Last week, a school collapsed in Haiti killing 90 students and injuring 150 more. I was shocked and saddened when I heard the story. Haiti is an impoverished country that has faced extreme challenges with its government. In spite of its rich culture, history and indomitable spirit of its people, Haiti continues to face many crises. Some are natural disasters (most recently Hurricanes Gustav and Dean), but most are political disasters (Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier).
What is interesting to me is the reaction to this tragedy. At first, I was excited because I thought that finally America was taking interest in a country that has been in dire need of assistance. The story was all over the news, people were talking about it all over the Web. In a country where 80 percent of residents live in abject poverty and accidents like this one happen with some regularity, I wondered why this particular story was being reported so fervently.
As I learned more about the story, I realized the reason why this story had registered on the world's radar was not so much about the tragedy of it all, but about who was involved.
The school that collapsed was in Petionville. Petionville is where the country's wealthiest residents reside, primarily in the mountainside. The school fell onto some of the homes of the wealthy. The folks that were hurt were not your "normal" Haitians. What do I mean by that? Unemployment in Haiti is rampant at 66 percent, the average Haitian worker makes less than two U.S. dollars a day and 50 percent are illiterate. Average Haitians live a below-average existence.
The people that were hurt in the school collapse in Petionville were attending a private party for some of the wealthier students. Wealth is relative in Haiti, but there was a cost to attend the party, which is why only half of the school's 500 students were there. While the children who were in attendance would be considered poor by our standards, their ability to pay to attend a party on a weekend means that they were a lot better off than the average Haitian. Ironically, poverty actually helped save the lives of some since the price of 60 gourdes per person was too steep for many of the students.
It occurred to me that people cared because those with money and power are the people about whom we tend to care. They get media coverage and sympathy, as opposed to others, who are demonized and marginalized. For those of you who think I am making a mountain out of a molehill, there was another school collapse in Haiti three days later that received scant coverage. A two-story school collapsed in Port-au-Prince, injuring nine people, two critically. It was picked up by news agencies Reuters and United Press International, but only garnered a blurb in The New York Times. Why? I would venture to say it is because this school was located in the slums of one of Haiti's poorest cities. By the way, Port-au-Prince is the capital of Haiti.
What is interesting to me is the outpouring of concern for this first incident and the lack of concern about the second. If a school collapsed in Washington, D.C., it would be talked about around the world. Many people live in abject poverty according to U.S. standards in D.C. every day, but it would at least get some traction in the news, particularly following such a major collapse in another city.
I think to myself about all of the people that were up-in-arms upon hearing about the school in Petionville but said nothing about this incident. If we are truly interested in improving the lives of children and providing sound spaces for them to learn, why did this last story go untouched? Because these are the same folks that we have been ignoring and mistreating for the last 100 years -- at least.
While I am horrified at the loss and suffering of anyone, particularly as it relates to school safety, I am disgusted by the false sense of alarm for Haitians. The preoccupation with wealthy populations in impoverished lands is highlighted by the invisibility of this latest incident. It is about class and how those in power -- including me -- get to choose whose story is valid. This in my mind is a moral collapse on the part of media and society.
As we move toward a more mediated society, it is important that those of us who can bring voices and stories from the margins to the center.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for RushmoreDrive.com.