Semantics and symbolism

September 08, 2005

DEFINING THE newly homeless status of Hurricane Katrina victims would seem to be the least important issue facing people whose lives were torn asunder almost overnight. Yet the victims' precarious status is the point of the latest hurricane-related debate.

Are they evacuees or flood survivors? Displaced persons or refugees? Words and images are potent influencers of public opinion, especially when they appear on television screens and on the front pages of newspapers. Take Iraq, for instance. Are American troops there occupiers or liberators? It depends on who is doing the labeling.

News organizations, politicians and relief organizations should be careful how they portray residents already traumatized by Katrina and dismayed by the media's focus on the looting and gunplay by a small minority of those trapped in New Orleans.

Round-the-clock news coverage of the events turned "refugee" into an accepted post-hurricane term, including in this newspaper. Insulted hurricane victims complained to President Bush, and Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings and other Congressional Black Caucus members argued that the term was fraught with negative symbolism that separates the mostly black victims from the larger society. President Bush weighed in this week: They "are not refugees," he said. "They are Americans, and they need the help, love and compassion of our fellow citizens."

Mr. Bush was right. Though refugees are broadly viewed as those forced to flee their homes, international agencies formally define them as people who have fled their countries because of racial, religious or political persecution. Still, "refugee" is not an insult but a reference to people helped by countries committed to protecting the lives and dignity of all. No wonder refugee advocacy groups, including the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which is assisting hurricane victims in Houston, were saddened by the controversy.

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