19th October 2020


The Racism Here That We Export There: Discussions of Sexual Violence in Two Contexts

The Racism Here That We Export There: Discussions of Sexual Violence in Two Contexts

Feminist scholars of the Global North have long criticized how sexual violence is portrayed in conflict zones of “faraway places,” too often ignoring lived realities of those occupying them (Buss, 2017 p. 9). The work of studying the causes and impacts of sexual violence in conflict is important, essential, but it engages in the same “otherizing” tendencies that it criticizes. Instead of looking elsewhere, in this piece I want to examine how similar racialized narratives are employed in my own country, the United States, following a natural disaster. This piece was inspired by an episode of Vann R. Newkirk II’s Floodlines podcast which explores the “unnatural disaster” that was Hurricane Katrina. I want to focus on one aspect of what Newkirk II discusses in his podcast: sensationalized media coverage (Editorial Board, 2005; Dowd, 2005; Horowitz, 2020). I will explore how in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the media engaged in hyperbolized and racialized coverage which othered and dehumanized Black communities. I will focus on the coverage which included allegations of “raping” and sexual violence (Editorial Board, 2005; Dowd, 2005; Horowitz, 2020).

I am looking to draw parallels between how sexual violence has been discussed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. I choose the DRC because it is one of the most referenced conflicts in the world in discussions of sexual violence. In fact, in 2010 then UN Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström infamously referred to the DRC as the “rape capital of the world” (O’Grady, 2015), a phrase that has since been repeated countless times by media outlets. Feminist scholars have since criticized this singular focus on sexual violence in conflict, arguing that it obscures the everyday violence women (and others) experience in the DRC and globally (Buss 2017). I recognize that natural disasters and conflict zones are fundamentally different, and I do not intend to minimize the experiences of those impacted by sexual violence in conflict. I, however, argue that similar narratives are used by predominantly White media outlets to discuss Black bodies in both contexts.

Hurricane Katrina remains the most infamous storm in modern US history. Over 1200 people lost their lives as a direct result of the hurricane and many others due to the inept federal response which left people in New Orleans stranded for days without support (Gibbens, 2019). A majority of those who died were Black (Gibbens, 2019) and although the racial disparities in the mortality rate has been chronicled in depth, less attention has been given to the hyperbolized and racialized news coverage post-storm. A New York Times opinion piece stated that New Orleans was “…a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning” (Dowd, 2005). An MSNBC reporter claimed: “People are being raped. People are being murdered. People are being shot. Police officers being shot”(Horowitz, 2020 p. 122). The New York Times Editorial Board alleged that “The city's police chief spoke of rapes, beatings and marauding mobs” and reported a “total breakdown of organized society” (Editorial Board 2005). A later redacted piece on Huffpost declared “Black hurricane victims in New Orleans have begun eating corpses to survive. Four days after the storm, thousands of blacks in New Orleans are dying like dogs” (Robinson, 2005). The situation in New Orleans after the storm was grave, and the federal government’s sluggish response to the crisis was negligent at best, however, the above-mentioned reports of widespread crime and sexual violence later proved to be false (Sommers et al 2006).

Further evidence of racism was discussed in a linguistic study carried out roughly one year after the storm hit New Orleans; the language of “refugee” was used far more frequently to describe hurricane victims than in previous storms (Sommers et al, 2006). The term usage was not used universally across racial groups, however, and was more commonly associated with “poor” “Black” victims (Sommers et al, 2006). Not only is the term “refugee” othering because it implies the person or people are non-nationals, but in a Western context it also implies “not White.” If you want proof, just google “refugee.” The New York Times’ Editorial Board implicitly tied together race and sexual violence. First stating, “victims were almost invariably poor and Black” before speaking of “rapes” and beatings” in the following sentence (Editorial Board, 2005). No further discussion or qualification of who was committing said violence makes the racist implication clear.

