Tuesday, November 20, 2018

What does the Camp Fire and its aftermath reveal about white privilege?

I can't help wondering, as I read the New York Times latest story on the Camp Fire's total destruction of Paradise, California, what good the "whiteness" of the vast majority of survivors is doing them.  Are we, the voyeurs consuming news about the tragedy such as that proffered up by "In a Walmart Lot, a Rough Refuge for Fire Evacuees," seeing the refugees/evacuees/survivors (what word should I use?) of the fire with more or less compassion because the vast majority of them (indeed, all I have seen visually depicted in the many media sources I have consumed) are apparently (non-Hispanic) white?

These days, we hear a great deal about white privilege, white supremacy (not only as a far-right ideology but as a phenomenon, what some students in our class have suggested is a synonym for white privilege or racism generally), whites, and whiteness in the news media, and amidst the chattering classes generally.  Our heightened preoccupation with race in the Trump era has caused mainstream/left-leaning media to express whiteness and make it an explicit component of analysis.  Just a few examples are David Brooks' "The Rich White Civil War," David Leonhardt's "The Senate:  Affirmative Action for White People," and Thomas Edsall's "Who's Afraid of a White Minority?"  (I am certain I could find better illustrations of my point if I took a lot more time to track them down, but I'll let these suffice for now, given that this is just a blog post, not (yet) a law review article! or book chapter).  My point is this:  Critical race scholars have long complained (appropriately, in my opinion) about whiteness being "transparent," meaning that whiteness is an unspoken racial default.  If no race is specified, white or whiteness is assumed.  This is an aspect of what Peggy McIntosh calls the invisible knapsack of white privilege.

Scholars--including me--have been increasingly resisting and defying this transparency by calling out whiteness, by naming it, making whiteness an explicit axis of analysis, including in the context of intersectionality (i.e., what is at the intersection of white-skin privilege and socioeconomic disadvantage?).  Some of my illustrative work is here, here and here. Another fabulous example, this one by Prof. Camille Gear Rich, is here.  Increasingly, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 election, journalists and pundits--especially in the mainstream media and on/from the left--are centering race in their analysis of many phenomena, including phenomena that would not previously have been seen as "raced."  I think the Brooks and Leonhardt pieces at the links above are pretty good examples of that, though Brooks also focuses on class ("rich") and Leonhardt could well focus on rurality in lieu of whiteness when complaining about the disproportionate power Senators from red states.  So, if we are going center race (as opposed to centering ability, gender, class, sexuality or ...) and not permit whiteness to be transparent, we're going to see the words "white" and "whiteness" in a lot more headlines and news coverage.  That's the trend I've observed.

That brings me back to the Camp Fire and its aftermath:  All of the folks I have seen photographed or featured in media coverage as evacuees/refugees from the Camp Fire area appear to be (non-Hispanic) white.  This is consistent with the demographics of Paradise, California (87.1% white alone; 7% Hispanic or Latino; 1.5% Native American; 1.2% Asian; 0.1% African American), and Butte County more generally (which is a bit more diverse72.1% white alone; 16.4% Hispanic or Latino; 2.5% Native American; African American, 1.8%).  Yet these evacuees don't look privileged, and that appearance is not only because they've just survived a wildfire with little but the clothes on their backs.  In fact, they look largely like the population associated with rural-ish/nonmetro places:  disproportionately elderly, low-income and/or low-education, people with disabilities, veterans.  Interestingly, 14.1% of Paradise residents live below the poverty line, compared to 19.5% of those in Butte County. (A former student who lives in Chico told me this summer that the city has in recent years been a magnet for homeless people because it is known to be a generous, charitable community; I have no idea if this is borne out by hard data, but the higher poverty rate in Butte County than in Paradise seems consistent with that proposition).

