Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Coming to Terms with Katrina's Diaspora

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Coming to Terms with Katrina's Diaspora

Article excerpt

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. …

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