Racial Emergency: 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.

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