Watching the news in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria is heartbreaking. The images of the crested waters on the major highways, flooded homes, people walking in waist-high water, the tear-jerking photo of the nursing home residents sitting in their wheel chairs in a flooded room and the pictures of entire cities abandoned in Puerto Rico. These images are on every media outlet and impossible to look away from. And it reminded me of the reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
As more and more images become available, the media’s strategic depiction of the people involved is alarming:
- White men are pictured rescuing others. Their heroic efforts are everywhere usually the front page.
- White women are pictured being carried furthering the stereotype that white women are fragile.
- Black women are pictured as the recipients of help. They are pictured with their children waiting on help promoting the stereotypes of the welfare queen.
- Black men are pictured looting, depicted as thugs.
During Hurricane Katrina, it was a coordinated effort not limited to right wing media. Most outlets ran the picture of White people who were ‘finding’ food at a grocery store while Black people were ‘looting’ the store. Pictures of African Americans suffering at the Superdome labeled as ‘refugees’ made it easier for other Americans to sympathize but look away. I remember sitting next to White people I had called my friends and hearing them discuss the ‘refugees’ as if they really were people in another country. They were adamant that these victims should not receive a lump sum ($2,000 was being proposed) to pay for housing and to get back on their feet. Suddenly, the conversation changed from what could be done to “we’ve done enough.” We had been conditioned with images of ‘refugees’ in Africa to feel sorry for them but to accept nothing could be done. And it’s what the media is trying to do to the victims of Hurricane Maria.
Trump tweeted about the victims in Puerto Rico ‘They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.’ And just like that, Trump along with a complicit media switched the narrative right back to the stereotype that people of color are looking for a handout not victims of a natural disaster looking for relief. The media headlines claim San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz is ‘feuding’ or ‘fighting’ with Trump instead of ‘advocating’ for millions of people she represents validating the stereotype that women of color are angry and confrontational.
Media bias has allowed stereotypes of people of color particularly African Americans to continue. The stereotype of the Black welfare queen continues despite the gains Black women have made in education or that more Whites are the beneficiaries of welfare. Blacks are ‘lazy’ and ‘unmotivated’ while Whites are victims of corporate greed. Even White coal miners are given a pass by the media for not retraining for current jobs. White mediocrity is not examined in the mainstream media, while Blacks are constantly chided for not overcoming faster decades of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and discrimination in housing, banking, and education.
Media bias creates a vicious cycle. Police forces target poor African American communities which leads the media to cover these stories that portray Black people as violent, which further perpetuates racial biases, which leads to more calls for arrest and police arresting more black people.
When I read conservative pundits cry about the ‘liberal’ media, I have to laugh. There is no liberal media, especially when it comes to how the media depicts people of color. In these instances, media can be counted on to distort what is really happening and give the country the stereotypes they love.