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Hurricane Harvey Resurrects Fears of Racial Profiling

As a worried nation looks to the recent past for signs of how Houston’s future might play out, blistering critiques of media coverage during Hurricane Katrina are making the rounds on social media.

The archival record of choice may surprise you. It’s The Onion:

NEW ORLEANS—Throughout the Gulf Coast, Caucasian suburbanites attempting to gather food and drink in the shattered wreckage of shopping districts have reported seeing African­Americans “looting snacks and beer from damaged businesses.” “I was in the abandoned Wal-Mart gathering an air mattress so I could float out the potato chips, beef jerky, and Budweiser I’d managed to find,” said white survivor Lars Wrightson, who had carefully selected foodstuffs whose salt and alcohol content provide protection against contamination. “Then I look up, and I see a whole family of [African-Americans] going straight for the booze. Hell, you could see they had already looted a fortune in diapers.” Radio stations still in operation are advising store owners and white people in the affected areas to locate firearms in sporting-goods stores in order to protect themselves against marauding blacks looting gun shops.

The New York Times played it straight when tackling the same issue. In 2005, the paper analyzed two photographs of Katrina survivors, both of which are also recirculating now. The first was an Associated Press photo of a black man, chest deep in flood water, with soda and a floating bag. It was captioned, “looting a grocery store.” The second was distributed by Agence France-Presse for Getty Images, and showed a white couple wading through similarly filthy water, but noted the photo was taken “after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.”

So you can imagine the online debate that erupted yesterday after this tweet from Tom Llamas, an anchor and correspondent from ABC News: “#Breaking We’re witnessing looting right now at a large supermarket in the NE part of Houston & police have just discovered a body nearby.” There was quite a bit of salty talk in the back and forth, but beloved wrestler MVP managed to return fire by framing the issue succinctly. “I’ve noticed during disasters that some people ‘loot’ grocery stores for food, others ‘scavenge.’ What’s the difference?”

The general consensus: If you’re white, it’s not looting.

The difference in recovery efforts, at least, is something that the NAACP is planning to monitor. NAACP interim President Derrick Johnson has said the organization will be watching relief efforts closely, “to ensure that resources directed from the federal government don’t skip neighborhoods.”

Black neighborhoods are used to being skipped, a process that beings long before the levees break. “Katrina was not an equal opportunity storm,” explains Gary Rivlin from Talk Poverty, a project of The Center for American Progress. “A black homeowner in New Orleans was more than three times as likely to have been flooded as a white homeowner. That wasn’t due to bad luck; because of racially discriminatory housing practices, the high-ground was taken by the time banks started loaning money to African Americans who wanted to buy a home.” Only one in three black New Orleanians who fled Katrina’s path were able to return, he says.

We’re going to spend the coming years watching a post-Harvey Houston rebuild, and deeply-rooted inequities will inevitably emerge. We will have to take a long look at them – and also ourselves. We live in a world where wrestlers and anchors and the rest of us regular folks are consuming, evaluating, amplifying, and commenting on news and images that we may not fully understand, and our biases occasionally take over. Who we call a looter, and why we do so, really matters.

One thing that’s true now that wasn’t 10 years ago is that people seem to feel more comfortable calling out these disparities when they see them. It’s essential that they do. Being black and brown in America is a complicated bit of business even on a sunny day. But in times of crisis, biases can prove deadly, particularly for people who don’t ever get the systemic benefit of the doubt. The wrong label casually slapped into a tweet or onto a photo can leave a permanent scar on both the individual and a community, and at the worst possible time.