As Baltimore simmers, prominent public figures, from President Obama to Donald Trump, have been roundly criticized this week for describing the rioters as “thugs.”
It’s a word that’s taken an exotic odyssey, with roots during the time of the British raj, to film noir to a racial epithet. It’s a word that Europeans sometimes use to describe soccer hooligans, but it’s rarely applied to campus fans of college sports who create mayhem following big games.
Some have suggested that “thug” has become a socially acceptable way of saying the N-word.
Now it’s front and center in the latest episode of an ongoing American drama over race, law enforcement and economic inequality that’s left neighborhoods to fester and anger to spill out into the streets. The word has generated a raging debate on TV talk shows and on social media, and its meaning seems to depend on the perspective of the person talking.
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To some, it’s a reactionary and racially charged word that reflects a tone-deafness to the deeply rooted frustration and despair of young people struggling in poor and minority communities.
“It’s never helpful to use a word like that,” said Cathy Lisa Schneider, an associate professor at American University who has written extensively on race, poverty and social unrest. “I don’t know if it’s the N-word, but it robs young people of their humanity.”
To others, it’s the correct noun to describe the out-of-control youths bent on looting and destroying property. The White House stood by Obama’s reference in a Tuesday news conference to “criminals and thugs” who looted and set fires in Baltimore.
“I think it is entirely understandable that when you’re talking about a subject as complicated as this one,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday, “that there might be a few people who get offended by one word or two.”
But on Wednesday, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore’s African-American mayor, who was already under fire for how she’d initially handled the violence, had stepped back from her original use of the word two days earlier.
“When you speak out of frustration and anger,” she posted to Twitter on Wednesday, “one can say things in a way that you don’t mean.”
Donald Trump, a frequent critic of Obama, deployed his signature bombast in a tweet.
“Our great African-American president hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!” he posted Tuesday.
Obama’s election in 2008 was supposed to signal a new era in the country’s painful and complicated racial history. But the deaths in recent months of several unarmed African-American men at the hands of police – from Ferguson, Mo., to Staten Island, N.Y., to North Charleston, S.C. – has reopened old wounds.
In Baltimore, the tensions arose from the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray following police custody. After a ride in a police van, he was found unresponsive, with his spinal cord 80 percent severed. He died a week later.
Even before the peaceful protests turned violent, the rhetoric began to heat up. The president of the city’s police union, Gene Gray, last week called the protesters a “lynch mob,” evoking a painful history of brutality against African-Americans by whites.
During a CNN interview Wednesday, Jamal Bryant, a prominent Baltimore pastor, said “thugs” had become “the 21st-century word for the N-word.”
Long ago, “thugs” referred to members of a cult in India who robbed travelers. More traditionally, a thug was a criminal or a gangster and the word didn’t carry racial overtones. In the 1990s, rap musicians embraced it as an expression of toughness, a coping strategy in the economically challenged neighborhoods that inspired their music.
More recently, Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director John Brennan have used “thugs” to describe terrorists, particularly those pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.
While the word has been used to describe the mostly black youth participating in Baltimore’s unrest, it’s absent from any coverage of mostly white college students who’ve thrown bottles, smashed windows and set fire to cars after sports events. After the University of Kentucky lost to the University of Wisconsin in the recent NCAA basketball tournament, several headlines used the word “riot” to describe the student behavior.
In 2011, after Penn State University fired legendary head football coach Joe Paterno in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal, students took to the streets in protest. Some flipped over a TV news truck and destroyed other property. University leaders condemned the violence but didn’t refer to the rioters as “thugs.”
Schneider, of American University, said politicians used such words to appear tough on crime and soothe the fears of middle-class voters about what they were seeing on TV. But she said that tended to criminalize people, rather than their acts, and did little to change the circumstances that had pushed them over the edge.
“We ignore what’s going on there until they erupt,” she said. “That’s the only time we respond.”