'Refugee' Stirs Race Debate

What do you call people who have been driven from their homes with only the clothes on their backs, unsure if they will ever be able to return, and forced to build a new life in a strange place?

News organizations are struggling for the right word.

Many, including The Associated Press, have used "refugee" to describe those displaced by the wrath of Hurricane Katrina (search).

But the choice has stirred anger among some readers and other critics, particularly in the black community. They have argued that "refugee" somehow implies that the displaced storm victims, many of whom are black, are second-class citizens — or not even Americans.

"It is racist to call American citizens refugees," the Rev. Jesse Jackson (search) said, visiting the Houston Astrodome on Monday. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have expressed similar sentiments.

Others have countered that the terms "evacuees" or even "displaced" are too clinical and not sufficiently dramatic to convey the dire situation that confronts many of Katrina's survivors.

President Bush, who has spent days trying to deflect criticism that he responded sluggishly to the disaster, weighed in on Tuesday. "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."

The 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention (search) describes a refugee as someone who has fled across an international border to escape violence or persecution. But the Webster's New World Dictionary defines it more broadly as "a person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution."

The criticism has led several news organizations to ban the word in their Katrina coverage. Among them are The Washington Post, The Miami Herald and The Boston Globe.

"A number of people — from officials speaking publicly to colleagues here — said the term `refugees' appeared to imply that people displaced from New Orleans ... were other than Americans," Leonard Downie Jr., the Post's executive editor, wrote in an e-mail to his staff.

At the Herald, said executive editor Tom Fiedler, "it began to feel odd, describing people huddled in New Orleans' convention center as refugees. It felt inadequate to the situation. ... It wasn't as precise as `evacuees.'"

And CNN has advised producers that "evacuee" is a better word, said spokeswoman Christa Robinson.

The AP and The New York Times are among those continuing to use the word where it is deemed appropriate.

"The AP is using the term `refugee' where appropriate to capture the sweep and scope of the effects of this historic natural disaster on a vast number of our citizens," said Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll. "Several hundred thousand people have been uprooted from their homes and communities and forced to seek refuge in more than 30 different states across America. Until such time as they are able to take up new lives in their new communities or return to their former homes, they will be refugees."

The Times was adhering to a similar policy.

"We have not banned the word `refugee,'" said spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. "We have used it along with `evacuee,' `survivor,' `displaced' and various other terms that fit what our reporters are seeing on the ground. Webster's defines a refugee as a person fleeing `home or country' in search of refuge, and it certainly does justice to the suffering legions driven from their homes by Katrina."

Columnist William Safire, who writes the weekly "On Language" column for The New York Times Magazine, said he did not see how the term "refugee" had any racial implications.

"A refugee can be a person of any race at all," he said. "A refugee is a person who seeks refuge."

He first suggested using the term "hurricane refugees." After thinking it over, though, he said he would probably simply use "flood victims," to avoid any political connotations that the word "refugee" may have taken on in the current debate.