Like everyone else, I've been glued to the news watching the coverage of quake-ravaged Haiti. Some of the coverage has made me cringe. Since the earthquake took place, there have been constant references about the possibility of Haitians "looting," for example. I find this "will they?" or "won't they?" speculation about Haitians "looting" pretty distasteful. For one, I don't believe that "looting" is the right word to describe the actions of people with little to no access to necessities such as food and water getting these necessities wherever they can find them. The use of this word in this context reminds me of the complaints I heard about black Hurricane Katrina victims being described as looters while their white counterparts were described as survivors when they broke into stores to locate the goods needed to weather the storm.
The consistent use of the term "loot" isn't the only thing that troubles me about the Haiti earthquake coverage. As I'm sure you know by now, televangelist Pat Robertson blamed the earthquake on Haiti making a pact with the devil to win its liberation from the French. Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the controversy as well, arguing that President Obama was pleased that the earthquake occurred because it gave him the opportunity to give millions in aid to a former slave colony, a move that would enable him to boost his credibility with light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I'm not sure exactly what Limbaugh was trying to convey with his reference to skin color, but, then, I don't expect much of what Limbaugh says to make sense. I also don't expect much from Pat Robertson in the way of sociopolitical analysis. So, while his comments about Haiti are disturbing, they don't truly shock me.
I do, however, expect a lot from New York Times columnists. That's why I nearly winced when I read David Brooks' column "The Underlying Tragedy," about why Haiti remains an impoverished nation. Brooks make some great points in the piece, mainly that the Western approach to reducing poverty has to change. Throwing money at poor countries isn't the way to usher in economic progress for these nations, he argues. Before long, however, he turns from making an economic argument to an argument attacking Haiti for essentially being what he considers to be culturally retarded.
"There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile," Brooks says of Haiti.
Really, so voodoo's to blame? But wait, voodoo's not only the religion that implies that "life is capricious and planning futile." In Matthew 6:34, Jesus tells Christians not to worry about tomorrow, for "Today's trouble is enough for today." In spite of this, the predominantly Christian nations of the West have prospered.
Brooks doesn't just attack the religious practices of Haitians, though. He continues, "There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10. We're all supposed to politely respect each other's cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others."
Wow. I'm wondering what gives Brooks the authority to paint the citizens of Haiti with the same broad brush. His description of Haitians sounds nothing like the people I knew from the Haitian community in my suburban Chicago town growing up. If there was a stereotype these people fit, it was that of the model immigrant--industrious, close-knit and well-behaved. Some of my Haitian classmates went on to elite universities and successful careers. If the culture is as bankrupt as Brooks implies, I doubt the Haitians who made it to the U.S. would be able to thrive.
I am far from the only reader to take issue with Brooks' characterization of the Haitian people. A stroll through the comments section yielded many insightful remarks.
A second-generation Haitian American wrote:
"The idea that Haitians in general are brought up to have insufficient regard for personal duty and responsibility is utterly laughable. If Mr. Brooks wants to talk 'responsibility,' we have to acknowledge the unfortunate truth. The most 'responsible' thing for any Haitian to do for his or her family is to pack their bags and leave Haiti, even if such a thing is not good for the country as a whole. That is precisely what hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Haitians have done over the past several decades, and what millions more would do if they could. Haitians have been continually taking their fate and destiny into their own hands and going elsewhere. That's not the action of a fatalistic people."
Another reader took issue with Brooks' decision to compare Haiti to island-nations such as the neighboring Dominican Republic and Barbados.
"Barbados never suffered through a dictatorship, supported by plenty of U.S. interference," the reader wrote. "The people of the DR had to live through a dictator and the society today is still practically feudal. There's not a lot of difference between Haiti and the DR. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of DR citizens who have fled that country."
The history of Haiti is complex. Some argue that Western nations--including the United States and Haiti's former colonizer, France--were invested in the country's downfall. Because Haiti was the first slave-nation to be independent, the industrialized world needed to make an example out of it, lest other slave-nations consider fighting for liberation. Couple that inauspicious beginning with lack of natural resources, overpopulation, questionable government leadership and uneven distribution of wealth, and you can see why Haiti remains entrenched in poverty. Ignoring a complex history and instead blaming Haiti's predicament on being culturally backwards is offensive and falls far short of the mark.
Update: In a previous version of this piece, I had also said that I felt that there was an undue amount of media coverage on how white Americans were being affected by the quake, which is problematic considering that they make up a miniscule amount of people affected. A conversation about this topic can be found in the comments section of a blog run by anti-racist white writer Macon D. On that note, I've also learned that media coverage of the event may depend on one's location. Those in media markets with large Haitian-American communities are reportedly seeing more coverage featuring the personal stories of Haitian Americans.