Use of `refugee' is called biased

Term: Most popular way of describing storm victims is seen as racist by some black leaders.

Katrina's Wake

September 05, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

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 use of the term refugee doesn't benefit anybody," said Richard E. Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University.

"It's another way of depicting African-Americans as hierarchically low, and I understand why they wouldn't want to be associated with that."

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Bruce S. Gordon, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, were in Baton Rouge, La., yesterday to keep attention on the plight of the displaced, and both were critical of those labeling them refugees.

"To see them as refugees is to see them as other than Americans," Jackson said, "and that is inaccurate, unfair, and racist."

Gordon said, "The people who are affected are Americans living in this country, and we need to invest in their recovery the same way we have invested in other recoveries, be they domestic or international."

Chorus of concerns

Their comments were part of a growing chorus of concerns voiced by black leaders, who say the government's response to the crisis has been inadequate, largely because of the race of most of those affected.

Black members of Congress gathered Friday expressing anger at the response. Reps. Diane E. Watson of California and Elijah E. Cummings of the Baltimore area, both Democrats, also took issue with the word refugee

Shirley W. Logan, an English professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in rhetoric, suggested that the word was not being used maliciously.

The unprecedented nature of the event left the media reaching for ways to describe the survivors, she said.

"We don't have a model for this, and we've gone for the term that seems to be on the tongue at the time," said Logan, who is black.

"I don't think it's designed to disparage."

According to Vatz, who is white, refugee was not always used to describe those facing persecution.

It picked up that association in the early part of the century and during World War II, and has since been used when discussing Third World countries where people face political and economic turmoil, such as Rwanda, he said.

Images of struggle

The term has likely caught on in the coverage of the hurricane because images of the damage and of the survivors' struggle are similar to those traditionally seen in news coverage of poorer countries, he said.

"The visual images don't seem at odds with the description, but much else is," he said.

A change from the label would be helpful to all involved, Vatz said.

"It would seem to me that this would be one of those rare instances where avoiding the term would be to the advantage of those being described and by the government, which wouldn't want to have its citizens being described as refugees as a result of the slowness of their actions."

Sun staff writer Stephen Kiehl in Baton Rouge and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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