It's time we weighed in on the discussion surrounding what term should be applied to survivors of Hurricane Katrina (and the debacle surrounding it) who have lost their homes and are indefinitely displaced. Jesse Jackson, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other civil rights advocates have criticised the media and others for using the term "refugees," suggesting that it implies a foreign "other" and therefore demeans the largely African-American group the term is currently being used to describe.
"It is racist to call American citizens 'refugees'," said Jackson when he visited the Houston Astrodome on Monday.
Representative Diane Watson (D-CA) weighed in similarly: "'Refugee' calls up to mind people that come from different lands and have to be taken care of. These are American citizens," she said.
Watson is technically correct, but we aren't buying it.
Racism needs to be challenged anywhere it rears its head -- on that we agree with critics of the "refugees" term. We also agree, unlike those who would dismiss this as mere "semantics" discussion, that language is important and must be used carefully by the media so as not to perpetuate stereotypes and oppressions.
But nationalism is no substitute for racism; it is equally objectionable. The term "refugees" should be applied to Americans just the way it has been applied to Sudanese, Palestinians, Haitians and so many others over the years. People who believe the term is undignified should be asked what their bias is against refugees in these other places. People who believe the term should not be applied to Americans should be asked what puts US citizens above the term.
If anything, we believe the existence of American refugees should remind us to respect and help foreign refugees -- people who, like those who fled the Gulf Coast, have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to seek help and start their lives anew. Those who believe refugee is a dirty word need to reexamine their own prejudices, not point fingers at others.
As a technical note, we realize most dictionary and encyclopedia definitions of "refugee" dictate that to acquire such status one must be the victim of political or social turmoil and must cross international boundaries. To that we say it is time for the dictionaries and encyclopedias to catch up with reality.
There is simply no better term to describe people forced from their homes who seek refuge elsewhere, whether within their own country or beyond its borders.
We have chosen to call the survivors of Hurricane Katrina "refugees" or "internal refugees" on our pages because we have found no other term that conveys the severity of the situation. The popular recommendation of "evacuees" is ridiculous. That describes a separate, if overlapping, state of being, and it implies a very temporary status. Unfortunately, many of those evacuated from New Orleans and other areas hit by Katrina will be gone a very long time, if not permanently.
They are refugees, plain and simple.