The number of Gulf Coast residents displaced by hurricane Katrina is being estimated at around a million. Their claim on our hearts is immense. As we follow their progress from emergency shelters to temporary quarters to longer-term new housing, we are reminded just how fraught the terminology for describing people in motion can be.
Are they "refugees"?
Hundreds of news organizations seem to think so. A search of Google News has just brought up 5,400 hits for the phrase "Katrina refugees."
But not so fast, says the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "It is racist to call American citizens refugees," he pronounced on a visit to the Houston Astrodome.
President Bush agrees with him, for once, on this. "The people we're talking about are not refugees," he said. "They are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens."
"Evacuees" is the term many, but not all, news organizations are turning to; my Google News search turned up 6,820 hits for "Katrina evacuees." The National Association of Black Journalists has called on news organizations to avoid using "refugees"; several have banned the term.
For sticklers who want to save "refugee" for those who have crossed an international border, there's the euphonious term "internally displaced persons." The president and Mr. Jackson may wish to modify this to "internally displaced Americans," however. And it's usually war or human rights violations that put the "D" in IDPs.
The real reason that "refugees" doesn't sit well with many people, particularly African-Americans, though, seems to be that "refugees" seems to equal "victims." They are the people they see on television, suffering in places like the camps of Sudan.
Some pundits and language mavens have been objecting to these objections. "A refugee is one who takes refuge," William Safire observed in his "On Language" column. But that might be too simplistic. Words soak up connotations the way fabrics pick up odors. "Refugee" does have an emotional edge - which is why some people want to ban it and others insist on using it.
For some whose memories reach further back in time than the African crises of more recent years, "refugee" might have more positive connotations.
During the last century, refugees were often political activists making trouble for bad leaders or, at the very least, making a personally heroic leap to a new life in a new country. Think of the late film director Billy Wilder, for instance.
Another point: If "refugee" is taken as a pejorative term because it seems to deny someone's full rights as a citizen, no wonder some object. But if it is seen as pejorative because it suggests "someone who is not a US citizen," that is, a foreigner, what does that say about Americans' nationalism, or ethnocentricity? Is that not a form of racism, or to use a more apt term not so often used in the US, xenophobia?
And while I'm on my soapbox: Was anyone else a little concerned to hear the president, in his Aug. 31 speech to the country, keep using the term "citizens" in contexts where "people" or "men and women," or even "folks," would have done the job?
"We're assisting local officials in New Orleans in evacuating any remaining citizens from the affected area. I want to thank the state of Texas, and particularly Harris County and the city of Houston and officials with the Houston Astrodome, for providing shelter to those citizens who found refuge in the Superdome in Louisiana."
I can't believe the crews of the rescue helicopters plucking people from rooftops would have stopped to check for passports first.
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