The Making of a Model Community in the Midst of a Racial Emergency

I'm pasting below the statement of my department on the media coverage and government response to the fires that have been going on down here in San Diego for the past few weeks.

Although there were definitely many successes in dealing with the fires to San Diego, in terms of saving lives and preventing property loss, and personally I am grateful that I wasn't evacuated or seriously threatened, there are a number of issues that emerged which we cannot be silent on and cannot dismiss as incidental towards an overall great efforts on behalf of San Diego to protect and save itself. First of all, the the constant comparisions of both media and regular people to this "not being another Katrina" was just far to revealing and defensive to miss. When Governor Arnold went around to evacuation centers speaking to displaced peoples who had lost or might lose homes, he constantly said, "no bad news, just good news."

Although one could say that the joy at which media people and politicians in California were proclaiming that this was not another Katrina and that our here we know how to take care of people and take care of ourselves, was very innocent and deserved, one could only see the truth of this by taking a look at the difference between what was being blazoned across screens and promoted as the heroism and survival of California, and what was not being covered at all, or completely left out of the story of California's preparedness and greatness. Of the news coverage that I saw, it was all very self-congratulatory, with the ghost of Katrina being exorcised left and right, but the story of who was surviving, persisting and suffering was always a suburban white family. Given the life and death struggles of these people, it was interesting how many stories which were supposed to promote the powerful and strong spirit of these people, focused on such minute and often ridiculous things. There were several reports of vintage cars and artifacts being saved, stories of people frantically trying to find ways to save, their pets, and the incredibly uplifting and sickening stories of how community generosity was so overwhelming that there were actually too many donations at Qualcomm Stadium and much of it was going to waste!

I say that this is sickening because of what was constantly left out of this narrative, or cast aside to make this belabored but cheery image of community possible. Just as the work and suffering of poor people, people of color and immigrant labor gets constantly left out or cast aside as the faces which may make the greatness of a nation possible, but ultimately cannot be its best or most human face, this was the case as well in the fires. Stories which showed a community bravely dealing with this natural disaster and having their lives just a little bit torn apart, were promoted at the expense of those who were literally losing everything, or were not receiving anything in this emergency. Or finally, at a time when people were saying everyone needed to come together for the sake of community and the sake of all, some while being threatened by the fires were also being threatened with deportation and arrest.
As businesses and schools around the county were closed down, those who make up the lowest pay levels, which are primarily minority, illegal or legal immigrant labor were often still forced to show up for work, regardless of the situation with their families or homes. Latino and Latino looking people were harassed, arrested and in one case deported from Qualcomm Stadium. In one instance a Filipino volunteer at the Stadium was loaded water into people's cars. He was stopped by police who accused him of looting and threatened to taser him. When other volunteers intervened to stop police they were threatened as well. As people were fleeing neighborhoods Border Patrol were literally patrolling them, harassing people who were fleeing for their lives!
As interviews in Qualcomm lauded the efforts of the government in warning, evacuating and providing for them, farming, migrant worker communities and working class areas in Southern and Eastern San Diego were not sufficiently warned about the fire dangers to their communities, and after being evacuated received little assistance from the state. Many Latinos who tried to get supplies from sites such as Qualcomm were scared away by volunteers, police and the border patrol, and were treated as suspicious looters. Furthermore, despite the fact that San Diego county has most Native American reservations of any county in the United States, and nearly all had been hit by the fires, the media had little to no coverage on the Native American reservations which were being destroyed by the fires.
Instead we received the news stories that make San Diego a "model community." How does a model community deal with tragedy and natural diasters like this? By behaving heroically, protecting those that represent the "best face" for a model community, and most of all, clinging to the assumption that this sort of violence, this sort of absence of control and order is "unnatural" and temporary. A model community after all is created through three illusionary stages, control, order and innocence. (1) First, the illusion of control based on discursive formations and perceived rationality, which give the community in question the aura of mastery over things such as the environment and weather, but even things such as greed or hatred. (2) Second, the illusion of order against places of perpetual disorder. Usually this is created against the spectre of the valiant and never prepared Third World, which is always on the verge of collapse, suffering helplessly between relentless barages from its own "natural" elements, namely environmental diasters and ethnic violence or conflict. (3) And lastly, the illusion of innocence, which as I've already mentioned can be accomplished through the silencing of those whose labor, whose oppression, whose injustices are necessary for the existence of said community, but far too messy and self-implicating to be spoken of.

