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Nadra Kareem Nittle

Haiti Earthquake Coverage Falls Short

By January 17, 2010

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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.


January 17, 2010 at 5:46 pm
(1) MrBrown says:

What a racist author Nadra Kareem is. She hates non-blacks.

January 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm
(2) Therese says:

Wow! This editorial just blew me away! That ANYONE would find this “book” to write regarding the tragedy in Haiti is appalling! I have definitely heard of Americans (maybe white?) who are “sruck” there and a great amount of concern for them. I have to say that in the past few years I, as a white person, have really just about given up on the issue of race, as I totally hoped it was a dead issue. It seems, more and more, it’s okay for one to blast away at the “white reaction” to anything, whereas it seems many Blacks can say anything about Whites and no comment is made. Aren’t we ever going to just get over it??? A more balanced article on the horror in Haiti would have been more appreciated.

January 17, 2010 at 6:15 pm
(3) N00bzilla says:

My guess is that Rush Limbaugh’s reference to white and dark skinned blacks was a joke about the comments made by Harry Reid about that.

January 17, 2010 at 7:14 pm
(4) Jay says:

This is a fine, cogent article. I think the first two comments are being hypersensitive. The article is not a blanket indictment of all whites, simply an response to Brook’s article in particular. And I don’t know how either Therese or MrBrown could defend an article about this great tragedy that blames the victims of this earthquake by 1) making a broad generalization about a whole country of millions of people, and 2) generalizing about a people’s religious practices. Didn’t know Brooks was such an expert on Haitian religion and culture that he can track the consequences of their religion and culture with no statistics, studies, or any evidence, just his own generalizations.

Therese and MBrown, tens of thousands, maybe of hundreds of thousands of people just died in HAITI. This really has nothing to do with you and the history of race in America, stop navel gazing.

January 17, 2010 at 7:21 pm
(5) skrimmer says:

Wow. I agree Therese. Race hardly seems to be the main concern of the millions of Americans searching for a way to help these people; why must the author somehow find a way to use this terrible tragedy to point out how she feels the opinions of a few represent those of these millions? I too am tired of black people trashing their fellow Americans with no backlash; most white Americans have tried to learn from the past; so should they.

January 17, 2010 at 8:25 pm
(6) John Holmes says:

I’m wondering when this country will take care of it’s own? Where is it written that we are obligated to respond to every disaster that happens outside our borders? And that’s not racist “talk”. I tend to believe that Obama is doing this for his “reputation value” and maybe “voter points”. What’s really disgusting is the declaration that Haitains here illegally will get a “pass”. This country is being destroyed from within and the Government no longer cares for it’s own citizens.
Did Katrina get this type of response?

January 18, 2010 at 12:20 am
(7) diane says:

the people here in america, some are homless, some are starving to death, and the goverment needs to help there own people before helping the blacks, and the forners, they can rush across the globe to to help somebody but they cant rush to the people in america

January 18, 2010 at 11:55 am
(8) Bobby Ewing says:

New high resolution pictures on the destruction from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake have been posted from on the ground in Port-Au-Prince and Jacmel



January 18, 2010 at 10:18 pm
(9) Tom says:

Why does GOOGLE place the (why call it Looting?) articles at the BOTTOM of their search results Ms Kareem? Have you are anyone you know ever contacted Google re: their continuous RACISM within their search results.

January 18, 2010 at 10:38 pm
(10) Dorothy says:

@ diane the homeless in america are all american citizen they could get jobs if they want to they want to live that kind of lifestyle. Your nonsense is nt really needed at this moment we have lost our houses our moms dads brother and sisters we are in need and for your information obama is not the only one helping we have several other nations helping us also so save your negativity 2 your self i cant believe a human being could have the heart 2 say anythng like this….. heartless may god bless u u need help

January 18, 2010 at 11:11 pm
(11) Tom says:

Also: Maybe you could write an article explaining “How a few half-starved-weak-LOOTING-Haitians – OVERPOWERED the military forces of several powerful nations & prevented aid from being delivered to Haiti victims” according to all the media reports.

Cause I’d like to know how the USA will win a war in Afghanastan, if they can’t overtake a few half-starved-to-death Looters.

