Seeing and Not Seeing: Complicity in Surprise
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Virginia R. Dominguez is the current editor of American Ethnologist, co-director of the International Forum for U.S. Studies, and professor of anthropology and international programs at the University of Iowa. A political anthropologist, she is author of White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana (Rutgers, 1986 and 1994) as well as books on public discourse and cultural politics in Israel, East Asia, and the Pacific.

September 11, 2005

Saddened, surprised, shocked. By now these words are everywhere, brought to us by the media in OpEd pieces, newspaper editorials, interviews with caring observers, consultants, and celebrities. The sadness and the shock are, to be sure, in part about the physical collapse and devastation of a battered, flooded city. But it is the other part that concerns me. People say they are surprised to see the U.S. looking so "Third World." It is clear from what they say and how they say it that the surprise is often deep and very genuine.

This is revealing. It is also troubling. When social studies teachers, sociologists, demographers, geographers, social anthropologists, historians, and economists tell people about existing, palpable inequalities in the U.S., is there little or no audience? The research exists. The experts are there. It is true that some social scientists exclusively do research projects that are highly technical and require advanced knowledge of math and statistics, or specialized expert terminology to understand. But many social scientists, both in their writings and in the classroom, do not. There are powerful films, photoessays, life histories, family tales, maps, and readable textbooks that tell the story. And this is not new. Surprise should not really be the typical reaction, and yet it is a widespread one.

Are Americans simply not using the resources already in this country, paid for with their taxes? It is there in the public schools, community colleges, state colleges and state-assisted universities—places in which this knowledge is generated, taught, and discussed. Something is clearly amiss if so many people are so surprised by the images on television and shocked that it makes the U.S. look like "the Third World" (or, more likely, their idea of something called "the Third World"). We must ask why the message is not being heard or, if heard, not really understood. And, for the sake of the country and all of its people now and in the future, we must be willing to go wherever the answer(s) takes us—even if it leads us into the delicate terrain of our own complicity in continuing patterns of inherited social inequalities in the U.S.

University of Virginia law professor, Rosa Brooks, took a few steps in that direction in a Special piece she wrote for the Los Angeles Times published Friday, September 9, 2005, and reprinted in my local newspaper, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, among others. My local paper's headline on the Editorial Page that day read, "Our Homegrown Third World." Indeed the phrase "Third World" appeared 13 times in that Brooks essay, spanning the five half-columns of the Editorial Page. It was not the first time I heard it used after the hurricane hit; it was the first time I recall seeing someone use the phrase while commenting on others using it, too.

Her own opening included the term. She wrote, "As Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, American reporters made a startling discovery. The Border Patrol guys must have been sleeping at their posts because, somehow, while the rest of us were distracted by those enchanting info-graphics on the Weather Channel, the Third World managed to sneak into the United States." She quoted New York Times reporter David Carr: "it was left to reporters embedded in the mayhem to let Americans know that a Third World country had suddenly appeared on the Gulf Coast." She quoted USA Today, too. In what Rosa Brooks described as "a horrified editorial," that paper said that the situation in New Orleans resembled something in "Third World refugee camps." CNN, U.S. News & World Report, and Fox News are all quoted. All the quotes include "Third World" and all use the phrase to describe what they're seeing on their television screens or on the ground in New Orleans. Producer Michael Heard reportedly described Interstate 10 in New Orleans as "very Third World"; U.S. News & World Report is quoted as writing about "the Third World images of death and devastation [that] reeled across the nation's TV screens"; and Fox News anchor Shepard Smith is quoted as lamenting that we can "remove the dead, repair the levee, pump out the water and move on" but that we will be "forever scarred by Third World horrors unthinkable in this nation until now."

Rosa Brooks went on to criticize these reporters for their surprise, arguing that they have probably never "set foot in Washington's Anacostia district, or South Central Los Angeles, or the trailer parks of rural Arkansas"—places in which large numbers of people live in poverty, places in which "conditions for poor Americans rival those in developing countries." But Rosa Brooks' message is about, and for, professional reporters, TV anchors, and news producers. By the time one is done reading her essay, the U.S. media looks bad. Their viewers and readers, however, come through unscathed. And yet aren't very many of us complicitous?

