On March 25, Jean-Dickens Toussaint and his wife, Abigail, were in Haiti from Broward County, Florida, to visit relatives and attend a community festival when they were kidnapped. They were allegedly snatched off a bus in the capital, Port-au-Prince, by gang members attempting to extort money from everyone on board.
The kidnappers reportedly demanded a ransom of $6,000 to release the Touissants, whose 2-year-old child wasn’t with them at the time. But according to the family, after the money was sent the ransom went up to $200,000 per person ― a price the family couldn’t afford to pay.
The couple was returned after almost a month, with no fanfare or details as to why or how it happened. No surprise if this is the first time you’ve heard of the incident. As far as kidnapped American citizens go, the story got very little burn.
There’d also be no surprise if you haven’t heard about the environment that allowed for the kidnapping. Haiti has been embroiled in a worsening political and economic crisis following the assassination of its president, Jovenel Moïse, in 2021. Currently, the Caribbean nation is essentially government-free ― its National Assembly, our version of Congress, has been completely vacant since January.
The lines between police, politicians and gang members blur, and gangs essentially run Haiti with an iron fist.
The only reason I investigated any of this is that I live in South Florida, which has the second-largest Haitian diaspora in the country next to New York City, and a friend here inquired why she hasn’t seen anything in the media about Haiti’s condition.
Whenever someone says, “People aren’t talking about this,” I put on my journalist cap, because I realize global journalism doesn’t have the reach of mainstream American media, like the CNNs and the MSNBCs.
Indeed, stories have been written about the unrest in Haiti. But there’s a decidedly different magnitude of focus to this story than the most obvious comparison: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has dominated headlines for more than a year.
The same is true of the current Sudanese conflict, a “civil war” between the country’s armed forces that started in mid-April and is still going strong. Hundreds have been killed in the fighting, and the resulting humanitarian crisis has left food, water and other resources scarce for the country’s 45 million residents. Tens of thousands of people have fled the country and hundreds of thousands were displaced within Sudan.
Just about every major publication has covered the conflict, but none have any links about it present on their landing pages. In contrast, AP News has an entire section on its home page dedicated to the Russia-Ukraine war.
Several news alerts are programmed on my phone, and the Ukraine War has, at some point, been a subject of all of them. Americans responded to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion with collective outrage. There were prayers on company websites, Ukrainian flags (which most Americans probably couldn’t identify before) draped on the facades of businesses, social media posts about the human atrocities, and calls for Putin’s head ― along with a cool factor attributed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Another contrast: Ethiopia’s Tigray War, a two-year conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the nationalist group Tigray People’s Liberation Front that was going strong when the Ukrainian War started in February 2022. The scale of human rights atrocities committed during the war in Ethiopia, which officially ended in November, is objectively sickening. Some estimates have casualties at nearly half a million souls ― many of them citizens who died slowly from famine and lack of medical attention.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in March that both sides of the Tigray War committed war crimes. Mass killings, rape, withholding of food and the perpetuation of famine ― none of it hit my news alerts. But yes, let’s drop another hundred billion in aid for Ukraine and make sure that its flag is hanging in front of your local taco stand.
So why haven’t we given Haitians, Sudanese or Ethiopians the same amount of attention, aid or sympathy we’ve given Ukrainians? Take one guess.
White supremacy manifests itself in part in our unconsciously skewed sympathy for suffering white people. Europeans will receive boatloads of attention and tears that Black and brown people simply will not ― and that includes from Black Americans, because the supremacy is simply that pervasive. (The irony of how Ukraine treated African citizens trying to survive is not lost on me.)
I won’t castigate Black Americans for not focusing on the struggles of the Black diaspora because, among other reasons, we’re dealing with our own problems at home. But we can do that while acknowledging the struggles of our skinfolk overseas. “Don’t let A distract you from B” is an intellectually facile social media chestnut, given we can talk about multiple things at once.
I have zero doubt that the Toussaints would be plastered all over the news if they were a white couple. “Missing white woman” syndrome is such a thing that it’s served as great fodder for comedians. If she’s pretty, young and blonde, you have to throw your phone in the toilet to get away from constant updates about her kidnapping.
Capitalism plays footsies with white supremacy in perpetuating the vicious cycle of our selective sympathy. Missing or hurting Black and brown people don’t sell magazines, so editors don’t feature them. In turn, the masses never learn about them. I’m guessing the best way to fix this is to wave a magic wand to make the world not fear and reject people with melanin.
So how do we draw attention toward kidnapped Black people or wide-scale human rights atrocities? Perhaps a nice social media push will do it. Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge and the ungodly amount of money it raised for ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease? Most participants didn’t know or give a damn about ALS; they just had fun with something all their friends were doing.
Let’s get a TikTok dance going in the names of Haiti and Sudan. Maybe that’ll get the rest of the world to pay attention ― you don’t even need to actually care.