January 29, 2014 at 1:00 pm EST | by Lateefah Williams
Thug is the new ‘N’ word
Lateefah Williams, Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, gay news, Washington Blade

Lateefah Williams (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Many people want to pretend that we live in a post-racial society, but for many people of color, particularly African Americans, this is the furthest thing from the truth.  While overt racism is shunned, more subtle forms have taken its place. One example of this is the use of language. It is now universally accepted that the “N-word” is a derogatory racial slur. Most people agree that the word is offensive and do not use it (at least not in public). However, other words that are meant to marginalize, offend and cast African Americans in a negative light have taken its place.

“Thug” is at the top of the list. The most common slur you hear thrown at young African-American men these days is thug. There is nothing overtly racial about the word thug, so people believe they can use it with impunity. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines thug as “a violent criminal” or as a “brutal ruffian or assassin.”

Yet, time and time again we see it hurled at African Americans, without a second thought, by people ranging from talking heads on cable news shows to commenters replying to articles in major newspapers. While occasionally it may be used to describe someone accused of a violent act, it is often used to describe any young, African-American man that does not conform 100 percent to so-called traditional mainstream culture. Even when it is used to describe someone who is accused or convicted of a crime, it still is usually used only when describing African Americans or other people of color.

The most recent example of using the word “thug” to demean an African-American man is in response to an emotional interview after the NFC Championship game by Seattle Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman. I have loved Richard Sherman for a while because of his intelligence and passion. The Richard Sherman I have seen in the past has been extremely intense on the field and intelligent and insightful in interviews.  Despite his well-deserved reputation as a trash-talker, he usually comes across very well in interviews.

So while I was initially slightly taken aback by the interview (partially because I have seen how well he can communicate), I was disappointed, though sadly not surprised, at how people who had never heard of him before his comments were so quick to label this Stanford graduate and former high school salutatorian a thug because of one emotional interview. I was also amazed that his remarks were blown so widely out of proportion and were viewed so extensively outside of the sports media. All of a sudden, people who have never watched a football game in their lives were opining about Sherman’s actions and his character.

The one silver lining in this situation is that it may open dialogue about present-day racism. My friends and I have often used the phrase “thug is the new n-word” among each other, when expressing frustration with its overuse toward young, African Americans.  I’m sure many other African Americans have had this same conversation with their friends and relatives long before the Richard Sherman incident. However, when Sherman expressed this sentiment in an interview a few days after the big media firestorm, many Americans heard this viewpoint for the first time. “[I]t’s an accepted way of calling someone the N-word nowadays,” Sherman said. “It’s like everybody else said the N-word and they said thug and they’re like, ‘that’s fine.’”

I get tired of hearing NBA players, who have never harmed anyone, referred to as thugs because they are African-American men with tattoos or brash, cocky athletes referred to as thugs simply for being African-American men who lack humility. While it would be nice to eliminate the word thug, if we don’t address the sentiment that allows Americans to see criminality in any action by an African-American man that they disagree with, then stigmatizing another word won’t matter. My hope is that people will learn from the Sherman incident and make a point not to be so quick to judge and disparage someone’s character, but I won’t hold my breath.

Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a D.C.-based political and LGBT activist. Reach her at lateefah4@hotmail.com or follow her on Twitter @lateefahwms

  • Any gay man who has been threatened, taunted, harassed, accosted or bullied can attest to the fact that as a descriptor the word “thug” knows no color or level of educational attainment.

  • I like Richard Sherman better every time I see him talk. He is an impressive guy, and when he talks trash he backs it up on the field. The avalanche of racist tweets after the NFC championship game ultimately helped him, because he bears up well under scrutiny. I am more concerned about 16-year-olds who get the same ignorant hostility but are not as equipped to confront it. The news is filled with too many stories of innocent young black men who were killed simply for being young black men, as if that made them criminals. It was the senselessness of that, and the injustice of stop-and-frisk abuses, that made Dante de Blasio’s simple ad for his father so powerful last year. A lot of us want something better for all our children. With the glorification of vigilante, shoot-at-the-knock-on-the-door travesties of justice, getting something better is going to take a sustained effort.

  • I think that's just irresponsible and please, don't misconstrue THAT as racist. There is plenty of irresponsibility to go around, all colors, all genders, all sexual orientations, all people…some of whom are thugs, most of whom are not.

  • I fully agree that thug is the new N-word. Sherman shouldn’t have been called a thug in the first place. Meanwhile, “thug” doesn’t apply to Justin Bieber. Why is that?

  • I don’t like the word thug as it is too often used to describe people taking part in a wide range of behviours. Growing up in NY I have heard it applied to a wide range of people and it has never seemed to be a racial slur against any one group. In fact it was used many times to replace the word hoodlum and that word knew no racial boundaries.

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