29 April 2015
The T Word
The Baltimore story moved from tragic to farcical mode once the President of the United States described the rioters of April 27 as "thugs." Right-wingers took heart, having been condemned as racists in recent months for describing rioters in Ferguson MO, not to mention Ferguson victim Michael Brown, as "thugs." But if they thought they were off the hook, along came a black Baltimore councilman to condemn the President for using that same word. If you're going to say "thugs," this solon said, you may as well say the N-word. Well, doubleyou tee eff! I had noticed this new taboo last fall and wondered about it. What makes "thug" a racist epithet? The complaint from the activists was that certain people used the word only to describe black criminals and rioters. That I can't verify, but my gut feeling is that, however reactionaries feel about black people, they did not intend "thug" as a euphemism for something more obviously racist. "Thug" still means what it has meant since the British discovered the alleged killer cults of "Thuggee" in India. If not always denoting a killer, it always signifies a criminal using brutal methods, perhaps as a matter of pleasure, perhaps as a matter of principle. It does to most English-speakers, at least. But if some blacks think the word is aimed at them, it's because some blacks have claimed the word as their own. "Thug" has been a popular hip-hop word since Tupac's time, though it may signify something else in hip-hop culture than it signifies for the rest of us. Once blacks think of "thug" as a "black" word, it's probably natural to assume that anyone else who uses the word is talking about blacks. But this is easily disproved. If Baltimore cops inflicted the spinal injury that killed Freddie Gray, then they were cops. The white cop who shot the guy in the back in South Carolina is a thug. And people whose idea of protest or uprising is to loot their neighborhood stores and set fires are thugs. And people who object to the description are idiots.