Thug or Not?

In the painful protesting that is going on in Baltimore resulting in the destruction of property and looting of merchandise, more than one person, including Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, President Obama and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore, has used the name “thug” to describe those who were involved in the melee.

Rawlings-Blake apologized for using the term after receiving stiff criticism. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer wondered aloud why the mayor found it necessary to apologize for her use of the word.

Before I offer an opinion on all of this, I beg us to ask the questions: When white kids burn cars and destroy property during spring break or after a football or basketball game, do we call them thugs? When Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony, was he called a thug? I don’t remember that happening …

But when Seattle Seahawks team member Richard Sherman, an African-American, got a little agitated after a Super Bowl, in comments made about a colleague on the opposing team, he was called …a thug. It was Sherman whom I first heard say that the word thug had become racialized, that it was the new way of saying “nigger.”

Our modern-day word “thug” derives from a Hindi word which means swindler, deceiver, or cheat. There were groups who lived in India called Thugs who robbed and killed travelers. They apparently had a long shelf life, terrorizing travelers and other citizens in India from the 14th into the 19th centuries. (  The way they operated was they would meet travelers, make friends with them, and then turn on them, often strangling them or killing them some other way, and stealing their belongings.

When the War on Terror began, the word “thug” was heard again, this time used by President George W. Bush, as “thugs and assassins.”  It was a term which was said with passion and deep emotion; one who was a thug, we came to understand, was a pretty bad person.

Some kind of way, the term “thug” began to be used to describe African-Americans. I asked a friend what his definition of “thug” was, and he said it means bully, pushy, uncouth, brash, someone who tries to take advantage of another. That’s fair. But why is it that, these days, the only people who seem to be called thugs are African-American?

I would agree that those who looted and started fires in Baltimore this week were breaking the law. They were and are criminals. And it is clear that President Obama and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake were referring to those who participated in the lawlessness.

But it feels different when news people or law officers or government officials say the term. There has been a fair amount of mixing of the terms protesters and thugs. It feels like many who describe the protests going on are meaning that those protesting are thugs as well. Because they are disrupting the status-quo, because they are making noise about injustice, because they are refusing to be silent and accept the injustice which is so rampant, many people in power seem more than ready to call them …thugs.

Hip-hop, say some, has helped create an association of the word with certain behavior. According to an article in Newsweek, “Hip-hop culture  adopted the word…Tupac Shakur popularized the phrase “thug life” in the early 1990s,” The Newsweek article says Michael Jeffries wrote,  in Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop, “the concept of the thug underwent a…transformation, from signifying disgust, rebellion, and nihilism to evoking coolness and power.” (

Are the protesters trying to be cool? If Jeffries is right, the meaning of the word for the hi-hop generation moved away from being indicative of a person who was being a brute to a person who was being cool and using his or her power.

Is that what people are saying and feeling when they call the protesters “thugs?”

Name-calling never works; name-calling in a time as fractious and incendiary as this is a very dangerous thing to do. Black people are saying that they feel unloved, unseen, unheard and not valued. To be called a “thug” only adds salt to the wounds…

Lee Atwater, who was Richard Nixon’s campaign manager years ago, said that it was no longer possible to use the word “nigger.” He said that people had to use code words and people would understand what was being said. When one said “affirmative action” or “welfare” or “busing,” people belonging to the base that Nixon wanted and needed in order to win the presidency knew exactly what was being said. The belief was that only black people were recipients of affirmative action and welfare, and black people’s desire for quality education had resulted in busing. To use those words, and others, alerted “the base” that the candidate was aware of the base’s feeling about black people.

Is that the case now? Are news people and politicians trying to express a sense of indignation that black people are tired of injustice meted out by law enforcement? Yes, I know that there are people amongst the ranks of the demonstrators who are throwing rocks and attacking police, although it is believed that many of the people doing that are not a part of the demonstrators at all but are outsiders who are taking advantage of the situation in order to play out their own agendas. But are those watching and reporting unable and/or unwilling to make the distinction and are they trying to say that they are outraged that people would take to the streets and dare to cast doubt on the fairness and rightness of policing in this nation? Are they angry that black people have decided that they can no longer be silent, and are they saying that black people are “thugs” because they are in the streets, chanting, yelling, marching?

The protesters are not thugs. They are Americans, in the truest sense of the word. America came into being because people were angry at a perceived injustice being meted out by the British government. Rather than pay what they felt was an unjust tax, these protesters refused to pay it AND threw tea into Boston Harbor. America was founded because people dared to demonstrate.

I would venture that members of the status quo called the protesters back then a few choice names, things like traitor or maybe insurgent.

But thug?

The people who looted and started fires and destroyed property in Baltimore broke the law. They were and are criminals. But the people who are protesting, who are fighting for their right to be treated with dignity are …Americans. Kids – black or white – who get rowdy during spring break or after a game …are lawbreakers, not thugs, no matter their color.  A black man who offers energetic and passionate verbiage on a subject, even if it is unacceptable to those who hear it…is a person who has perhaps gotten a little too excited for a few moments. But a thug?


