What it Means to Be An Acceptable "Looter"

Last night, the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Championship for the 16th time, only to have the sweet victory marred by reports of looting and rioting in the city.

Mainstream media would have us believe that LA Lakers fans went wild after their win last night and practically trashed the city. In reality, only a few bad opportunists decided to hold a “victory party” marked by unruly mob behavior. Of course, that didn’t stop some in the world of social media from immediately becoming determined to decide the race of these “looters” and rioters. Many derided the behavior as being stereotypically Mexican and black, while others hearkened back to the 1992 LA race riots.

Apparently, the word “looters” is used to describe unruly behavior by a certain class of racial and ethnic minorities. Comparatively, corporate executives like A&G and Goldman Sachs, who looted Americans out of their homes onto the streets, aren’t generally seen as looters — although the the word would be quite appropriate for them.

Derived from the Sanskrit word “lut,” looting denotes stealing and plundering. The word traditionally conjures up pictures of people (of color) thieving unnecessary items during periods of unrest and insecurity. After all, American states first adopted statutes against looting in response to racially-based riots, making the word “looter” explicitly racial in its connotation. For example, Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee all enacted specific looting laws in the late 1960s in response to “race riots.” (By contrast, California enacted its looting statute in response to the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, making it a second-degree burglary to steal food or water during a “state of emergency.”)

While the situation in LA last night might hardly seem comparable, the incident joins Katrina, Haiti and Chile as the latest example of how the media’s discussion of looting is shaping our perception of people of color. Political riots launched by tea baggers are never blamed on the rioters’ skin color, though similar behavior from minorities gets framed in explicitly racial terms of brown and black. We see this double standard particularly in the aftermath of natural disasters. For example, during the Katrina disaster, there was a marked difference between how the media described scenes of black Americans taking food, as opposed to when lighter-skinned Americans did the same.

There’s no excuse for using the concept of looting to punish petty burglary and people of color — and not the more important kind of theft that occurs daily on Wall Street.

Photo Credit: Daquella manera

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