Some of the folks featured in Simon Romeo's New York Times report are representative:  They include financially precarious whites, including veterans (more than 10% of Paradise residents) and (from other journalists' reports) the elderly (more than 25% of Paradise residents were over the age of 65) and people with disabilities (18.9%).  (More links to coverage of the fire's aftermath, touching on lack of housing and illness, among other issues, are embedded here). Indeed, many news reports have referred to Paradise as a "retirement community" because it had attracted as residents so many elderly folks on fixed incomes looking for reasonably priced places to live, including in the Pine Springs mobile home park that burned to the ground in record time.  Here's some further economic context from/for Simon Romero's NYTimes depiction of those displaced by the Camp Fire:
California is the richest state in the country, home to technology giants like Google and Facebook and the multimillionaires who lost luxury homes around Malibu to wildfires this month. But the blazes are also laying bare the economic inequality that distinguishes the state, as shallow-pocketed survivors grasp for the kinds of ad hoc strategies commonly seen after disasters in the developing world.  (emphasis added)
Romero provides several profiles of evacuees.  One is of a 39-year-old former Marine, Jarrad Winter, "who recently emerged from a stretch of homelessness, only to lose everything" in the fire.  Winter comments,
I never thought I’d live in a tent city... I mean, this is America; we’re not supposed to live this way. But here we are, man, the new normal.
Another is Anjeanette Ramey, age 30, who had worked in customer service previously but was unemployed at the time of the fire.  Romero quotes Ramey:
We were always a paycheck-to-paycheck kind of town. ... All I made it out with were the clothes on my back ... My house, my car, gone. No money, no job. I have no idea what happens next. 
Her boyfriend’s reaction was more about suspicion and anger. He declined to give his name, saying he didn’t want to be known as a victim, and said the couple was avoiding formal shelters because he thought they were unsafe for people like him and his neighbors, who he thought counted for little with the rich and powerful.
A 65-year-old man, James Reed, is a retired tow-truck driver who points to his 1968 Chevrolet El Camino, commenting,  “This is my home now,"  Reed had bought his house in Magalia, a community near Paradise, just two years ago.  He commented for Romero's story,
[B]eing here, in this parking lot, I’m reminded I’m not the only one.
Another profile of an evacuee of the Camp Fire is from a prior NYT story, an 89-year-old woman named Patty Sanders who "barely escap[ed] the mobile home community where for years she has subsisted on a $900 Social Security check."  (Another story of an elderly mobile home survivor is here).  More affluent (if only slightly)--or perhaps just luckier--are the evacuees depicted in this feature, who seem to have found friends or family with whom they can stay in nearby Chico.

And then there are those previously homeless in Chico who have joined the tent city outside the Chico Walmart.  They were mentioned in a local NPR story a few days ago, and they also get a mention in this recent Sacramento Bee piece:
There have been rumors that some homeless people have moved in and taken over, but those in the camp say while there might be a handful, they are not the majority. 
“There’s a few of them, and they live down there,” said fire survivor Tim Howell, pointing to a row of tents near the freeway. “We call that skid row.” 
“The come up here and go through the stuff,” said his friend, Christian Walters, pointing to a tent filled with donated goods. “We call them ‘day walkers.’”
So I wonder if it would be helpful to mention the whiteness of these vulnerable, down-and-out  refugee/evacuee/survivor/victims rather than let the accompanying photos permit the reader to observe what is apparent.  To mention the whiteness and make a point of analysis would at least implicitly resist the conflation of whiteness with affluence, agency, autonomy (which I contrast with Professor Trina Jones point that blackness gets conflated with dependency).

The only instance I can think of where the whiteness of a "victim class" (for lack of a better term; I'm open to suggestions) has been explicitly named in reporting is on deaths of despair which, at least early on, were disproportionately occurring among middle-aged, low-education whites (Read more here (see embedded links, too) here, here, here, and here).  Should we talk about the disproportionate whiteness of the victims of the Camp Fire? or will that just perpetuate the stereotype that rural folks are disproportionately white?  or might doing so call attention to the fact that many whites are in economically precarious situations, completely ill-equipped to bounce back from a natural disaster like the Camp Fire?

Remember this Forbes Magazine story from a few years ago about the 63% of folks, unmodified/unraced, who don't have the savings/liquidity to cover an unexpected $500 expense?  We could think of them as the precariat--and on some level don't "we" see it as their own damned fault that their situation is so precarious?

Another issue should be noted, another question asked:  When we look at photos of (mostly) white refugee/evacuee/survivor/victims of the Camp Fire, do we see them any differently than we saw the (mostly) black refugee/evacuee/survivor/victims of Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago?  I'd argue that many (or most) of us do not view them differently based on their skin color.  That was part of my core argument in Welfare Queens and White Trashmost Americans have little tolerance for the poor and/or economically precarious.   As long as the victims/survivors/refugees are the type camped out in a Walmart parking lot rather than staying with friends or able to cash their insurance checks and stay in a motel or some other temporary housing, it's their own damned fault.  Aren't the former at some point assessed as "white trash" or hard living, and the latter assessed as settled working class, even upright, striving middle class.  Maybe "we" (the average or typical person) feels some short-term pity, but does that evolve into long-term empathy for the struggle facing these folks in the months ahead?  Whatever the views of observers, I'm not convinced they vary much depending on the race/ethnicity of the refugee/survivor/victim/evacuee.

