The history behind the racist ‘looting’ narrative

It has resurfaced after Harvey.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson speaks with guest Dan Bongino on August 30, 2017 about looting in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. (Credit: Tucker Carlson Tonight, screengrab)
Fox News host Tucker Carlson speaks with guest Dan Bongino on August 30, 2017 about looting in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. (Credit: Tucker Carlson Tonight, screengrab)

During his show on Wednesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson blasted “looters” taking advantage of empty shops swept up in the Texas flooding following Hurricane Harvey, criticizing criminals who were hurting “ordinary” people in the process. To anyone with a decent memory, the narrative, with its racist undertones, sounded eerily familiar. In fact, the tradition of placing blame on communities of color during times of disaster—always using carefully coded language—dates back as far as the turn of the 20th century.

Mass devastation in Houston has brought with it a breakdown in law and order. …There’s reports of looting by storm survivors,” Carlson said Wednesday night. “…Who pushes back against this? Does anybody have the courage to say you’re not allowed to steal or hurt other people because there was a storm?”

Guest Dan Bongino agreed. “What kind of certifiable savage man beast do you need to be to walk into a small business… and there’s videos on Twitter sadly, you can’t un-see it, of people looting cash registers!” he said. “These are small businesses. …They worked their whole lives to keep their heads out of the red ink. …You’re stealing their money and their livelihood because you have a sense of entitlement during a tragedy? That is deranged when you boil that down.”

Throughout the segment, Carlson played surveillance footage of mostly black residents entering and leaving a shop with a plastic wash-bin in tow. At one point, one person appeared to stoop and check the sidewalks for dropped items. In a second video clip, a few individuals appeared to be walking through another store, perusing shelves and leaving most of the products untouched. The remainder of the store surveillance footage was not featured. 

“The left is always cheering on the destruction of ordinary people and their families and making fun of like normal people with jobs….” Carlson added. “What is it about the American left that wants to destroy normal life? I don’t understand it.” (Carlson did not clarify whether he had spoken with the people featured in the videos to find out whether they, too, were “normal people with jobs”, trying to survive a natural disaster.)

Houston authorities did confirm scattered reports of looting earlier in the week — Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement on Tuesday that 14 people had been arrested. But the specific language and video segments that Carlson and Bongino rolled out on Wednesday night, along with rampant criticism on social media, made one thing clear: “certifiable savage[s]”, i.e. minorities, but especially black citizens, as Tucker clumsily hinted, were a threat to innocent hurricane victims.

The history behind the myth

The narrative wasn’t new. The myth of the “savage” minority stealing from working class or wealthy white citizens goes as far back as the early 1900s. After a particularly devastating hurricane hit Galveston, black residents were portrayed as “ghoulish” thieves bent on stealing jewels from bloated white corpses.

“…These scenes, like the myths about black men raping white women that suffused the South at the time, were cooked up in the sociological cauldron of white fear,” wrote Andy Horowitz, an assistant professor at Tulane University who is writing a book about Hurricane Katrina, in a recent Washington Post column. “White people have long dreaded the specter of imagined black predators, and the storm offered an occasion for white readers to revel in their racist fantasies.”

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. southern coast, the narrative resurfaced. As the Los Angeles Times’ Colleen Shalby puts it:

The controversy centered on two photos and their respective captions. One from Associated Press photographer Dave Martin showed a young black man wading through water while holding a bag and a case of soda. The accompanying description stated that he was “looting.” A second photo from Chris Graythen for Getty Images showed a similar scene, but this time it was a white couple clutching bags of food. Their actions were labeled as “finding.”\

The contrast was obvious: white victims were presumed innocent. Black victims and victims of color did not enjoy that luxury.

As that coded narrative reared its head again in Harvey’s wake, predominantly white communities went on the offensive. On Thursday, Houston Chronicle reporter Lydia DePillis posted a photo taken in the town of River Oaks, which is nearly 85 percent white and located near Houston. The image featured a private security patrol car, and a sign that read, “NON-RESIDENTS SIGN IN WITH SECURITY.”

“As reports of looting spread, rich neighborhoods taking no chances,” DePillis captioned the image. (A source later told ThinkProgress that the neighborhood, a wealthy enclave, is policed somewhat regularly.) In Houston, Police Chief Art Acevedo noted that anyone caught looting would face stiffer penalties than normal. “We’re not a city that’s going to tolerate people victimizing people that are at the lowest point in their life,” he said.

Dying to survive

There are two things that critics fail to acknowledge about Harvey in particular. One is the circumstances that may have led to “looting” in the first place: according to the Washington Post, steep price gouging in many areas has left some unable to afford essentials like water, groceries, fuel, or a place to stay. In one instance, the outlet reported that a business in southeastern Texas was attempting to sell cases of bottled water for $99. A Houston Best Buy also received criticism for pricing its cases at $42, according to one Grit Post reporter. Overall, the reporter tweeted, the Texas attorney general’s office had “received 550 complaints & 225 emails about price gouging, with more coming in consistently.”

In Houston, where “45 percent of households earning $10,000 or less in income are black”, according to The Root’s Charles D. Ellison, the combination of those demographics and the obscene price gouging naturally meant that impoverished citizens left behind in the floodwaters would have to find a way to survive, sometimes for days before being rescued. In some cases, that meant seeking out abandoned shops to find supplies wherever possible.

Second, while some have claimed looting by black residents is widespread, the lawlessness that some propose is happening throughout Texas may largely be overblown, if history is any indication.

As The Guardian reported in 2015, while some New Orleans residents were caught on camera stealing TVs and large electronics during Hurricane Katrina—a fact that right-wing hosts like Fox News’ Sean Hannity played up at the time—the “majority of looters were hunting for bare essentials such as food, water, diapers and medicine.”

“It was way over-reported,” Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré told the outlet at the time. “People confused looting with people going into survival mode. It’ll happen to you and I if we were just as isolated.”

Violent threats against would-be looters—predominantly black citizens—followed. After then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco warned that National Guard troops were prepared to kill “hoodlums”, New Orleans police officers shot several black families attempting to cross the Danziger Bridge, claiming that they were criminals (they were not). The late Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL who was portrayed in the film American Sniper, also claimed he had taken out 30 “looters” from atop the Superdome, a story that later turned out to be false. For families of color hoping to scavenge for food and clean water, loaded words became weapons.

“We are entering an era of heightened disaster, thanks to climate change,” author Rebecca Solnit wrote in a column for The Guardian in 2009, remarking on the danger of false, race-fueled narratives in events like Katrina. “Being prepared for disaster will mean being prepared to sift truth from rumour, and being prepared to adjust our worldview. There is some incredible ugliness to the truth about Katrina.”

As Tucker Carlson’s segment from Wednesday night proved, with its coded wording and dog whistles, there’s likely some “incredible ugliness” to the truth about Harvey, too.

Update: This article has been updated to add details about the River Oaks neighborhood.