Let me make this point a little further in terms of control and the ideal community. There is a need however in the modern world today, to have mastery over nature. The weather channel and the pervelance of weather related media and discourse all feed into this point, that the ultimate proof of man's elevation and evolution is its control over Mother Nature. The problem of course is that all the weather people and technology in the world doesn't give us any actual direct control over the weather, but rather a very delicate but nonetheless dense regime of knowledge which makes us feel that we are in control over the weather. I too felt this during the most heated periods of the San Diego fires. When a weatherwoman would emerge on the screen and say something about winds and barometers, I would feel safer knowing that there was this huge regime of knowledge which was protecting me, and by simply knowing a few things about that, the supremacy of man over nature was assured.

But in order for this to work, the "natural" assumption of man's superiority to be consistent and to work, there must be little evidence to the contrary. News reports can be tragic, but not messy. People need to know the horrible news thats going on out there, but also need to know that the system in place is looking out for them and taking care of them. In order for the model community of San Diego to be assured of its evolved and modern status, this sort of tragedy and diaster had to be reinforced as a temporary passing thing, that the sudden lack of order would be fixed.
The evacuation centers and the abundance of "good news" there served as an important ideological bridges to normalcy and the reaffirming of this disaster as well as the lack of control as being unnatural or something which isn't usually the way things are. This image of course only worked when the situations of those whose "natural state" is to have little control over their lives, and exist in a predatory relationship with the state and its emissaries is hidden from view. To bring that into view, to make that the "best face" or the story of the struggle of San Diego would reveal that control, order and innocence all come at the cost of keeping a large percentage of the population in subordination, pushed into the position of victims, and those who suffer naturally, as objects of nature's violence or the states. But as we all know, the "model community," or the "ideal community" is not supposed to have any victims, all are meant to be equal, rational and self-determined. But therein lies the exception that makes one a ruler. The ability to transform a subject into an object, or have the subordination of another result in the elevation of oneself. The stating of first that "we are all in this together" and yet second, there are those who don't deserve food and water, or must prove that they are not looting in order to have it. It is through the collective dismissing of these subaltern groups, the relegating them to the margins of society or of popular discussion, that a model community is born, shining brightly surrounded by the aura of control, innocence, reason, goodness and brimming with sovereign authority.

For those interested in more discussion on this topic, my department is hosting a panel discussion on it next week, November 7th at 3 pm in Social Science Building Room 108. Click here to read the flyer for more info.
Also, for alot more info, click on my friend Jose Fuste's blog Maroon Thinking. Jose has been doing a fantastic job over the past few weeks in disseminating information to the national progressive media as well as within the department and locally.
(I litratu siha gi este na post, manmachule' gi un dinana' giya Downtown San Diego, October 28th. Mandana' ham guihi para u sapotte i mareseptun i direchon taotao para siha ni' taidirecho gi este na dinimalas.)

Racial Emergency:
The Statement of the UCSD Department of Ethnic Studies on the 2007 San Diego fires:

The Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California-San Diego acknowledges the losses suffered by all of those directly affected by the 2007 fires. As Critical Racial/Ethnic Studies scholars, however, we see as our duty to read beyond headlines, sound bites, and quick camera shots. While dealing with the fear of having our homes burnt to the ground; wondering about relatives, friends, and neighbors – even if safe with friends that offered us refuge – we could not miss how the local, national, and international media have chosen to highlight how middle and upper-middle class white San Diegans have been dealing with the havoc these fires brought to their lives: the shot of a yellow Porsche rescued by overworked firefighters; descriptions of the congenial atmosphere at the Qualcomm Stadium; the heroic male rule-breakers that stayed to save houses or returned to rescue vintage automobiles the never-ending reports on the predicament of those who did not know how to find shelters for their cats, dogs, and horses.

