Earthquake hits Haiti, causing destruction to an impoverished nation

As you no doubt heard by now, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude on the Richter scale has hit Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its epicenter was just a few miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Large buildings in Port-au-Prince, including the National Palace, built by the US Marines in 1915, and the United Nations headquarters, have been destroyed.   Many large cement structures are now piles of rubble.   The extent of the damage remains unknown, as communication between Haiti and the rest of the world has been difficult since the earthquake hit.

Haiti is a country of ten million people, and some reports estimate that at least 100,000 have died and three million people have been affected directly by the earthquake. The capital, Port-au-Prince, is home to nearly three million people, many of whom are recent migrants to the capital and who live in substandard housing.

Thirty years ago, Haiti was self-sufficient in terms of food production, particularly rice, one of the staples of Haitians. Unfortunately, over the past three decades, trade and aid agreements between the US and Haiti have created a situation where rice farmers can no longer make a living in Haiti.  A prime example of this is when rice, grown by subsidized farmers in the US, is dumped on the Haitian market, pushing Haitian farmers out of production. Because of these and other US and IMF economic policies over the past three decades in Haiti, people from the countryside have been unable to make a living in rural areas, and have migrated to the capital.

Many of these urban migrants live in houses made of cinderblock or other substandard materials that are very susceptible to earthquake damage. The fact that so many people live in inadequate housing structures adds significantly to the destruction caused by the earthquake.

Haiti was founded in 1804, and is the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere.   Haiti also boasts a proud history of a successful slave revolt.    Despite its noble beginnings, Haiti’s history has been fraught with violence and poverty, and the United States has played a significant, contributing role in the lack of political and economic stability in the tiny island nation.

Haiti was occupied by the United States from 1915 to 1934. In 1994, Aristide Bertrand was democratically elected by the Haitian people – the first democratically elected president of Haiti. Eight months later, he was ousted by US-backed forces.   Following this, the US occupied Haiti.   Haiti was occupied again by US and UN forces in 2004.

Hurricanes have hit the island regularly over the past decade, adding to the troubles faced by the people of Haiti. The recent earthquake is the worst to hit Haiti in 200 years. The earthquake, with its fires and the massive destruction of buildings, “seems like the abyss of a very long history of natural and political disasters” (Edwidge Danticat, January 13, 2010 on Democracy Now).

When Haitian citizens have left their own country to come to the US (a form of forced migration), the US government has systematically discriminated against them.   Currently, there are currently 30,000 Haitians being held in immigration detention centers in the United States.  Subsequent to the most recent hurricane in Gonaïves, Haiti, immigrant rights activists mobilized to request that Haitians not be deported to Haiti, because of the destruction wreaked by the hurricane. These demands for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) were denied. In the aftermath of the present disaster, it would be inhumane to send deportees from the United States to Haiti.

President Obama has promised to help the Haitian people get through the present disaster. Given the troubled history between the two nations, and the extensive corruption involved in foreign aid in Haiti, Obama will face many challenges in delivering this much-needed assistance. Granting Haitian immigrants presently in the United States Temporary Protected Status would be a crucial first step in the effort to help Haiti get back on her feet.

If you’re interested in helping the people of Haiti, Dumi Lewis has a good list of organizations over at Uptown Notes.

Update from admin 1/15/10: U.S. Suspends Deportations to Haiti.

~ Tanya Maria Golash-Boza teaches at the University of Kansas and blogs about her research on the consequences of mass deportation at

The Common Ground of Reid and Steele: From White Racial Framing to Hegemonic Whiteness

There’s been a lot said about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nevada) comments in Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s new book Game Change, which hit bookstores yesterday.

The authors quote Reid as saying Obama, as a black candidate, is successful because of his “light-skinned” appearance alongside his speaking patterns “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Along these lines, I refer readers to Joe’s post from yesterday, which deals with the “white racial framing” of Reid’s remarks.

Yet, one of the most vociferous challenges to Reid’s comments comes from GOP chairman Michael Steele. On Sunday, Steele called for Reid to step down. The remarks, Steele stressed, were just as contemptuous as those made by former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who once praised Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential candidacy.

As a former student of mine, Taylor Harris, wrote:

Forget Michael Steele’s inane comparison of Reid’s comments to Trent Lott’s in 2002. Lott endorsed a segregationist, Reid endorsed a fair-skinned Ivy-Leaguer. As national anti-racist educator and author Tim Wise posted on his Facebook page, “That’s like the difference between saying, on the one hand, ‘gee Tim, you don’t look Jewish,’ and ‘Wow, those Nazis were really on to something.’ One is insensitive and stupid, while the other is monstrous.

Whether Steele is right or wrong in demanding an apology and a resignation is moot. This is the same Michael Steele who recently remarked that African Americans should join the Republican Party because he was going to offer “fried chicken and potato salad,” or his very recent remarks in which he matter-of-factly dropped the phrase “Honest injun.” Here, both Reid and Steele are employing the same historically-embedded worldview—one of white racial framing.

Rather than examine how white supremacist invective invades the wordplay of both the left and the right, the debate remains hijacked by the familiar “culture war” saga of red v. blue and right v. left. Most discourse centers on whether the left only criticizes the right for racism and excuses it amidst its own ranks, or whether or not Steele (and the right) is engaging in hypocritical political opportunism as a way of jump-starting predicted Republican gains in the House and Senate come the next election cycle.

In either case Reid implicitly reproduces the notion that being “too black” is a political liability in our supposedly “post-racial” age, while Steele explicitly reproduces a virulent stereotype ripe from the text of Amos ‘n Andy, the bulk of the discourse misses that white supremacist discourse has been so normalized that is has become common-sensed or “hegemonic.” Such white supremacist logic knows no political boundaries and cannot be reduced to such.

My own sociological research bears this out. In a forthcoming article in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies (advance copy here), I present data from two politically-opposed racial organizations: a white nationalist group and a white antiracist group. I found that both often relied on similar “scripts,” if you will, to construct a robust understanding of white and non-white identity on a personal, interactive, micro-level.

In particular, both groups engaged in what I call an “Identity Politics of Hegemonic Whiteness”—they both possess analogous common-sensed “ideals” of white identity that function to guide their interactions in everyday life. These “scripts” serve as seemingly neutral yardsticks against which cultural behavior, norms, values, and expectations are measured. Hence, white identity is revealed as an ongoing process of formation in which (1) racist and reactionary scripts are used to demarcate white/non-white boundaries, and (2) performances of white racial identity that fail to adhere to those scripts are often marginalized and stigmatized, thereby creating intra-racial distinctions among whites. As just one example, and akin to Leslie and Joe’s book, I found that both groups reproduce overt and hostile racism in private settings whereby they feel more free to engage in language and actions deemed politically incorrect. For those whites that didn’t “go along with the crowd,” they often found themselves the brunt of jokes, marginalized within their respective organizations, and framed by others as somehow lacking in mental, physical, and/or cultural acuity.

Unless we can have a more robust public discussion of how white supremacist logic has invaded the dominant discourse of both the left and right, and intimately influences how many whites are encouraged to create a sense of their own racial selves, I’m afraid we may be missing the larger point.

Matthew W. Hughey, PhD is Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate faculty member of African American Studies and Gender Studies at Mississippi State University. His research centers on racial identity formation, racialized organizations, and mass media representations of race. He can be reached at His website is