Illinois Senator Barack Obama tried to broaden people's thinking, when he appeared on ABC's "This Week." Asked if he thought racism could explain the slow federal government response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he made a point of talking about a deeper type of neglect—a habit of thought, I would say, that equates "America" with middle-classness, industrial or postindustrial prosperity, and the political, military, and economic power to do anything it decides to do.

This habit of thought is so widespread that many with good reason to worry about whether or not they themselves are accepted as full-fledged Americans can be "caught" buying into it. Let me give but one example. On Thursday, September 8, 2005, the Iowa City Press-Citizen published a Guest Opinion on page 7A written by the coordinator of the Iowa chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Shams Ghoneim. He described being in mourning "as many Americans are" and feeling outrage mixed with deep sorrow at the countless lives lost and the extended suffering of the thousands waiting to be rescued at the Superdome, the Louisiana Convention Center, or their homes and nursing homes. But by the fifth sentence of a fairly lengthy opinion piece, there it was—that habit of thought. "How could the richest and most technologically sophisticated country on earth," he writes, "wait so long to assist these much-damaged cities and communities?" And three columns later: "What excuse do we have in America for not being better prepared for this disaster, with our vast resources and modern technology? The answer is hard to come by."

I do not think it is much of a stretch to say that this is a habit of thought that ignores, cannot digest or even see all the counter-evidence that exists and surrounds us. "Whoever was in charge of planning," Senator Obama said in his interview on ABC's "This Week," "was so detached from the realities of inner city life in New Orleans…that they couldn't conceive of the notion that they couldn't load up their SUV's, put $100 worth of gas in there, put some sparkling water and drive off to a hotel and check in with a credit card." He added: "There seemed to be a sense that this other America was somehow not on people's radar screen. "I think he's right. But let's put that in perspective. As Rosa Brooks reminds us, "even using the federal government's Scrooge-like definition, about 13 percent of Americans—and 18 percent of American children—live in poverty. They live in poverty all year round, not just on special occasions like during hurricanes. And they're all over this nation, not just in New Orleans" (Sept. 9, 2005, p. 11A, ICPC). I can imagine people responding that this is really just 1 in 8 Americans, which means that 7 out of 8 Americans do not live in poverty. True enough, but 13% of 290 million (the estimated population of the U.S. in 2003 according to the U.S. Census) is over 37 million Americans.

Where do we all think those 37 million people live? How could we not see them or, if we see them, not really notice them? Is it that we cannot imagine Americans as poor and, therefore, have to mentally register them as "defective," "foreign" or unwilling to assimilate, or as guests but never as members? The Des Moines Register's Editorial on Sunday, September 11, 2005, is right to point out that "it wasn't just the storm-ravaged areas [devastated by Hurricane Katrina] that looked Third World," but that "it was the incompetent response of the federal government, which had Americans wondering why the richest country in the world, with the supposedly most powerful government, left its people stranded in misery and squalor for days" (p. 1OP). But, as the Register added, it was also "the television images that exposed to view masses of impoverished Americans who normally remain unseen." How can 37 million people be unseen?

The viewing public is now indeed seeing some of them. These people are there on their TV screens day and night. They are increasingly present in their schools, clinics, malls, and streets, as New Orleanians spread across the country to seek housing, schooling, jobs, and medical care. But how are we seeing them? This increasing talk of the U.S. looking so "Third World" is worrisome and telling. Even if people using this phrase say that they are really referring to the scene of destruction, to people milling about, and to the apparent absence of efficient government help right there on the ground, are we so sure that they do not also mean that the people they are seeing on their TV sets are themselves "Third World"?

This phrase carries meaning. "Third World" is never used in this country as praise. It is typically used to refer to other countries, especially in Africa, Latin America, and Asia—places Americans see as non-European and, therefore, as inhabited exclusively or overwhelmingly by non-whites.

Seeing those New Orleanians on TV as "Third World" is problematic even if it is understandable given lifelong habits of thought so widespread in the U.S. that keep people from seeing its dangers. Mentally equating poor people with non-white people and both with "the Third World" quietly allows viewers to slip easily into familiar forms of perception of the U.S., even when they appear new and surprising. One of its greatest dangers is that it mentally allows people to think that poverty and non-whiteness are non-American things, even when they are present in the U.S. in significant numbers.