After watching the effects of Hurricane Katrina, however, most of us know that this is not the whole story. Certain neighborhoods, districts, suffer more losses due to their location, the materials from which they are built, a smaller tax base, and a general reluctance to tax for common protection coupled with decisions to commit resources to projects more likely to be enjoyed by the privileged few. In the aftermath of these disasters, some will have deal with insurance companies that set up all kinds of impediments to meet their claims; on the other hand, others will not have any insurance and will have to deal with government agencies that, for the most part, fail to ensure access to needed resources in a timely fashion. We can very quickly guess the racial and socioeconomic make up of the communities who will deal with insurance companies and the ones who will have to face FEMA’s redtape.

Fire and water have no political or ideological allegiances; they do not distinguish between the rich and the poor. They hit black, brown and white people on their path: Embers fly. Levies break. We are all in it together, so it seems. But why? Natural disasters do not happen in an empty space. They abruptly disclose economic and symbolic materializations of centuries of institutional (legal and corporate) decisions that position people of color in a subaltern condition. When looking at actual and symbolic effects of the 2007 San Diego fires, we cannot but notice the racial text – in its socioeconomic and symbolic dimensions – that underlies the un-mediated commentaries, especially in the media, that explicitly and implicitly compare to San Diegans to the reactions of New Orleans residents to the devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought to their lives. The racial text functions to explain the process of unmarking those whose bear an unequal burden during disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, and wildfires, in a manner that makes them invisible.

Yet it seems that this ‘lesson’ from Katrina has been missed. For the past week, we have been exposed to a parade of privilege all the while pinpointed by comments about how much this situation differs from the aftermath of Katrina. We hear the staff of donation centers asking people not to give any more, telling them that Qualcomm Stadium is overwhelmed by their demonstrations of concern. What we don’t hear, however, are references to how the fires have affected working San Diegans of color, about whether and where they found refuge, speculations about how many might have lost their homes and other mementos of a lifetime. Why don’t we? That they live in the area is certain because they work in the County as janitors, nannies, cooks, gardeners and farm-workers; much of the wealth we saw parading on TV also embodies their labor power. Why don’t we hear more from and about them? We know there is a donation center operating in Chicano Park that, unlike Qualcomm Stadium, needs more donations. We know that the fires hit at least eleven of the county’s eighteen Indian reservations. We know that the border patrol has been very active, despite public denials, looking out for undocumented workers, even removing them from among evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium. We know that many of them will not seek relief because they fear ‘la migra’ and the Minute Men. We know that migrants perished in the fires without access to reverse 911 calls, official evacuations, or welcome at shelters, although we may never know how many.

We know so much while the media tell us so little about working-class San Diegans of color precisely because the prevailing representation of how San Diegans deal with natural disasters is framed by a racial text, an interpretive framework of the US social space that provides the meanings we capture when seeing or watching wealthy whites and economically dispossessed black, and brown folks in any situation. Because this racial text provides all necessary meanings, a ready-made symbolic apparatus, there is no need for explicit racial comparisons. The mere mention of Katrina by a newscaster, after a report on how much the wildfire refugees at the Qualcomm Stadium are enjoying the break from their daily routines, is enough to produce the image of San Diego as, in the words of one of our graduate students notes, a ‘model community.’

As mentioned earlier, our objective is not to minimize the impact of this disaster upon all San Diegans, including those of us who were not directly affected by the fires but had our daily lives disrupted by closed highways, bad air quality, etc. Our goal here is to unsettle the racial text by identifying its operation and commenting on that which it silences. The links below will take you to some of the analysis a number of us have produced and gathered while, like many San Diegans, we watched on TV or heard on the radio descriptions and interpretations of how San Diego County deals with the fire this time.


Popular posts from this blog

SK Solidarity Trip Day 5: Worst History Lesson...Ever

Chamorro Public Service Post #13: Baby Vocabulary

Chamorro Public Service Post #11: An Gumupu Si Paluma