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Black People "Loot;" White People "Find"

Chloe Cockburn,
Advocacy and Policy Counsel,
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January 22, 2010

In the aftermath of the earthquake, there have been numerous reports of dangerous looting in the capital. (See examples here, here, and here). The Washington Post has a video showing people “looting” a shop, as stated in the caption. The items taken appear to be food and supplies. There is no violence on the camera. But the violent connotation of the word remains.

In contrast to international news of looting in Haiti, local reports indicate that in reality, there is not massive violence or unrest. Partners in Health recently stated that “Our team on the ground reaffirms that the reports of violence on the streets of Port-au-Prince have been grossly exaggerated and have become a major obstacle to mounting the response needed to save tens of thousands of lives each day.” United Nations officials in Haiti have criticized reporters for sensationalizing the earthquake aftermath, exaggerating looting reports, noting that the situation among civilians was calm. In a New York Times op-ed, Haitian novelist and Port-au-Prince resident Evelyne Trouillot wrote, “Many of us Haitians are offended by the coverage of the earthquake. Once more, a natural disaster serves as an occasion to showcase the impoverishment, to exaggerate the scenes of violence that are common to any catastrophe of this type.”

Law professor Guy-Uriel Charles recently wrote a CNN column calling out this practice as a description “void of empathy” and one that relies on and perpetuates racial stereotypes. This message needs to be repeated. Not only does the “looting” moniker wrongly disparage and degrade the local people, it also springs from assumptions about black people and their relation to poverty and property. When the news camera captures footage of a Haitian man taking rice, what does it show? Theft? Survival? What if that man is white? In the aftermath of Katrina, a famous juxtaposition of images showed that black people “loot,” and white people “find.” A “looter” is the other, a criminal undeserving of help. This perspective threatens to undermine the relief effort and the future work of rebuilding. Dehumanizing people has consequences.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated both Katrina pictures were taken by the AP. That was incorrect. One picture was taken by AP, the other was taken by Agence France Presse. (Thanks to the anonymous commenter.)

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