It’s hard to determine the exact point at which the centuries-old “nigger” was supplanted by its newer, more criminal progeny “thug”, but take a cursory glance at social media and mainstream new media alike, and it is clear that the replacement is now in full effect. Unlike the actual definition of the word, today’s common usage does not require that you be violent or a criminal of any sort. You just need to be Black. You can be a Stanford graduate with a Master’s Degree who has competed in professional athletics on the highest stage and has no criminal history at all. Thug. You can be the first Black President of the United States. Thug. You can even be other young Back children being discussed by that Black President and the mayor of your own city. THUG!
Over the past decade, as we have seen an increase in the amount of attention paid to political correctness and cultural sensitivity, we have also seen an interesting trend develop with respect to language and the choice usage of certain words, phrases, and terms. The racial epithets of yesterday are no longer commonly acceptable but have been deftly replaced with terms that are racially neutral on their face, but the usage of which is almost exclusively reserved for Black and Latino people. The result, is that through the persistent use of such language, folks are able to draw–consciously and subconsciously–associations between certain words and ethnic groups. These associations carry negative connotations much deeper than what may appear on the surface and have a far-reaching impact. Thug is the latest, and perhaps the most dangerous example of racism’s new lexicon. The biggest concern, however, and where thug threatens to be more insidious, is that many within our community have unwittingly fallen into the trap of using these terms ourselves in this harmful manner while riding the wave of respectability politics.
The response to protests in Ferguson and Baltimore provide the most obvious examples of how this works. Somehow, when those from our community respond to injustice, even peacefully, they are painted with the broad stroke of being “thugs” regardless of whether any criminality is present in their actions. It’s almost as if folks are too lazy to label people protesting as protestors, and people looting as looters and to understand the difference. They all become “thugs” regardless of their activities. But, compare this to instances of White crime and destruction. The narrative is strikingly different. Where Blacks are labeled “thugs,” Whites enjoy the privilege of being labeled “rowdy revelers” and getting a pass for “letting off steam” despite causing equal amounts if not greater damage to property. The reality is the term thug exists almost to the exclusion of other races even where the behavior is near identical.
Coded language used to invoke racial stereotype is nothing new. The earliest examples in recent memory might be the (fallacy of) “welfare queens”, followed by right’s attempt to use “angry” when describing President Barack Obama in hopes of invoking ideas of an angry Black man (as if anyone would ever really confuse this guy with this one). Thug is the newest in a long line but it has gained some traction, too much traction. And, unfortunately, we have participated.
Opposite the media’s mis-application of the term along racial lines, there are two factors from within our community that contribute to this becoming an increasingly enduring narrative. First, is the manner in which pockets of our community have debatably celebrated the thug narrative through our own mediums, allowing our young men to wear this term as a badge of honor–even if they aren’t engaging in any behavior that could really be considered “thuggish.” Even more problematic, however, is how the respectability brigade has co-opted (and essentially co-signed) the same mis-application that the media is guilty of. We saw this from apologists in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, and it has stretched as far as the Oval Office, regrettably. In doing so, all it does is help justify this application to us and us alone. The real danger is that these references support an association of Black with thug and thug with criminality (even where there may be none) which can prove to be a nightmare amidst a deeply flawed justice system where guilty until proven innocent is already an unfortunate reality for far too many people of color.
So how do we stop this narrative? How do we reclaim and reverse this? One suggestion is, treat the new n-word like the old one: stop yourself from using it. Criminal behavior is what it is and should be appropriately labeled–it should also be viewed in proper context and with the nuance allowed when examining the misdeeds of others. But, loose synonyms for “criminals” like “thug” and “hoodlum” that are racially charged paint a troublesome—if not wholly inaccurate—picture of who we are, one that should be checked immediately.
And, if we aren’t careful, perception can easily become reality.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights attorney and former Brooklyn, NY prosecutor. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr.