Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Late last week, I responded to Tracy Warner's post on whether the use of the term "refugee" to describe displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina was offensive or harmless. Plenty of FWMN readers had an opinion (click here to read their comments); on Monday, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun wrote an article on this very topic, which has become quite the controversy.
Black leaders and politicians questioning racial disparity in the evacuation of the gulf region are assailing as another example of bias the use of the word refugee to describe those displaced by the storm.

Refugee has become the most popular word to describe the victims of Hurricane Katrina, appearing more times in news reports than other similar words, such as evacuee or survivor, according to a Google news search.

By definition, a refugee is "one who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution," according to the American Heritage Dictionary - and not an appropriate tag for the thousands seeking food and shelter after their homes were destroyed last week, some say.
The article doesn't mention that an alternate defintion stipuates that they be fleeing their country to qualify for the distinction, which is one of the reasons I think "evacuee" or even "displaced victim" are more accurate descriptions of these people than "refugees."

Taking that -- the definition that includes fleeing their county -- into consideration, even Jesse Jackson's comments make some sense.
"To see them as refugees is to see them as other than Americans," Jackson said, "and that is inaccurate, unfair, and racist."
I don't think that writers or editors who have been using "refugee" are racist, but I do think enough good reasons exist for them to find another term to use instead, such as evacuee or displaced victim. Yes, those are both a bit more clunky, but they're much less loaded and much more accurate in their description.

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