It can be argued that George W. Bush’s fall really began with Hurricane Katrina. This was the moment that Kanye West—then in other kind of mind than he is in today—declared on national TV, with real pain in his voice, that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The mainstream media was not silent about this disaster. It exposed incompetency at the highest levels of FEMA, which was run not by an emergency professional but a horse judge. Bush never really recovered from that failure, which made the lives of thousands of poor black Americans visibly harder. That said, the wide-spread sympathy for these black Americans, the victims not only of a natural disaster but human corruption, has not been extended to the thousands of Puerto Ricans killed directly and indirectly (mostly the latter) by Hurricane Maria. Indeed, it took an academic study by Harvard University to inform the public of the scale of the devastation. The death toll is 70 times the official death toll, which is 64.
At the heart of both disasters, Katrina and Maria, is the same incompetency and racism; but the American media has little to no interest in Maria. Is this because we have become inured under Trump? We are no longer surprised by incompetence and racism? Possible. But I also locate this lack of sympathy in the conventional American feeling that Latinos (a multi-racial group) do not have a legitimate grievance in English-speaking US.
“Cable news networks covered Roseanne Barr’s tweet and her show’s cancellation 16 times as much as the deaths of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.” https://t.co/4p4zLaLCIH
— Vera Bergengruen (@VeraMBergen) May 31, 2018
The current main weapon of the critics of this silence or disinterest in the Puerto Rico catastrophe is to point out how the media has over-covered the Roseanne Barr story. But that story is also about racism, this time directed at black America—Roseanne called a black American woman, the former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, an ape. So, it’s not a nothing story. But what we are more and more seeing in the age of Trump is that racism toward Latinos does not generate the same level of outrage as that against black Americans. There are probably historical reasons for this asymmetry in mainstream feeling. Though black Americans still daily face the slings and arrows of white supremacy, it is hard for many white Americans not to recognize their situation as illegitimate. The same may not be the case for Latinos. Many whites might perceive them (and this perception is incorrect, and seems to have a linguistic premise) as not victims but as a group that chose to enter the US. They have no legitimacy at all.
What I’m trying to describe is the source of a structure of feeling that explains these attitudes and social phenomena. For example, Trump recently called Latinos animals, and though he claims he was referring only to gang members, it’s hard to believe he could have said the same of black American gang members and gotten away with it so easily, so unscathed. Indeed, if Latinos are not loudly portrayed as rapists, or criminals hiding in sanctuary cities, or animals protected by Democrats, they are quietly reported as missing, being separated from parents, arrested by ICE, facing deportation, or corpses on an island. And yet all of these obviously racist statements, official policies, and deaths from neglect stubbornly remain politically inert in the white American mind.
And it is this vulnerability that Trump is actively exploiting. He’s viciously attacking this group of Americans because he knows it’s safe to. He knows no one will do anything about Puerto Rico, which is far from recovering from Hurricane Maria as it enters another hurricane season.