Hurricane Katrina: Is Looting a Question of Skin Color?

If the pain and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina wasn't enough, now the looting has started on the streets of New Orleans. But many people simply need to feed their families and are consequently forced to "borrow" food from waterlogged grocery stores. So what makes somebody a looter? And does it have anything to do with the color of their skin?

It didn't take long for reports of looting to filter through. No sooner had Hurricane Katrina's winds died down, than people emerged onto the streets and began helping themselves to whatever New Orleans' shopping paradise had to offer.

Now, dear reader, you might say their actions are understandable, if not condonable. If your home had just been washed away, and you hadn't eaten a proper meal for 48 hours, the urge to help yourself to a few candy bars or cartons of milk from the local convenience store might be a strong one. But a number of amazing reports have described how local residents also loaded up their vehicles with DVD players and televisions, with the National Guard and police almost powerless to stop them. New Orleans is rapidly turning into a lawless city, with those unable to leave resorting to plunder and mayhem.

But the really interesting angle on all of this comes from those smart folks at Metafilter. They cleverly link to three pictures of apparent "looters" featured on Yahoo news. Two men (Photo 1 and Photo II) are pictured wading through flood waters with bags of groceries and beer in their arms. They are described as "looters." And, coincidentally they are African-American.

Next comes a picture of a white couple carrying food supplies through the flood waters. According to AFP/Ghetty Images, these fine young people are on their way home after "finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." So the white people don't "loot", they "find". A curious insight into prevalent racism in the US media; just as one man's "terrorist" is another man's "freedom fighter," it seems one man's "looter", is another man's "finder". You decide.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Spiegel

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Thursday, September 1, 2005