Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Water, Fire, and Smoke
Two pictures of people in the hurricane zone, chest-deep in water, holding what look like groceries. One picture, taken by AFP, is captioned, "Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." The other, taken by the AP, is captioned, "A young man walks through chest-deep water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans."

How do we know that one picture is of shoppers and the other is of a looter? Both photos were taken from above, most likely from a helicopter, and it seems unlikely that the photographer had the chance to speak to the subjects in either one. (See 'em here). How do we know? Well, the two people in the AFP photo are white. The young man in the AP photo is black. And everybody knows that looting is what black people do after disasters, right? Whereas white people just want to feed their families and go on with their lives.

We "know" no such thing about the people in either of these photos. Over at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte expects that this kind of racist characterization is going to effect the post-hurricane political spin. Because so many of the hardest-hit people in New Orleans proper are poor and black, pictures of "looting," real or imagined, are going to cause many Americans to default to the belief that these victims are lazy and/or lawless, and if they're so lazy and lawless that they'd loot their own neighbohoods, then to hell with them. Better to argue that their fates are the fault of some social pathology than to suggest that the scope of the disaster, which was foreseeable and to a certain degree preventable, is at least partially the fault of the government, which is currently in the hands of people who don't give a damn.

And when those blame-the-victim accusations start coming, you can bet your house that there'll be plenty of right-wing pundits and conservative politicians standing by to fuel the fire and profit from the smoke. They should choke on it.

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