Worthy and Unworthy Victims: The Psychology of ‘Western’ Disaster Response

The cyclone that hit Burma and now the earthquake that hit China both remind me of another one of those weird global rules. If you pay attention to all disasters, you’ll notice that there are grades of victims. Without a doubt, one can perceive the difference in coverage and therefore treatment of white Floridians whenever a hurricane hits the coast. That’s easy to see. And, considering the history and contemporary manifestation of white supremacy in the United States one would expect there to be significant differences in how white victims and black victims inside the US are covered by US corporate media. More interesting to me is how non-US victims of a disaster are covered and subsequently treated as opposed to black US victims of disasters. And before I go any further, I should make it clear that I understand that the US gov’t doesn’t really significantly contribute to any disaster fund. It’s mostly rhetorical blather. I know. But rhetoric repeated on 24 ‘news’ services has psychological and therefore eventual material effects that can and often do determine life and death for vulnerable economically and socially vulnerable people. But about the non-US vs US black victim coverage. I don’t believe the US gov’t cares at all about the Burmese people. But this tragedy provides an opportunity for them to get in psychological propaganda shots at a gov’t, the Burmese gov’t, that isn’t being as obedient to the US gov’t as they’d like for it to be. Therefore, the people of Burma are presented as in the most dire straits and in need of vital aid, which the Burma gov’t is denying them by keeping out US planes full of food (and let’s face it, who knows what else is on the planes) and supplies. By contrast, because the US gov’t has the US Black population in such a subjugated position and has so little to gain by exposing the plight of threatened US Black populations, they get no press. And none of this even begins to address what is and what is not a disaster. 50%+ unemployment and ridiculously high murder rates are the norm in many Black communities. While these circumstances would merit all order of emergency intervention, aid and supplies if the communities were white this status of a Black community is, by white supremacist definition, not an emergency at all.

What does this mean on the ground for regular folks who ‘want to help’ people? The racial situation inside the US is dire. It is understood to always be the elephant in the room. Even by whites, although white folks, with historic consistency, underestimate the size of the elephant and overestimate the volume of the room. Guilt with white liberals and angst ridden backlash with white conservatives and many liberals are just a small part of the white psychological cost of multigenerational denial and ignoring of the US’ problems. Here Burma and, to a lesser extent, China serve a function very valuable to the American empire. Whites, on several psychological levels, understanding that they unjustly enjoy the good life, savor these opportunities to reach out and help melanin endowed people in a tight spot. This is where white volunteerism and charity best fulfill their 21st century imperial role. They provide a psychological salve to whites in the US and Europe that understand that they are the beneficiaries of global rule by force by allowing them to ‘do good works’ in a situation that they can almost justifiably feel they had nothing to do with. I emphasize almost because of most black, brown, yellow and red people around the world weren’t still resisting or trying to recover from the economic and cultural dislocation of hundreds of years of white colonial rule they would be better able to fend for themselves in the face of natural disasters. Another post, though.

The most intense media focus on ‘international’ disasters work to raise the profile of these tragedies to a point where they are immediately identifiable by anyone not residing under a rock. Then the charity framework is deployed as a psychological weapon against whites, allowing them to discharge their guilt and angst into international assistance endeavors that contribute significantly to them not dealing with the man-made domestic catastrophes in US urban centers. Catastrophes that these same whites played a good part in creating. If not for the psychological displacement effect of these international efforts, whites might be more prepared to understand and admit to the destruction they continue to be a part of not thousands of miles but merely thousands of feet from their very homes. It is understood that the framework of international aid and charity serve a vital material as well as psychological function in hamstringing domestic resistance and thus maintaining the US’ imperial stranglehold on so much of the world.

The suffering of Burmese and Chinese people is, of course, horribly real. If only they could see a true international community response as opposed to the political dog and pony show the US and Europe engage in whenever misfortune strikes a vulnerable population of a developing nation. And if only US whites could break out of the mental gridlock of guilt and angsty backlash and both embrace whate remains of as well as rebuild their humanity, we might all be able to look forward to brighter days.

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