Since the earthquake, i have avoided a subject that makes me (and really most people) terribly uncomfortable: racism. I thought i might write about it in my generals, but got cold feet as it seemed that i could read about race, racism, critical race theory till my dying days and never have gotten through half what i needed to to be able to speak with any kind of clarity of possible expertise. But today i opened my inbox and found the email from Lawrence Berg, founding editor of ACME: An international E-Journal for Critical Geographers, with the contents for the latest issue. The very first article was Fear and Loathing in Haiti: Race and Politics of Humanitarian Dispossession in Haiti, by Beverly Mullings, Marion Werner, and Linda Peake. Attached to that email was a very nice email from my chair pointing me to read it.
I’ve started it. It’s incredibly well-written (as one might expect) and has, in the first few pages, managed to neatly unravel my fears of writing about race and securitization. It has also already had me in tears. I’ve (very rudely, and without permission) inserted the abstract:
The response by Western governments to the earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010 throws into sharp relief the connections between racism and dispossession in times of humanitarian crisis. In this article, we take the 2010 earthquake as a point of departure in order to examine the purpose that circulating discourses of black criminality serve in narratives of humanitarianism and development in Haiti. Through an examination of debt, financial colonialism and neoliberal adjustment we explore the deep associations between racism,
humanitarianism and ongoing capitalist processes. We conclude by outlining what it would take to dismantle the dispossessions that racialized discourses of blackness, criminality and failed development facilitate in Haiti.
When the earthquake happened, i, like so many others, was appalled and dismayed by the rush to re- and further-militarize Haiti before allowing humanitarian aid to get through. In the first few days, there were reports of Médecins Sans Frontières planes being turned away from the airport that had been taken over by military troops – not Haitian military – there is no Haitian military. Sean Penn, however, was able to get his planes in – but this isn’t about Sean Penn – i’ll save that discussion for later. What i did not realize, and what is mentioned in the article, is that it is estimated that 20,000 more people were dying each day, waiting for the “securitization” program to be in place to allow humanitarian aid in. Eighteen days in, as many as 600,000 people still had not received food assistance.
I remember the day the assistance arrived all that time after the earthquake. There were reports of rioting and violence. That was the headline – not that people were starving to death waiting for help. So why the long wait? Mullings et. al point to the climate of fear promulgated by the US military (construction of high security red zones) and internalized by aid agencies.
In the days after the earthquake, i antagonized myself by reading reader comments to articles about the earthquake and the subsequent horror. What struck me was the vitriolic hatred that was spewed from anonymous internet fingers about the backwardness, the blackness, the inhumanness of the Haitian people – as understood by the American public. I recognize that “the American public” is a bit harsh and broad reaching. Those people with so little to do that they can roam freely in the internets to spread their hatred could and should hardly be considered The Public – they are a special breed, i suppose. But where did their perceptions come from?
Historically, the fear stemmed from two places. I’ve been reading a collected edition of essays, The Impact of the Haitian Revolution on the Atlantic World, (ed) by David P. Geggus. In it Robin Blackburn (in his chapter, The Force of Example) states:
It is worth stressing, however, that it was the new-post slavery order, born out of revolution, not the bloodshed of revolt as such, which eventually won over significant sectors of metropolitan opionion in the antislavery cause. The figure of Toussaint Louverture served as a hugely influential symbol of responsible black power throughout the nineteenth century and beyond…Haiti was a symbol of black power and authority, not of desperate rebellion, that that is why it could inspire or terrify (17).
It was the image of ordered black bodies that inspired or terrified people. Because ordered black bodies can attain power – the kind of power that had been reserved for white men for all of the hegemon of Europe. At the same time, as Mullings (Et al) point out:
Popular discourses of black violence should be understood as historically rooted in expressions of fear, racialized fear of the threat that autonomous communities of poor black people potentially pose to contemporary notions of progress, civilization and the economic and social institutions at the heart of capitalist liberal democracy.
The U.S. and other economic powers of the 19th century crushed the tiny Haitian nation, placing embargoes, imposing restrictive taxes and occasionally invading the island. To what end, exactly?
There is a prevailing discourse that the black nation, so close to the U.S. and so unwilling to bow to the pressure of the neoliberal world order (though, as Peter Hallward points out, Haiti’s economy was 4 times as open as the US’s in 2008), is a threat to world order. Job #1: keep the Haitian people on the island. #2: order and control Haitian people according to “acceptable” economic and social orders that benefit the elite and non-Haitians, only.
Underpinning all of this, Mullings (et al) point out, is the racialized discourse of disorder that incites fear. Fear. But more on that in a day or two.