com, argues that "Nearly five years ago... 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."

To be sure, it hasn't been about food in every case. There have been ugly scenes of gangs of men breaking into stores and stealing everything they can -- and fighting one another for possession. CNN posted footage of one such incident, in which a boy was injured when a piece of concrete was thrown at his head.

Follow the Global News Blog for updates on Haiti.

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