Phrasing Katrina: Reflections on an (un)Natural Disaster (Part 4)
Back to the Mother Tongue: “Looting” and “Finding” in Galveston 1900: Throughout the week of August 31st,2005 the U.S. news media did not only bring race into the spotlight, but were often responsible for maintaining the racist status quo – and in some cases worsening the racial divide. A Critic noted that “Rather than their finest hour, this was the Fourth Estate in ruins”.
Viewers found exaggerated claims of looting and lawlessness, claims that often were, explicitly or inexplicitly, racially charged. This was, in a sense, the negative side of the coverage that I discussed in earlier posts. While much of the media’s coverage of Katrina has been praised it has also been called an “unmitigated media disaster”. As early as September 5th, 2005 keen observers began to note that images of blacks and whites foraging for food were being described very differently on Yahoo News: the term “looting” being used for blacks and “finding” for whites.
But is this really an “unmitigated media disaster”? Is there anything exceptional about terming blacks ‘looters’ and whites ‘finders’ in the American news media, or is this endemic to the professional ‘frames’ of the news media itself? Has it always been going on? Is this truly an anomaly? To answer these questions we turn to the most similar storm to Katrina in American history: the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
As I began to read through a number of archived newspaper articles written immediately after the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, I realized that most bore a striking resemblance to the disastrously racist sorts of coverage I came across following Katrina. I began wondering how ‘race’ is built into the very framework of disaster coverage…
On September 8th, 1900 roughly eight thousand people were killed by a hurricane that made landfall in city of Galveston, Texas. When we turn to accounts of the storm in the American print media we find a disturbing fixation on race. The September 12th, 1900 Trenton Times reported that “A horde of negroes and whites – even white women – were in the ruins of the city. They were robbing the dead and dying, killing those who resisted, cutting off fingers to obtain rings and ears to obtain earrings.” The article goes on speak of people in racially charged categories, for example: “Negroes, business and professional men were driven to the waterfront”. After the hurricane had laid the town to waste, the town appears to have been placed under a state of martial law where men were forced (at gunpoint) to dispose of the thousands of decaying corpses. One article describes the situation as follows:
The city was being looted, dead bodies were shorn of fingers by human ghouls, thieving the jewelry. Not enough men could be gotten to dig the dead out from the ruins or to haul them. It was decided to take the bodies to sea as being the most expeditious way to dispose of them. But men refused to touch the bodies. This was especially true of the negroes. … Monday the city was practically pinced under martial law. Soldiers and hundreds of special officers were placed on guard. Men were impressed at the point of the bayonet to do the work that must be done. Quite a number of negroes were killed for nothing. No one was allowed in certain parts of the city without a pass.
We even come across a sense of civic duty at having killed not merely looters, but black-looters. The Trenton Times article describes the deaths of blacks as follows:
A negro assaulted a white woman in her home early this morning and killed her. A soldier kicked in the door, caught him, and blew the top of his head off with a pistol” and later in the same article “The sleeping guard was “surrounded by a horde of armed negro thieves. Several hundred shots were exchanged. Sergeant Camp killed four negroes with his rifle and about 10-12 were killed by the squad. … Every hour during the night a fresh negro shooting was reported.
The September 12th ,1900 Daily Review is worth noting for the layout of its front page, which displays two headlines: “Death List is Growing – Over 10,000 Destitute” and “Ghouls Rob the Remains of Victims”. Ghouls in this case are synonymous with “negro thieves”. The September 13th ,1900 Jamesville, Wisconsin Daily Review reports “one negro had twenty three fingers with rings on them in his pocket”. Reading these passages from close to a hundred years ago helps to contextualize our recent characterization of blacks as ‘looters’ and whites as ‘finders’. It provides us with something concrete to contrast with my claim that aspects of the media’s coverage of Katrina were anomalous to the norm.
We carry certain biases with us throughout history. They may change form however their residues tend to persist in some way or another. While we do not tend to discuss race as explicitly as journalists did in 1900, the current lack of discussion of race, or colorblindness, for instance, is itself a carryover from an earlier time. The older ‘frames’ remain very much in place, regardless of whether we thrust race into the spotlight or force it into the shadows. Hence, when some keen observer points out the racial nature of the media’s vocabulary and narratives, she is both pointing out something simultaneously contemporary and anachronous.
I’ll end this reflection with a question: If, as I have been arguing, there are instances of a challenge to the dominant vocabulary and narratives evident throughout the media’s reporting during Katrina, did it have any effect and how can we better explain it?