Let me end by saying that we can never know with certainty the answer to the question I have posed in my "headline." More precisely, we are unlikely to be in agreement about what the Camp Fire, its aftermath, and media coverage of it reveal about whiteness.  Nor are we likely to reach consensus  regarding how the media should cover racial angles/components of the huge story that is the Camp Fire.  Should they, for example, try to find some Latinx or Native American refugees/evacuees/survivors/victims to profile (I saw a profile of a survivor with a Latinx name, Villanueva, for the first time on Nov. 21). so we know that not everyone suffering is white? Should they mention the whiteness of the vast majority of the refugees/evacuees, survivors/victims?  or just let the photos convey that fact?  Would the latter helpful or important because it defies stereotypes of whiteness as affluent and autonomous?  even whiteness as invincible, as reflected in the adage, "you're white, you'll be alright."

I look forward to hearing others' thoughts on the questions I am raising here.


  1. Professor, speaking as a former Butte County resident and someone who visits many times a year, your assessment is correct. There is a disproportionate amount of white victims from the Camp Fire. I also think it is important to note that a majority of these victims are working class and cannot afford to rebuild. There are also a large number of renters in the area who have now been displaced to Chico, where many Paradise residents work. Unfortunately, rents in Chico are disproportionately higher when compared to those in Paradise and Magalia due to the University and willingness of college students to pay higher rents to be near school.

    As to Paradise's poverty rate compared to Butte County as a whole, I think Oroville, Magalia, and Stirling City's inclusion in the county is what increases the overall poverty rate rather than the city of Chico. From my experience, those places attract more homeless populations. And before the Camp Fire, I never saw homeless living in tents around Chico like people are currently (and like I see in Sacramento or San Francisco). I believe most of them to be former Paradise residents.

  2. This was a very interesting article in that it raises the whiteness issue regarding a very troubling and devastating natural disaster. Similar to your admission that this coverage seems to pale in comparison to Hurricane Katrina coverage in New Orleans on a basis of race, the Camp fire coverage and especially President Trump's comments seem to dismiss this as a natural disaster. A wild fire, fueled by years of drought conditions, and horribly strong, hot Santa Ana winds, is just as devastating and uncontrollable as a hurricane hurtling toward New Orleans, Puerto Rico, or Florida, or a tornado ripping through the midwest. Trump fails to blame PG&E who are now credited with starting the fire, but is free to blame Democrats and Californians for a lack of prevention? Interesting coming from someone who is happy to place blame on his opponents at any time via twitter.
    Furthermore, to your point, I do think the media should mention the whiteness of the devastated population. Any opportunity to defy stereotypes and force the population in the U.S. to see people for who they are, we should take it. I would appreciate a media that strives to stop perpetuating and further knock down stereotypes of all kinds, including that solely whiteness makes you affluent, or fine.

  3. I really appreciated this article because it raised my attention to one place where whiteness was rendered invisible. I do wonder what the impact of centering whiteness in disaster relief stories.

    I find the contrast with Katrina and Black folks to be an interesting one because it raises the question of why similar narratives have not been raised in the media. The lede in that story was really that Black folks living in poor areas had been left behind by FEMA, which was very true to a large extent. In the eternal words of Kanye West in 2004, "George Bush doesn't care about Black people."

    I think it would be unhelpful to use this frame for whites and the Camp fire, even though they are predominantly the victims. For one, "Donald Trump doesn't care about white people" is plainly false because he has often openly pushed white supremacy in his time in the oval office. Additionally, the frame that centered Black victims of Katrina was because of differential treatment based on race. While there is a strong argument that Trump treated the victims of hurricanes in Florida much better than those in California, this differential treatment seems more tied to the political inclinations of the respective states than race. Ultimately, the predominance of white victims should take a backseat to the fact that this community was predominantly working class, which I believe may be the source of differential treatment.

    P.S. Thanks for linking to my article about white supremacy.