There is a whole racial element in all this, one that runs deep and makes most of us complicitous. If our television screens were showing us hour after hour of "white people"—dirty, frantic, worried people but still people we saw as "just white people"—would all these references to "Third World" conditions have surfaced? I doubt it. Far likelier would have been references to the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the San Francisco Earthquake at the turn of the 20th century, or even the condition of Bosnian or Croatian refugees in the Balkans as war tore apart Yugoslavia.

The black skin of the overwhelming majority of the people caught on camera at the Superdome or the Convention Center, on rooftops or with guns is hard to miss. In a country like the U.S. that has always put people in racial categories, that does not allow anyone to escape being put in some racial category, and that regularly argues that it cannot work towards becoming a more just society if it does not racialize its entire population, viewers see those New Orleanians on TV as black and as likely to be poor and uneducated. Americans watching the coverage of the aftermath of Katrina on CNN or MSNBC saw black people at the Superdome, the Convention Center, wading through infested waters, or breaking into stores. Those from the metropolitan area of New Orleans watching the coverage from elsewhere also saw the absence of the lighter-skinned, the racially mixed, those whose families have both European and African ancestry and have old ties to New Orleans' Seventh Ward. What I do not know is how many of us have stopped to think about what it all means—both why we see "those people" as "Third World" and why it's those people and not others we see on TV in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Seeing doesn't just happen. We learn to see things in certain ways. We teach others to do the same. And once we're accustomed to it we just do it, largely without noticing. To see ourselves seeing others in particular ways—to allow ourselves to learn from an experience such as the Katrina disaster—we have to work hard to catch ourselves doing it.

And we are all involved. I caught myself reacting to the images on TV. I kept not trusting my reaction and doubting my memory. As a scholar of New Orleans history and society, and author of a book on New Orleans, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana (Rutgers University Press, 1986, 1994), I felt nothing should surprise me. But something kept surprising me. I kept thinking that I must have missed something huge in the years since the book was published, years I have devoted to asking related questions elsewhere, in the U.S., the Middle East, Europe, and the Pacific, but not focusing on Louisiana at all. Had New Orleans turned into a black and poor city while I was not looking?

New Orleans always had a sizeable population not thought of as white in the U.S., though they varied greatly over the years in looks, degree of European and African ancestry, and racial self-identification. But New Orleans has never been 99% black—using any definition of blackness—and the TV screen made it look that way. Where is the rest of the population of New Orleans, I asked myself quietly for a few days, afraid to reveal to anyone what I was thinking. I kept seeing people I saw as black—not even as brown or mixed. I kept noticing the absence of people I saw as white New Orleanians. I also saw people I read as poor or in poor health and without means. I knew I was seeing them in terms of race and class. I knew I was thinking in terms of race and class. I knew I disliked what I was doing but that I have been brought up to spot both throughout my lifetime.

Then the questions multiplied. If I was seeing this and in these terms, what was the rest of the country seeing? What was the rest of the world seeing? And what would they make of it? Would this be good for New Orleans or bad for New Orleans? Good for the U.S. or bad for the U.S.? Would viewers outside the area be less empathetic because of what they were seeing on their television screens, or more empathetic? Would viewers outside the U.S. who currently feel quite negative about U.S. government policies, or even more broadly, U.S. society, even see those Americans walking into and around the Superdome as American? And, if they did, were they seeing them as Americans implicated in the war in Iraq, as Americans to be exempted from their anger and critique, or as Americans whose very presence and plight prove that the U.S. social, economic, and political system is deeply flawed? Or, were they seeing these Americans as "Third World"—presumably poor and black, undereducated and unlike "us," somehow behind the times in technology, knowledge, and morality?

This was the part about how we were seeing who we were seeing—and what its consequences might be. Then I stopped to think about why we were all seeing a particular population of the New Orleans metropolitan area and not the many others. New Orleans is a metropolitan area, not just a city without suburbs. New Orleans is also a place with a long-standing attention to class and status as well as racial groupings. None of that was visible at the Superdome, the Convention Center, or the Houston Astrodome. All of that, however, was implicated in who ended up at the Superdome, the Convention Center, and the Houston Astrodome, and who did not.