We need to rethink the term and use it a lot less, especially now. Name-calling does not work, ever, and will be a death knell to the quest for justice and peace as the people of Baltimore (and of this nation) work to deal with their grief, pain and anger.

A candid observation …

The South Is Still Running the Spirit of America

I have been quiet on this, my blog, as I have watched and participated in all that is going on relative to the shootings of unarmed black men by white police. I have been quiet as I have watched and listened to the cries of anger and pain of young people who are tired of being treated like objects, while the police have literally gotten away with murder in too many cases.

But something welled up in me yesterday as I watched the funeral of fallen police officer Wenjian Liu. What first welled up was a profound sadness for his family, as they are left to live on this earth with a giant hole standing ready to swallow them up in their grief. Liu’s murder, as well as that of his partner, Rafael Ramos, was senseless. The deranged killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, sounds like he should have been in a treatment facility. (

But the other thing that welled up was the continual suggestion and sometimes, outright accusation, that it was the protests of people in New York and across the country and in the world, against police brutality, that caused the officers’ deaths.

I’d been angry at what I had been hearing for a while. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that there had been four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everyone should hate the police.” (

Pat Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, said that the protests were really “violence under the guise of protests,” and he said the blood of Officers Ramos and Liu. He said the blood of those officers were on the hands of Mayor Bill de Blasio:(

What I am hearing, though, is racism and resentment that the voices of black people are being allowed to be heard, voices that laws and policies in this nation have worked to still, erase and negate, since Reconstruction. An anchor on CNN yesterday said outright that the protesters were being supported by City Hall, and suggested that City Hall was helping them plan their protests. The police have been deified as the protesters have been demonized to a despicably inhumane level.

And I think, as I listen to this, that the South is rearing its head, as it has been doing for decades.

The South, angry that it had lost the Civil War and that its source of labor had been taken away, began to methodically dismantle the rights that were put in place for black people. They found ways to criminalize black people so that they could be captured as criminals and be made to work. Black people were captured and arrested for things that white people did, and less, and were portrayed as criminals and America ate it up. The South was bound and determined to find ways to keep black people controlled, just as they had been during slavery, and its attitude spread from its lush mountains and red dirt throughout the United States. As black people moved from the South into the North and were forced into ghettos because the “progressive” Northerners didn’t want them in their neighborhoods, all of the attendant problems that come with overcrowded and inadequate living conditions spawned by poverty and a lack of jobs, reared their heads. Black people continued to be demonized, and too many police officers became partners not in protection but in persecution of an already demoralized people.

But the South, it seems, has never given up its quest to keep black people under control. Felons in some states, but especially in southern black states cannot vote. The number of black people who cannot vote because they are felons is astronomically high because of the “war on drugs,” a tactic that was put into place when Richard Nixon was running for president because, he said, “the problem is the blacks.” He said, in a cabinet meeting, “The problem is the Blacks and we have to devise a solution that does not acknowledge that is what we are dealing with.’ ( His solution to deal with “the problem” was to launch the war on crime and the war on drugs.

Lee Atwater, who was the political strategist, recognized that race and black people were at the center of any discussion of successful political power. He said that in 1954, you could say “nigger, nigger, nigger, but recognized that as times would not allow such blatant racist speech, strategists and politicians had to use different language …to deal with race. Atwater was trying to teach politicians how to win the votes of racists. By 1968, you couldn’t say “nigger,” but you could say things like “forced busing,” “states rights,” …and you’re getting so abstract …that blacks get hurt more than whites.” (

It was called “the Southern Strategy,” and it is still operative because the South … is still running the spirit and the trajectory of America.

Reagan and all politicians wanted to woo the South …which was still angry that it had lost the Civil War. Atwater had proven that race was always at the center of American politics and the formation of American policy. He said, outright, “race is at the center” of everything. Politicians launched the Southern Strategy to get Southerners on their side, not only when it came to race, but on other issues as well. The whole Southern Strategy, he said, was “based on coded racism.” (

As the police have spewed their anger and resentment at the protesters, what I hear is a cacophony of racial protest in a spirit that was begun by Southerners beginning in Reconstruction. That spirit held blacks as objects, not people, as demons and criminals in order to control them. That masses of black people (and whites as well) have taken, largely peacefully, to protest the racism that the black community has long suffered at the hands of some police has riled some white people as much as has Barack Obama, a black man, being in the White House.

That Pat Lynch and others can be incensed because Mayor de Blasio said he has to talk to his biracial son about how to act with police reveals an arrogance and insensitivity that white people who deny the presence and centrality of racism have fallen into from time immemorial.  America was founded on principles of white supremacy, and although it feels like whites all over the country have fought against civil and human rights for black people, the fact is that far too many people are still kowtowing to the South.

The dismantling of key components of the Voting Rights Act, reversals of affirmative action policies …and other, more subtle policy changes across the country, show that the South has never given up on its desire to enslave and control blacks.

