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February 27, 2014

Is ‘Thug’ a new codeword?

Photo Courtesy of Jeffery Beall (Wiki Commons)

By Brendan Samsa

From literal denotation to wider cultural connotations, many words can evoke different feelings and emotions in us.

In the case of the word “thug” its meaning has taken on a whole new designation in today’s society.

Recently the media has spent much time discussing if the word thug is now some sort of code word that replaces the “N-word.”

For people who hadn’t spent much time on this issue before it was brought to light about a month ago by the controversial chest thumping remarks of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

After an emotional tirade by Sherman on the field after the NFC Championship Game, many critics were very critical of Sherman’s antics, and labeled him as a “thug."

During the media circus that is the Super Bowl, Sherman explained that he feels that the word carries a cultural connotation that enables it to serve as a substitute for the “N- word” that effectively makes it possible to disparage people of color without being labeled a racist.

“The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the ‘N-word’ nowadays,” said Sherman in response to his critics. “It’s like everyone else said the ‘N-word’ and they said ‘Thug’ and they’re like, ‘Ah, that’s fine.’ That’s where it kind of takes me aback and it’s kind of disappointing.”

Could Sherman be on to something with his accusations? When a word carries such a deep negative meaning we, correctly as a society, shun those who openly make it part of their normal vocabulary.

But if some of us can find a way to say what they want to say without actually saying it they can give themselves plausible deniability, thus eradicating any wrongdoing. This kind of thinking is what makes words like “thug” go from a description of violent or menacing people in general, to a label of one specific cultural group.

Dr. George Ray, director of the school of communication at Cleveland State University, explains that in Sherman’s case it may be his bragging and vocal behavior that fuels his critic’s perception of him and not necessarily his race.

“There has been an interesting reaction to people throughout our history that brag and boast themselves,” said Ray. “Some people have a problem with that, so they will then look for other things that they don’t like or object to. And so you can derogate him by calling him various things including thug.”

Since rap and hip hop emerged in the 1980s lending the image of violent behavior and a disregard for authority, African Americans have been associated as a whole to this type of behavior. As the rap scene has been generally dominated by African American artists, society has attributed the violent and illicit content of some rap songs to the culture as a whole.

In 2012, Michael Dunn, a resident of Florida shot and killed Jordan Davis, a 17 yr. old boy, as Davis and his three friends were at a local convenient store picking up some drinks and candy.

Dunn asked the boys to turn down the loud music they were playing in their car, and the boys disregarded his request leading to him shooting up their car.

While Dunn was in jail pending his trial, he wrote letters explaining his case by referring to the music the boys were listening to as “thug music.” Expressing that because of the music they were listening to, that he feared for his safety, thinking that they must be dangerous “thugs” who would do harm to him.

The prosecution in this case went on to use Dunn’s “thug” description of the boys against him, citing that it’s a code word for his racially based ulterior motives.

Dunn went on to say he saw Davis begin to exit the car with a weapon and that is why he shot. But the three boys and multiple witnesses say the boy never left the vehicle or presented any weapons.

Later Dunn’s lawyer, Cory Strolla said the trial had nothing to do with the race of the boys, but it was about a “subculture thug issue.”

But who was the thug in this situation?

Jordan Davis will never have the opportunity to live his life. Davis and his friends didn’t want to turn down their music. So what, does that make them part of a “subculture thug issue”? No, the only thing it may make them is rude, but it does not make them “thugs” by the social definition that the word is now associated.

Anyone can be a thug, whether you’re black, white, green, or yellow, skin color and ethnicity don’t make a difference. Thugs exist in all levels of society, and all races within those societies. It’s a subculture of cowards that hide behind their code words and connotations to portray their prejudice that are the real thugs.