The Elephant in the Room . . . [UPDATED]
. . . that all the news anchors delicately tiptoe around -- that the camera announces so loudly into their silence -- is that almost all the looters shown in news footage loading Wal-Mart shopping carts with videogames and Nike shoes are black. And they look giddy and celebratory, like people who've won a shopping spree on a game show, as they indulge in this macabre parody of American consumerism. (One helicopter-borne observer marveled that this was a case of "you can't take it with you," since when the city is evacuated most of the loot will perforce remain behind. It almost looks as if the fantasy being fulfilled was shopping, not owning.)
I wonder what the blogs are saying about this; anchorpeople may mince words, but blogs are not known for euphemism; they're usually refreshingly blunt and opinionated. But I don't know where to look, except Booker Rising -- the wide-ranging black moderate-to-conservative site -- which has two posts, one about the, yes, racist difference between coverage of whites described as "finding" and blacks "looting" food from grocery stores, the other about the racial composition of New Orleans (two-thirds black, many of them middle class and outta there before Katrina hit). Though this post is titled "Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina," it mostly deals with issues other than looting, until the end, where Shay admonishes "Ain't helpin' the cause. Come on, my people, we are better."
First of all, I would like to state that the word "looting" does not properly apply to anyone, of whatever melanin concentration, taking food and drink from a deserted grocery store in the middle of a catastrophe. On September 11, everyone in New York rode the city buses for free. In the same way, in a disaster-stricken city, food and drink belong to whomever needs them.
Gleefully filling shopping carts at Wal-Mart is something else. One of Booker Rising's commenters expresses ambivalent leftist schadenfreude at Wal-Mart's (and Nike's) comeuppance:
I'm not too broken up about people stealing from Wal-Mart, another highly questionable capitalist organization that will have no difficulty recouping their losses through insurance. Also, I take some small satisfaction in seeing people steal Nikes, a corporation that has built its empire on the backs of the poor in sweatshops worldwide. When a pair of $150 basketball shoes only cost you $12 to manufacture and $8 to market, there's a kind of equitable symmetry in seeing poor people steal these shoes, though in practicality I realize that the retailer is the one who's really taking the hit.
What are we seeing in the flooded streets of New Orleans (and Biloxi, too)?
Well, for one thing, a kind of frustrated, pent-up consumerism bursting out in people who are constantly being teased by ads for things they can't afford. (Of course, that's also the rapist's excuse for assaulting a provocatively dressed woman.) More seriously, you're seeing people who are very alienated from any notion of the common good. Blame slavery, or blame liberalism for blaming slavery, but you're seeing people who feel that the social compact does not include them; that society at large has given them nothing, and therefore they owe it nothing.
The proximate cause of looting is the combustible mix of opportunity plus poverty. Poor people loot -- but then again, most poor people don't, and not all looters are poor. Would some poor whites do the same? Sure. (We have to assume the cameramen are not selectively filming black looters but are simply filming what's there; the majority of New Orleans' poor, as of its population, are black.) But do more poor whites identify more with authority and mainstream culture, making them law-abiding citizens who support the corporate establishment against their own economic self-interest, as progressives like Thomas Frank complain?
My guess is that the answer is ultimately more cultural than economic, although the two are hard to separate. Remember the phrase "the culture of poverty"? You might as well talk about "the poverty of culture," a disease that, it could be argued, also afflicts some high-living, double-bookkeeping CEOs, even if they do contribute lavishly to the symphony. People, white or black (or other), who are influenced by a strong religious or cultural value system will not loot, however poor (or rich and powerful) they may be, while people whose only religion or value system is greed and grievance will -- often, however well-off they may be. I'm thinking, too, of the late '60s-'70s fad for shoplifting among middle-class kids. Abbie Hoffman's Steal this Book. It was called "liberating" stuff back then.
Maybe, in the flooded Wal-Marts of New Orleans, it still is.
UPDATE: This morning the "looting" is so violently out of control -- a Chinook helicopter preparing to carry refugees to the Astrodome had to call off its operation when it was shot at -- that it's clear all we're talking about now is the culture of criminality. Gangbangers and thieves are terrorizing everybody else. That fraction of every population that is only kept in check at all by law enforcement is reveling in its absence and completing the hellish destruction Katrina began. Anyone who romanticizes lawlessness should take a good, long look.
UPDATE II: Ann Althouse has a good post on this, quoting Peggy Noonan -- who also says that taking necessities of life should not be confused with "looting" -- and with many thoughtful comments, the gist of which is that thugs now were thugs long before the hurricane. This issue has nothing to do with race, except the human race -- every group has its thugs.
[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]