Warren Riley, a high-ranking New Orleans police officer, spoke directly to the “hoodlums” perpetuating “violence” in the city stating: “These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will”(Horowitz, 2020 p. 122). “Hoodlum” is part of a long-list of coded racial epithets or racist “dog whistles” in the American vernacular, and is understood as a Black person, generally a Black man. Through his words, Riley gave implicit permission to his police force to kill “the hoodlums” i.e. Black folks in New Orleans. In fact, New Orleans police officers shot at least 9 people in the week following the storm and all victims were Black (Horowitz, 2020 p. 122). The media coverage on looting was also blatantly racist. Two almost identical images circulated the internet in the weeks after the storm, one showing a Black man waist deep in water carrying food and another showing a White couple doing the same. The captions of these photos, however, referred to young Black man’s actions as “looting” and the White couple’s as “finding food” (Sommer et al).

This coverage of events can be compared to the coverage of sexual violence in the DRC. The Western media and scholarship originating from the Global North (both predominantly White spaces) stand in for the White American media in this comparison, and thus the “knowledge” produced is framed in racist, as well as neo-colonial terms. As Buss points out, “rape in the Congo” has received an inordinate amount of attention from Western audiences and has become ingrained in the Western psyche as a land of “large-scale atrocity” (Buss, 2017, p. 3). The media’s portrayal of the perpetrators of sexual violence is often hyperbolic and racialized, and the soldiers and combatants committing the violence are painted as “barbaric, brutal, vengeful killers and rapists, who often mutilate and eat their victims” (Baaz & Stern, 91). Again, this is not a defense of the actions of those committing acts of violence against women, nor an argument that wartime rape is not exceptional, but I merely want to draw parallels between the ways in which Black bodies are dehumanized. Pratt, in her discussion of the implications of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, argues that the Women, Peace and Security Agenda has “…represented ‘‘brown men’’ as perpetrators of sexual violence and ‘‘brown women’’ as victims of this violence…” (Pratt, 2013 p. 776). How different was the coverage in New Orleans? Although, many of the allegations of violence in New Orleans were proven untrue, the very fact that they were reported in the first place indicates that the US media engages in a similar act of othering Black Americans, as the larger Western media and scholarship from the Global North does in othering Brown people in conflict zones. In both contexts, discussions of sexual violence are separated from pre-conflict or disaster structures that allow for violence against certain groups to take place. Despite the fact that allegations of mass rape in New Orleans proved unfounded, the media made it seem as though the breakdown of society was the catalyst for sexual violence. Again sexual violence is relegated to the land of “the uncommon” of “the exceptional” even though approximately 1 in 5 women in the United States report some instance of sexual assault in their lifetimes (NSVRC, 2010).

We still have a long way to go to deconstruct the colonial framework of the researcher and “the researched.” Is this because it is easier to export the hard questions? To examine societies that are farther from our own lived realities and remove our own responsibility for the racist outcomes generated by our racist institutions? In engaging in studies of “far away places,” such as the DRC, we continue to ignore the realities of our own and perpetuate the same “othering” we criticize in other contexts. Furthermore, due to the effects of climate change, disasters like Katrina are becoming more commonplace. As a recent NYT’s article put it, “climate change is now ‘locked in’” (Branch & Plumber, 2020). Given how the coverage of Katrina was conducted, can we expect anything different from our media coverage when storms are more intense and fires all-engulfing in the future? I hope that the current uprisings in the United States, prompted by the murders of unarmed Black Americans, forces a true racial reckoning in my country but it is still too early to tell. For now, we must continue to deconstruct the racism that is a part of all of us, including in how we choose to conduct research.

Emma Wolfe

Emma recently completed her MSc in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science with a focus on intersectional social movements in Latin America. She has extensive experience in the nonprofit world, beginning her professional career as a Refugee Occupation Counselor at a resettlement agency in Chicago before moving to Buenos Aires and working in nonprofit technology. She also wants to remind all folks from the United States to vote on November 3rd, 2020!

Follow her on twitter: @emmarosewolfe


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