Thursday, October 20, 2005

52. Looting, racism both wrong

By definition, the term ‘looting' differs from ‘stealing' only in the undertone that looting is done by force. For example, raiding a village and robbing it of its valuables would be considered looting. Christopher Columbus was especially adept in the looting of the Arawak Indians in his "discovery" of America. Conversely, I would argue, taking things from an abandoned retail store would be considered stealing. There are two differences. While both acts are deplorable, obviously harming someone and stealing from someone is more criminal than just stealing from them. Secondly, the term ‘looting' has been adopted as a discriminatory reference specific to African-American stealing. Apart from the violent undertone, looting is also synonymous with uncivilized and barbaric, and usually attributed to angry or poor African-Americans.

The circumstances in New Orleans for most of us were unimaginable. Also unimaginable were the conditions that many of these people lived in prior to Hurricane Katrina. According to The Progress Report, the area that suffered the worst flooding was 98 percent African-American and one quarter of them earned less than $10,000 per year. Not only did many of the families have nowhere to go, they had no way to get there. They lived in such poverty that Barbara Bush, after touring the people living in the Houston Astrodome arrogantly commented, "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Any community that would undergo a period of lawlessness would experience criminal activity as a natural extension of a small percentage of its population. It is not unreasonable to expect this number to increase under the conditions experienced both prior to and following the hurricane. That is not to say that criminal activity is acceptable, or that it should not be held accountable, but there is something to be said for desperation. Everyone has probably considered one time or another at what point his or her ethical standards would break down in the face of extreme adversity.

Unethical behavior and stealing is a problem across a spectrum of demographics. Surprising to some, the leading demographic class for theft, in terms of the amount stolen, is white, educated, males. Moreover, in a recent survey, only 13 percent of top executives at big companies identified ethical values as the most important leadership trait for CEOs. Ethical values seem to be up to debate, often chosen as a measure of convenience or to justify a certain action. For example, filing anything but a truthful tax return is stealing, regardless of how many other people one might believe are doing it.

Wavering ethical behavior can have exponential consequences in the face of lawlessness. If the IRS no longer audited income taxes, and there was a sense of lawlessness among tax returns, how many would receive returns in excess of what they are owed by filing dishonest tax returns? And what would it be called? Would it be ‘looting' or ‘stealing' from the Federal Government? An even simpler example is our roadways. Most people already break the law daily by exceeding posted speed limits. Imagine again if our roadways were no longer monitored by law enforcement. How uncivilized might our roadways become? Would not a certain percentage of our population engage excessively in criminal behavior by driving dangerously or driving while intoxicated?

My arguments should not, in any way, be misconstrued as support for the criminal activity that has occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Rather my point is to note the portrayal and opinion of such acts compared to other acts that are carried out, or would be carried out, by other demographic classes. There is a measure of both hypocrisy and racism in the attitude of those that form an opinion without considering their own fallibility as well as the situation itself.

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