January 19, 2010 at 4:30 am
(12) James Newport says:

I am a white American veteran who says that it is improper to call this true “SALVAGE” operation “looting”. The property is abandoned, the owners HAVE probably been killed/disabled by the earthquake. The foodstuffs, drinks, medical and sanitation supplies would go to waste buried in rubble. The people recovering the property have an immediate life or death need for the supplies. 99+ percent of this is no more looting than salvaging the cargo of a shipwreck, it is NOT looting, it is an true ad hoc “SALVAGE OPERATION” advancing the public good, recovering damaged goods and putting them to immediate use in a life threatening situation. It is only looting if it plunders/interferes with operating concerns or relief efforts. The entire national government, the UN and NGO organizations were instantly and simultaneously paralyzed or destroyed more effectively tham any WWII attack on a nation, so there is no other mechanism to distribute the goods but from the efforts of those brave, industrious, hard working men who have salvaged it out of the rubble. We should not disparagingly call these absolutely necessary cost effective “salvage operations” looting. (Yes, it costs time, money and effort to recover those supplies from the rubble.) Those goods are in the place where the need is and must be put to immediate use.

January 19, 2010 at 10:06 am
(13) Marc says:

Nadra’s not smart (or aware) enough to realize that Limbaugh’s comments regarding “light skin” were a parody of Harry Reid’s earlier comments on the same subject. Wonder if she took Reid to task?

January 19, 2010 at 1:35 pm
(14) Nadra says:

Actually, I wrote about Harry Reid’s comments. I understand that Limbaugh is alluding to Reid, but his comments still make no sense in my opinion. Reid discussed skin color in context. Limbaugh did not. Blacks being light-skinned or dark-skinned has nothing to do with the Haiti quake and Obama’s reponse to it.

January 19, 2010 at 12:46 pm
(15) Paula says:


Interesting take on Brooks’ column.

To the naysayers about this column — “It’s all in the viewing.”

January 19, 2010 at 2:14 pm
(16) speedwagon says:

STOP! stop making excuses for the actions of s criminal during natural disaster. These people have shown for 150 years they are beggars and thieves. And you wonder why they never evolve? It because of the pandering by people like you. Also racism works both ways honey. I’ve heard plenty of blacks and their racist remarks. Whitey/honky/white trash. you get the idea. Shame on you!

January 19, 2010 at 6:50 pm
(17) Thrasher says:

Thaks for calling out David Brooks racism and venom towards the people of Haiti..Brooks could noteven wait for the dead to be buried before his racist rants against the people of Haiti..

What drives this type of inhumanity?? White privledge?White Supremacy? Penis Envy??

January 21, 2010 at 1:37 pm
(18) Diesel says:

Fact is: they did loot and riot! Attacking the suppliers of the free supplies given them. Calling for a new definition of looting is both insane and typical black apologist tactic. The definition worked for centuries, for everyone, until a black does it, then its got to be OK. After all, aren’t orderly lines an evil European invention. Now you can see on the news huge platoons creating a disciplined distribution site, where they are taking no guff. Once again: “Peace through strength” is the only solution.

January 23, 2010 at 1:30 pm
(19) Marissa says:

I also thought it was wrong for the media and news to characterize the Haitians as looters! Hello these people are starving and many are critically injured! Its not looting, its surviving. I think its wonderful how so many countries are helping these people in this troubling time. I also believe the President is doing a great job of assisting them, lets not forget Bush’s reaction to the victims of Hurrican Katrina. It took him days to send help over there. I also think that the coverage on certain networks is less than others. For example, HLN is the worst, they showed a BREAKING NEWS story yesterday about a dog being stuck in a LA channel!!! Are you serious?! We have just experienced one of the worst natural diasters in history, and they are doing a story about a dog! Sad….my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti.

January 23, 2010 at 8:03 pm
(20) truth says:

WRONG! It is looting! and the looters need to be shot!

January 26, 2010 at 3:25 pm
(21) Evelyn Wyllie says:

I would like to know where all the money we have donated to Haiti has gone, since the Haitians are still starving and not getting water or medical attention. I’d like to know why Washington isn’t doing anything about it. To me it’s New Orleans all over again!!!

