Thugs and Riots, in Black and White
In the wake of the violence in Baltimore, tensions over race relations and police brutality continue to run high—and the debate has turned to semantics. Is the very language in which the media and politicians talk about this conflict loaded with racial biases? Is the term “riot” selectively applied to mass violence by blacks while similar actions by mostly white mobs escape that label? Is “thug” a racist code word used to demonize African-American men? That’s what many on the left are claiming—and, in a strange twist, the accusations of coded race-baiting are being leveled at black Democratic leaders such as President Obama and Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
There has been much hand-wringing over Obama’s comments, in a Rose Garden event on Tuesday, about communities cleaning up after “a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place.” Rawlings-Blake, too, has come under fire for referring to “thugs” who were destroying what others had worked to build. While the mayor later backed down and apologized, saying that she had spoken in anger, the White House has stood by the President’s choice of language. Press secretary Josh Earnest has defended the term, saying that “whether it’s arson or the looting of a liquor store, those were thuggish acts.”
Critics charge that “thug” is a thinly veiled racial slur, “the new N-word.” “Just call them n*ggers,” Baltimore City Council member Carl Stokes angrily told CNN when asked if it was appropriate for the mayor to use the word. “Can anyone remember the last time a media personality used the word ‘thug’ or ‘thuggish’ to describe a whiter (sic) person,” asked blogger Lauren Victoria Burke. Echoing the same point, Washington Post writer Sally Kohn inquired on Twitter, “Can anyone find me an instance in which the media referred to a white person who committed a crime as a ‘thug’?”
Actually, yes—quite easily. Here’s a list it took me less than ten minutes to compile:
- Mob boss John Gotti’s obituary on CNN.com in 2002 was headlined “A thug in a great-looking suit.” Meanwhile, New York magazine’s Gotti obit referred to the late mafia boss as “a narcissist, a blowhard, and a vicious thug.”
- A 1992 Washington Post essay titled “Why does Hollywood turn thugs into heroes?” uses the “T-word” in reference not to black criminals, but to white mob-linked union bosses Jimmy Hoffa and Jackie Presser.
- A 2005 New York Daily News article repeatedly uses “thug” and “thugs”—in the headline and the text—to refer to whites involved in racially motivated attacks on black men.
- A 2013 headline in the same paper reads, “Boston thug testifies he served as lookout for mob boss James (Whitey) Bulger during hit” (and yes, the thug is white).
- The word also has its political usage: only last year, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney referred to Vladimir Putin as a thug.
- In 2012, historian David Greenberg’s New Republic article on the death of former Nixon henchman Chuck Colson was titled “In Remembrance of a Lifelong Political Thug.” (A Google search for “Watergate thugs” yields over 250 hits.)
- In 1995, then-National Rifle Association president Wayne La Pierre famously (or infamously, depending on where you stand) referred to FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm agents as “jackbooted government thugs” in a fundraising letter.
Is the word used more often in reference to blacks (or other minorities) implicated in crimes, in a literal or metaphorical sense? Quite possibly. Has it sometimes been used with undertones of racial hostility? No doubt—though the same could be said of any other negative epithet. But to suggest that it is not used in reference to white people is absurd. Even many commenters on the left-wing Daily Kos website were skeptical when the claim that “thug” is an anti-black slur popped up in a blogpost last October. The blogger was clearly oblivious to the fact that the Daily Kos’s preferred anti-Republican slur is “rethug”—it even has its own tag.
For what it’s worth, I’ve found some right-wing Internet users’ in-your-face insistence on describing Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin as “thugs” distasteful and cringeworthy; whatever their offenses (which, at least for Martin, remain in the realm of speculation), these are two tragically dead teenagers. I also agree that we should be using the “T-word” more often to describe police officers who abuse their power and brutalize the people they are sworn to protect. But none of that means it’s an inappropriate word for rioters.
Which brings us to the other specious claim: that “riot” is a racially biased term. The left-wing site Mic.com has run a feature purporting to illustrate a double standard in the use of the word, listing instances in which “mob[s] of mostly white people” who trash cars and storefronts, set fires, or even attack police officers are not labeled rioters. All but one of these examples involve out-of-control sports fans celebrating victories (and many of these crowds appear racially mixed). The one remaining example—the rioting at Penn State after the firing of football coach Joe Paterno in 2011—contradicts the article’s point because, as Mic.com coyly admits, numerous media outlets did use the R-word to describe it.
The difference is pretty clear: “riot” is generally used to describe mob actions that express anger rather than unruly rejoicing. Indeed, one can easily find examples of white mob attacks on blacks being described as race riots—from the New York draft riots of 1863 to the anti-black violence that followed the large-scale migration of southern blacks to the north in the early 20th century to the protests against school busing in Boston in the 1970s.
This is not just an academic question of semantics. The attempt to banish words like “thug” and “riot” from discussion of the events in Baltimore is an effort to purge this discussion of moral judgment and strip responsibility from the perpetrators of violence, destruction and looting (whose main victims, as John McWhorter points out in The Daily Beast, are other African-Americans). “Thug” is a word that vividly conveys the ugliness of these actions. Remarkably, even MSNBC pundit Touré, who believes the word has acquired racial overtones, had to admit that it fits after watching footage from the riots. In his words, “I don’t see much other word that you can use beside thug to properly describe who they are and what they’re doing.”
McWhorter is hopeful that, despite the violence, the events in Baltimore will further a much-needed conversation on the fractious relationship between the black community and law enforcement. But that conversation will not get us anywhere if it excludes personal responsibility—on the police side and the community side. Good on Obama for not backing down from judgmental words.