A Perspective on Looters and Race

A wave of pictures have flooded the media depicting the devastation of Katrina. Commentator Lester Spence says that to some viewers, it appears as if the images have been "racialized." Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

The images coming out of New Orleans are heart-wrenching, but some question the media's depiction of the city during this crisis. According to commentator Lester Spence, the fact the Crescent City is predominantly black is affecting media coverage.


While it will take some time for us all to really grasp the scale of this tragedy, it is already clear that this is the worst natural disaster in modern American history. One of the images that the media has latched onto over the past couple of days is images of looters, of women taking food to their families, of children taking water, and of some taking televisions and Xboxes.

In one e-mail floating around the Internet, three photos are shown. While the pictures are more or less the same--people wading through filthy waist-high water carrying perishable goods--the language accompanying the photos is different. In two cases, the people are described as having looted grocery store items. In another case, the people are described as having `found' food from a local grocery store. The looters, blacks; the finders, whites. The photographer responsible for the pictures has said on the Internet that he witnessed the black looters taking food, while he witnessed the whites finding food as it floated down the river. But in a disaster like this, it is close to impossible to actually verify his words.

Some might say that focusing on the images of looters vs. finders misses the big picture. The last thing we need to hear right now is a lecture about the power of positive images during one of the most tragic events of American history. I understand this perspective, and in most cases I'd agree. The entire `positive black image' argument is bankrupt. We don't need positive images. We need images that reflect reality, images that cause people to think hard about where we are as Americans and where we need to be. But think on this: If police perceive the biggest problem they face to be that of looters, and they perceive these looters to be largely black, then they will be more likely to use deadly force.

Calling for the media to be more responsible in this case is not simply a matter of being respectful. It is a matter of keeping a dire situation from further devolving into terror. It is a matter of public safety. In this case, it is not enough for reporters to report the news and for news photographers to take the pictures. What we need now are people with the capacity to bring sanity to an insane situation.

GORDON: Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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