Tupac Knew

No, the Young People of Baltimore Are Not ‘Thugs’

For most of history, the word didn’t have a racial connotation. But now it most definitely does. So just. don’t. use it.

Illustration by Dair Massey/The Daily Beast

As rioters in Baltimore took to the streets this week, countless media organizations casually referred to the predominantly black protesters as “thugs.” Then, to the surprise of many reporters and anchors, black interviewees disputed this characterization and responded that you might as well call the protesters “niggers.”

On CNN, Erin Burnett referenced how President Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake both used the term “thug” to describe the rioters, and how plenty of voices on social media had objected to the characterization.

Burnett asked her guest, Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes, whether “thug” was an appropriate term by which to define the predominantly young and black rioters. Stokes vehemently disagreed. “No. Of course it is not the right word to call our children thugs. These are the children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us. No. We don’t have to call them thugs,” said Stokes.

Burnett quickly responded: “But how does that justify what they did?” Stokes: “Come on? So calling them thugs? Just call them niggers. Just call them niggers. No. We don’t have to call them by names such as that. We don’t have to do that.” To which Burnett riposted that she “would hope that [she] would call [her] son a thug if he did such a thing.”

Through these exchanges a new question emerges: How “thug” may have obtained racial overtones in American usage, when the global application of the word is colorblind. By definition, ”thug” means “a violent criminal” and/or “a brutal ruffian.” A thug does not necessarily have to be a criminal, but merely a person who appears brutal and violent and inclined to commit crimes. There is not an inherent association to race with the word per se; FDR used to call Nazis “thugs” on a regular basis. But America’s historical precedent of associating black Americans with violence and dehumanizing identifiers has allowed the word morph in this manner.

This casual and incorrect usage of “thug” has become far too common in recent years. A prime example prior to the Baltimore riots is America’s depictions of Seattle Seahawks player Richard Sherman.

Sherman, a Stanford graduate, has frequently been referred to as a “thug” because of his penchant for talking trash on the gridiron. But Sherman has never been associated with any violent offenses either on or off the field. During the media circus leading up to last year’s Super Bowl, Sherman addressed his frequent association with the word.

“The reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s an accepted way of calling somebody the n-word now,” said Sherman. “What’s the definition of a thug? Really? Can a guy on a football field just talking to people [be a thug?]”

Sherman then compared his actions to those of an average hockey match, where the majority white athletes frequently engage in fighting. Sherman is right. If there was no racial component to the thug or thuggery in America it would be logical for us all to refer to most hockey players as thugs, and especially the ones who talk trash. Yet this is not the case.

And to stay within the NFL, a quick comparison between convicted murder and former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez and Sherman shows how blacks are disproportionately labeled thugs.

In Rolling Stone’s Gangster in the Huddle, Hernandez is referred to as an “All-American Thug” to emphasize the dichotomy between his All-American football successes and his involvement in gangs and an all-around thuggish lifestyle.

The emphasis is on explaining how “the sweet, goofy kid from Bristol, Connecticut, with the klieg-light smile” could have taken such a drastic turn for the worse. Yet with Sherman, who grew up in Compton (California) and escaped his violent surroundings, there has not been the same desire to explore this complexity. There appears to be an unsavory inclination to not only associate a black person with something they are not, but to also undermine their accomplishments and dehumanize.

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This application of “thug” to upstanding black Americans like Sherman or to black children in Baltimore is how the parallels between “thug” and “nigger” have emerged. Nigger is a word that certain early white settlers to our shores invented for the sole purpose of oppressing Africans and blacks in the new world. Thug, however, had an existing definition based around one’s character and actions, prior to being sullied by America’s racial divisions.

In fact, the recent embracing of the term “thug” by black Americans in rap music shows how entrenched the racial application of this word is in American society. Indeed, rapper Tupac Shakur had “Thug Life” tattooed across his stomach.

This is a racial narrative of long formation. Africans were forcefully brought to America centuries ago. And since then, there has been a constant resistance against allowing those slaves and their successors to self-identify. African slaves were not allowed to identify with their African cultural or religious origins, and instead had to live with the negative identifiers that white Americans hung on them. Nigger then. Thug today.

Tupac’s embracing of the word, in effect, said that black Americans have been unfairly called this word for far too long, and that now we need to start employing the word so that we can impact the discussion and the word’s usage. It is not a justification for non-black voices to refer to blacks as thugs, but rather the appropriation of insult as a mechanism for social discourse.

Consider that while Burnett feels entitled to call her son a thug if he acts in a thuggish manner, she would perhaps, just perhaps, be outraged if her son was labeled a thug for being talkative and successful on a football field. Perhaps she would hope that society would want to explore what made her son become a thug, and not lazily label him in the same manners as those nameless black youths in Baltimore.

Thug is becoming the new n-word. It’s a way to diminish and thus disregard black life instead of respectfully exploring the experiences of black Americans.