September 08, 2005

Don't have to live like a refugee

I did a Fresh Air piece that airs today about the language that people were using to describe the Katrina disaster, including the flap over whether it was appropriate to describe the displaced people as refugees. a word that black leaders have objected to, even if others argue that it's the mot juste in the circumstances.

After I taped the piece, I got to wondering whether the media were using the word in a selective way. Turns out that they are — it's disproportionately used to describe poor blacks.

In Nexis wire service articles mentioning Katrina over the past week, articles containing evacuee outnumber those containing refugee by 56% to 44% (n=1522). But in contexts in which the words appear within 10 words of poor or black, refugee is favored by 68% to 32% (n=85). And in contexts in which the words appear within ten words of Astrodome, refugee is favored by 63% to 37% (n=461).

Those disparities likely reflect the image of refugees as poor, bedraggled, and abandoned, which would make the word seem apt to describe the people getting off the buses at the Astrodome. That stereotype may be unfair and invidious in its own right, as George Rupp, the CEO of the Interntional Rescue Committee, was saying this morning on WNYC's Bryan Lehrer Show, where I was also a guest. But the way the press is using the word refugee now hardly does much to dispel the stereotype. And while there may be polemical reasons for advocates of the displaced to use the term, the way Woodie Guthrie did in his song "Dust Bowl Refugee," that's hardly what the media are getting at when they use it, or what President Bush was thinking of when he objected to the use of the term the other day.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at September 8, 2005 12:18 PM