Call it the race card if you want. That’s what it is …and it is what the South has been playing and distributing wherever it can …in the name of an America which never intended for black people to be equal in any shape, way or form.

A candid observation …


English: Former Speaker of the House at CPAC in .
Image via Wikipedia

This weekend I saw a segment on a news program about the late Lee Atwater, the Republican boy wonder who orchestrated the campaign and subsequent victory for George H.W. Bush in 1988. Atwater was but one of more recent members of the GOP who made racial politics a staple of their strategy. Ronald Reagan,  the GOP beloved, was also helped along by Atwater, and was the candidate who coined the phrase ” welfare queen,” making voters latch onto their belief that black people and their undying love for entitlements, are what’s wrong with America. Along comes Lee Atwater, who helped George H.W. Bush decimate Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election by flashing the image of convicted murderer Willie Horton into American homes via television during the campaign, reminding voters that Dukakis was in favor of furloughs for some horrible people…Willie Horton’s face was the reminder that in the minds of white Americans, “horrible people” equaled “black people,” and there was no way one sympathetic to such people should be elected President of the United States.

And now, here we are again, 2012, and racial politics is being played again. Oh, the GOP candidates won’t say things outright; far be it for them to be said to be playing “the race card,” but play that card they do, surreptitiously, repeatedly and continuously, playing right into the same nerves and veins as did Atwater and Reagan.

Newt Gingrich‘s recent comments, saying that black people do not have a work ethic, and saying that the “only the elites despise making money” help him bolster his argument that President Barack Obama is the “food stamp president.” He claims that more Americans under President Obama are receiving or have received food stamps than under any other president in history.

Stop, Mr. Gingrich. Have you forgotten that more Americans are out of work, or have been out of work, during this presidency than in any other time in history?  Unlike the presidency of FDR, where the eruption of war helped address the huge unemployment problem that had been wrought by the Great Depression, this country was steeped in two wars which were not making money for America but were in fact draining its coffers. Jobs that had been available were being outsourced overseas, helping people over there get on their feet and make people like Gingrich and Romney more wealthy while ignoring the people here who had fallen.

Have you not heard, Mr. Gingrich, that one 1 out of every 2 Americans is now classified as “poor,” and that the “new poor” are those who used to be middle class? Have you not visited neighborhoods which hardly “look” poor, but where the “used to be” middle class are now scuffling to make ends meet? Have you not driven past a church in a fairly well to do area where the sign says “free lunch,” catering not to people whom you would say have no work ethic, but to people, white people, thank you, who are working and who need help? Have you not visited food pantries where the food is flying off shelves faster than it can be replaced, because people of all races, whites especially, have no money to feed their families?


Racial politics is disingenuous at best, but wrong and manipulative at its worst. Instead of addressing the real problem in America- that of corporate greed – which is responsible for the mess our nation is in. Gingrich and others rely instead on cheap shots and easy prey in order to lure their base, happily ignorant of what’s really going on, into their lairs. Gingrich and Romney and others will resort to “playing the race card” without saying the word “race” outright; they will use phrases like “the food stamp president” as a euphemism for what they are really saying – that black people are the reason America is in a bad way, and we need to get this black person out of the White House because he is pandering to a group that doesn’t appreciate America, the free enterprise system, or democracy. GOP opponents are just suggesting, thank you, that this “most liberal president in the history of America” is making black people more dependent than they already are.


There are a couple of things I wish Gingrich would address. First of all, I’d like for him to admit that statistics say that more white people than black receive food stamps. I don’t think I have ever heard a white candidate for anything admit this truth. If you’re going to try to be president, it would be nice to see that you have the capacity to “fess up” when you need to.

Secondly, I wish that Gingrich would go into an urban area and meet with some of the people he talks about so blithely and carelessly. Yes, there are people who do not work because they want to receive benefits, but there are more who do not work because they cannot find work. There are those who are living in deep depression because they tried to find work but nobody would hire them. Let Mr. Gingrich address the racism of America that keeps black and brown people disproportionately unemployed…Let him talk to men who have tried and tried and tried some more to get work, only to be turned down. Let him talk to men who are broken because, though they are American, they cannot get hold of “the American dream.”

Thirdly, I wish that Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Romney or whoever gets the nomination show that he has the chutzpah to stand up and speak out against the economic injustice that has plagued black people from the beginning of time. Let Mr. Gingrich, an historian who certainly knows the antics of white people to keep black people unemployed, underemployed, and/or in debt that have gone on since Reconstruction.

Were Mr. Gingrich to show his mastery of history in that way, and show himself to be a genuine human being and not simply a politician,  there might be a change in this country.

He wouldn’t be elected president, but he would get the attention of someone who has never bothered to hear the truth before.

Enough!  The GOP candidates need to stop their destructive campaign tactics. This racial politics is a poison to our country, a country already weakened by the economic disparity which has made the gulf between rich and poor greater than it has ever been.  Surely Mr. Gingrich knows that.

Yes, he knows …but he doesn’t care.

A candid observation …