Posted on September 1, 2005

A Nation Watches the Looting and Asks: Why?

Michele M. Melendez and Dru Sefton, Seattle Times, Sept. 1

First the hurricane, then the looting.

Photographs and videos show triumphant, smiling scavengers brazenly hauling away everything from food to TVs from ransacked stores.

The images are troubling on many levels: Human behavior at its most desperate. Hordes of people, often of color, stranded with no options. People in a situation we can’t fathom behaving in ways we condemn from afar.


Still, images repeated in video loops on 24-hour cable-news networks raise stereotypes. That struck Robert Smith, political-science professor at San Francisco State University. “All the people that appear to be in distress . . . have been African American, people coming from the [housing] projects,” he said. “All the looters that have been shown are black.”

Smith said he’s not surprised. He said the neglected people in those communities — those stranded without resources — often are black. But he added that the pictures and footage of the looting “will reinforce the image of black people as criminals.”


“Black people are no different than any other group of people in the world,” said Walters, political-science professor and director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland at College Park. “Explaining [the looting], you have to go far, far beyond skin color.”


Sociology professor Henry Fischer agreed. He has long studied human response to disasters as head of the Center for Disaster Research and Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

But what about the looting of luxury items? Some media images showed people hauling off television sets and DVD players, in an area with no electricity. “That’s something we as researchers are going to take a closer look at,” he said.


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