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Racial Framing and Superstorm Sandy: A Black Mother Begs for Help While Her Children Drown


Superstorm Sandy has made the divisions of class in the New York City area readily apparent. The "haves" are able to muster the resources to somehow survive. The "have nots" are left to their own devices.

Superstorm Sandy has also reminded us of how race remains one of the main dividing lines in our society. While naked displays of racism are now outside of the norms of "polite society," racial micro-aggressions, the day-to-day moments of white racial hostility and animus towards people of color, continue onward.

Racial micro-aggressions can impact the lives of black and brown folks in ways that are "just" inconvenient--the store detective that follows you around while shopping; being asked for ID when using a credit card; when your friends or colleagues "complement" you by saying you are one of "the special" or "good" ones.

Alternatively, these racial micro-aggressions can also be deadly in their outcomes.

Superstorm Sandy has yet to provide an iconic example of white racist media framing such as when during Hurricane Katrina, black people were described as "looters," and whites, also trying to survive, were captioned in news photos as "looking for food."

A lack of an iconic moment does not mean that race no longer impacts life outcomes, the safety and health of people of color, or how white society chooses to view (or not) African-Americans as full members of the polity and broader community.

Tragically, the drowning deaths of two black children while their mother, a black woman, begged for help in a white ethnic suburban community in Staten Island--and then was left crying and broken on the porch of a house for 12 hours when its owner refused her aid (and did not call authorities for assistance)--is a reminder of how the color line can kill you.

Neighborhoods are fundamentally prefaced upon community and belonging. America is a profoundly segregated society. Few people, especially those in the suburbs, explore the causes and history behind this phenomenon. America's segregated communities are a result of decisions by real estate agents, home owners, government, and individuals.

Historically, the whiteness of these communities--what were called "sundown towns"--was protected through violence, intimidation, and murder of non-whites.

Until the near present, white communities could be maintained by law through such practices as "red lining" and restrictive housing covenants. For example, New York, and Long Island in particular, were the sites of some of the first planned suburban communities in the post-World War 2 era. These neighborhoods, Levittown being the most famous of them all, were "racially exclusive." In plain English: no blacks or non-whites were allowed to live there.

In the Age of Obama, the racial exclusivity of white communities is protected by informal norms and practices. Real estate agents will not show people of color property in certain neighborhoods, regardless of their ability to buy a home there. Neighbors are less than welcoming to these new arrivals if they somehow manage to move in.

Police will harass and profile racial minorities, blacks and Latinos in particular, if they happen to be traveling through white neighborhoods such as the Jersey Shore, and certain parts of Staten Island, for example.

Moreover, housing segregation is so prevalent in Staten Island that the Staten Island Expressway has been rechristened the "Mason-Dixon" line by locals in the area.

During Superstorm Sandy, Glenda Moore and her two children, Connor and Brandon (aged 4 and 2) found themselves the victims of this reality.

Neighborhoods create boundaries around who is considered a stranger. Strangers can be ignored. We are taught to be weary of them. In some cases, strangers can be made into legitimate targets for violence and threat. Black Americans are existential strangers in their own country. Our status as citizens is contingent on white approval and acceptance--even if you are President of the United States. African Americans are assumed to be a threat and a perilous type of stranger until we prove otherwise.

The murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was an example where a neighborhood vigilante decided that a black teenager was a particular type of stranger, dangerous by nature, who could be shot dead in the street without consequences.

During Superstorm Sandy, Allen, the homeowner in question, decided that Glenda was a stranger who could be ignored while her children drowned. Here, the stereotype and logic is one where black strangers in white neighborhoods are automatically looters and brigands. They can never be a mother fighting to save the lives of her children.

America is a sick society. Racism is internalized by all Americans. Glenda Moore's loss of her two children is a horrible example of how implicit and subconscious racial bias can impact a white person's level of empathy and sympathy towards African-Americans. A woman cried, begged, and screamed for help while her children drowned. A decision was made by a white neighborhood that this type of person, in that gendered body, with that skin color, was not worthy of assistance.

For twelve hours she pleaded for help. Her children died. Students of race and politics often discuss these matters in the abstract, and through examples grounded in a careful study of social and political institutions, as well as Power. The death of Glenda Moore's children, and her treatment that evening by the people in that neighborhood, is an example of racial immorality on the most personal level.

Some other thoughts and questions about racial framing and SuperStorm Sandy:

1. Has racial framing become more or less prominent in the media's coverage of Superstorm Sandy? I have noticed a good number of photos where people of color are shown in line waiting for gasoline and food. I have not seen many similar images of white people. In discussions of looting, the only stories I have seen have featured black men. Have any of you seen stories about social disorder following Superstorm Sandy in white communities?

2. The white victims of SuperStorm Sandy in Staten Island, and the Jersey Shore in particular, have been framed by the media as "hearty" stalwarts and survivors. In comparison to Hurricane Katrina, why is their decision to stay put after an evacuation order, not being interrogated as that of "irresponsible" people?

3. If Glenda Moore were white, and her children were "white" how would the coverage be different? In one of the worst storms in recent memory, why is this not a huge story? Alternatively, what if a white woman was refused help in a black neighborhood and her children then died? What would result?

4. Moreover, white people's demands for assistance are being treated as legitimate and reasonable. Where is the critique of "lazy, not self-reliant, and entitled" people who should have "personal responsibility" for their choices that greeted the survivors of Hurricane Katrina?

5. Will the white folks who are seeking assistance from FEMA, and then voting for Mitt Romney, understand their hypocrisy? Will they be made more or less sympathetic to others, especially people of color, who find themselves in need of government aid and assistance?

6. If you want a reminder of how white privilege and the white racial frame can color a person's understanding of reality, and levels of empathy and sympathy towards the Other, read the comment sections on either Youtube or in the online press regarding the tragic drowning deaths of Glenda Moore's children.

7. Glenda Moore's two children were fathered by a white man. In many ways, the multiracial movement is prefaced on gaining white privilege for those people who are of a "mixed race" background in order to create a buffer race and colored class.

The white parentage through their father of those two beautiful black children did not extend any privilege, or sense of white kinship to them, through their mother. The boundaries of white community were not broad enough to save those two children.

The "one drop" rule is real in American society. For example, while some white folks are confused (and even offended) by Barack Obama's claim to a black identity, this tragic event is more proof that in this society African Americans of a "mixed race" background are still stigmatized by their blackness. In total, White privilege, and their "white" lineage, did not save Glenda Moore's two children. It left them to drown and die.