The 2000 census of the City of New Orleans, excluding all of its many suburbs, shows that 67.3% of the population of the city proper is officially black. Even if we chose to ignore the rest of the population of the metropolitan area—that which makes the New Orleans metro area 1.3 million strong and not just 484,674—where is the other third of the population, the third not at all in the New Orleans Superdome, the terribly flooded Ninth Ward, or those homes in which people stayed behind because they do not own cars or know where to go without cash or credit cards? Clearly they left town. The tables are now turned. They are the ones we are in the habit of seeing, but they are now nowhere to be seen. A resulting distortion of the city's demographics makes the whole city on TV look black and poor—and by implication "Third World."

But the distortion is even greater. Race and class matter at least as much in the New Orleans metropolitan area as they do in many other metro areas in the U.S., from Detroit to Washington, D.C. to St. Louis. Some areas of New Orleans proper have very nice housing. A good number do not. Blue collar crime and gang activity have scared off many middle-class, upper-middle class, and upwardly mobile lower middle class residents over the past few decades. It is not a simple separation by race. Much of it is by class, but a strong racial element is there, nonetheless.

Consequently, the city of New Orleans has a very different profile than its most populous suburbs. Jefferson Parish, with a population of 452,459 (a 2003 Census Bureau estimate) is more than two-thirds white (69.8%) and only 13.7% of its population lives below the officially designated poverty line; St. Tammany Parish, with an estimated 2003 population of 207,743 is 87% white and only 9.7% of its population lives below the poverty line. Simple math tells me that half a million people—white people, according to the Census—who live in these two suburban, metro areas have also largely become invisible—gone elsewhere to escape the hurricane, and not present at the Superdome.

So who are television viewers seeing—overwhelmingly at the Superdome or the Astrodome and with fewer options than others? It's those most viewers are not in the habit of thinking of when they think of "America" (unless it's their neighborhoods and friends they are seeing). It's those no one can fail to notice and register now—because of Hurricane Katrina. It's those whose looks and presence make commentators think "Third World," a poor, underprivileged section of the city that is overwhelmingly black (even in New Orleans' terms). The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 27.9% of the city's population is below the poverty line. In a population of 484,674 (the figure from the 2000 Census), that's 135,224—a figure awfully close to the 100,000-120,000 we have been hearing for nearly two weeks, the people who did not leave.

Shock and surprise can be useful if they lead to serious collective soul-searching; that is, if we stop to ask how so many could be so surprised to see those Americans, their distress, and the slow response from the federal government raising questions about whether the poor and the black value less to America or to American habits of thought about America than the prosperous, the middle-class, the white. These are not comfortable thoughts but they are necessary ones if any good is to come of the disaster and its aftermath.

Exceptionalizing New Orleans, that is, deciding that this is yet another peculiarity of a city many Americans have long treated as unique and different from the rest of the country, is one big mistake I hope the American public will not allow itself to make. New Orleans is really a very American city, its French and Spanish history notwithstanding. Poverty and blackness are very American things. They are the way of life of many homegrown Americans and not just foreign-born Americans. A very disproportionate part of the American population of African origin is poor, without decent healthcare, and with inadequate economic opportunities or means. Yes, the poverty rate is higher in the State of Louisiana (19.6%) and higher still within New Orleans city limits, and the percentage of the population that is recorded as black is closer to 1 in 3 for the State and two-thirds within New Orleans city limits. But let us not forget how different the figures look when we take the entire metropolitan area as our unit of analysis, nor how similar quite a few other U.S metropolitan areas really are. White flight and middle class suburbs are very American things, too.

In the end the real surprise should be that people are surprised. New Orleans is really no more and no less "Third World" than the country as a whole. I know it is hard to accept that because we have grown accustomed to thinking that we live in a prosperous, middle class, powerful country. But who are we thinking of when we say we? And how many millions of Americans are we not thinking of? Clearly both the inequality that exists and the habits of thought of so many about "America" need serious fixing.