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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Looting, New Orleans, and Japan

Recall after Katrina the reports in the media about vandalism and looting, and the racial tension associated with differential reporting practices. It seemed black folk were being accused of criminal behavior, while white folk we just doing what they could to survive:

Now as we hear updates from Japan after the earthquake and tsunami, we are getting a different story altogether: there is almost no looting taking place there at all! We have heard all sorts of laudable superlatives describing the qualities of honor, integrity, and unity that the Japanese embody.

Now, perhaps there is a case here: if you have a collectivist society (which is how sociologists typically characterize Japan) it might be less prone to looting behavior. I don't know if it is a valid characterization (perhaps we are once again simply homogenizing the 'Asian other' into one uniform group), but perhaps such a society would yield these loot-lacking results. At the very least if we in the USA believe this narrative, it is easy to see where such media reports might originate. Indeed, psychologists tells us that the United States tend to be more individualist than collectivist (we value personal freedoms over a conformity and group identity), which may leave us more vulnerable to looting, or at least more vulnerable to news reports about our looting.

However, I find the whole media coverage of such acts highly suspect. The stories reek of old racial tropes: the hard-working/resourceful white folk, the lazy/criminal black folk, and the venerable, model-minority Asians.

Kamaishi: No looters one filing reports here either
So it is hard for me to take these news reports at face value. I notice that NPR reports on the impressively little crime taking place, but they are talking about Kamaishi (population ~40,000) and Unosumai (even smaller). New Orleans has a population of over 1.2 million. Yet the report finds it appropriate to bring up Katrina in their story as a comparison.

Also note the immediacy of the Japanese government's response to this disaster, which is in stark contrast to the US government's debacle of a relief effort. Would not this difference also contribute to levels finding/looting after a disaster?

If the media is going to compare hurricane to tsunami, shouldn't they also mention these differences as well?

I don't know what the truth is about the looting in Japan. I don't know what factors contribute to their situation, or if it is different than New Orleans's was in 2005. I do know that we are subject to racial prejudices that will bias our characterization of the world, and that the good folks in the news industry are subject to those same biases. Yet we are reliant on the media to bring us news of the many events that we cannot personally experience. The best we can do right now is to acknowledge those biases, work against them, and understand that they affect how we perceive the truth.

See Also:
Bush and Hurt Feelings
Model Minority
Breivik: "The Lone-Wolf"/"Terrorist" of Oslo

1 comment:

  1. A related post from A Peace of Conflict:


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