January 26, 2010 at 3:52 pm
(22) fdl says:

I don’t think she is being racist.there is too much critisism of blacks trying to DEFEND themselves against controversy.is that too bad???

January 27, 2010 at 1:22 pm
(23) Ryan says:

Wow. I thought after reading this post that the comments would be insightful and informed, especially on this website. Instead, it’s like a sampling of the ignorance and racial vitriol that the author is exposing. It’s been so disconcerting to see so many people use this tragedy as an opportunity to unleash pent up racism through thinly veiled comments.

Some people, like Brooks and Robertson, blame Voodoo, which trickles down to veiled racism because many white people have long tried to create an cognitive association between Voodoo, Satanism, and black Africans. This has the obvious effect of demonizing blacks. Others, like former NBA journeyman Paul Shirley, say they refuse to pay any aid money because it’s the Haitian’s fault for being so poor and unprepared, and that they should take self-responsibility for their own actions, mistakes, and consequences. While comments like these are obviously ignorant to the complex history Haiti, they are also racist because they are insinuating that Haitians (see:black people) are inherently and/or biologically inferior people who can’t take care of themselves, especially when they make up the significant majority of a population and govern themselves. This is perpetrated further by the media when they focus on looting, which creates a cognitive association that black Haitians are like wild animals (monkeys?) that WILL react uncivilized when given the opportunity.

Other people try to hide behind comments like “let’s save New Orleans instead”, though this is probably just a more clever way for arguing to let Haiti suffer and fend for itself. The obvious, non-racist feeling would be “let’s save BOTH Haiti and New Orleans.” Then there’s the people who say they won’t donate money to Haiti because they don’t believe it will go toward any good or it will be mishandled. Usually these comments will be racist as well because they are insinuating one of/many of the following points: blacks can’t be trusted (especially with money), blacks are inherently too stupid and uncivilized to know how best to use the money (as evidenced by Port-au-Prince’s pre-earthquake squalor), Port-au-Prince is not worth rebuilding anyway, and/or I just don’t feel compelled to give money to black people, especially poor, dark, and very “African” looking black people.

Let’s be real for minute. Even if hundreds of millions of dollars in aid go to Haiti for earthquake relief, that will barely be enough for the most basic aid (food, water, shelter, recovery infrastructure, debris removal, etc). So all this money is purely humanitarian, as in money spent to help starving, thirsty, and suffering people who just suffered through an unavoidable natural disaster. Trust me, the money won’t be anywhere near enough to go toward actually rebuilding the physical city itself (or those “shanties” that non-givers are so afraid their money will be spent rebuilding). So stop being so hateful, racist, and uncivilized yourselves and have some compassion already!

February 6, 2010 at 5:56 am
(24) greenNYC says:

I come at this from a Mostly Christocentric and Theological position:
I see what is going on in the world at large, wether it’s the severe economic crisis plaguing many in the North America, or the unrests and overthrow of Governments, incurable disease (many unexplainable and untraceable), the extremely harsh and weather phenomenons and devastions and monumental tragedies, all have there answer in the Holy Bible. Solomon the wisest man said this…Ecclesiastes 12:13  ¶Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
God told him this :2 Chronicles 7:13  If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people;
14  If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
David his father made note of this (the key word is SLOW): Psalms 145:8  The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.
note also: Nahum 1:3  The LORD is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.

February 6, 2010 at 6:06 am
(25) GreenNYC says:

one more point:
“LOOTING” is not a color or race, it’s about human behavior. in a sociological construct, people will do what is “convenient” for them. even the most “upstanding” will stoop down and do the most “selfish” (and sometimes deviant thing) if it fills a “need” at the time!

March 26, 2010 at 10:01 pm
(26) David B. Shumaker says:

For a person with a master’s degree, especially in teaching, the grammar and punctuation is this article is poor at best. I tend to give more credibility to someone’s written opinion, when one’s skill level matches one’s education level. As a person with only an associate’s degree from a community college, when compared to your expensive education, I can say that I must have gotten my money’s worth.

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