Thug Is Not

The New N Word .

It’s Worse Than That

by Ijeoma Oluo


There has been a lot of discussion recently about the word “thug” and what it means when it’s used to describe black men. While the term has been in regular use for a few decades, discussion of the coded nature of “thug” has intensified. Richard Sherman, Soledad O’Brien and others have been arguing that thug has become a replacement for nigger when denigrating black men, while detractors eagerly research the etymology of thug to show that it couldn’t possibly be racist.

But thug isn’t the new nigger. Thug is nothing like nigger. Thug is much worse.

In order to understand what thug is, let’s look at what nigger is. Nigger is the term of oppression, enslavement, dehumanization. It is the word black people were called when we were traded on markets, bred like cattle, beaten worse than dogs.

When black people ceased to be slaves, nigger stopped being a word that could enslave us. Nigger is a symbol not of blackness, but of white hatred toward blackness. When we hear the word nigger, we hear white hatred, we hear white longing for the days when we were in chains. When we hear the word nigger, we learn everything about the person saying it and nothing about the person it is being said to. It is a vile and hurtful word, because of the hatred and violence towards black people that it represents.

The shadow that black people now live under is cast more by post-slavery racial terrorism and exploitation than by slavery. No longer able to control black people through whips and chains, white male patriarchy saw black men as competition. Determined to keep what they deemed as theirs (land, power and white women) many found a new way to justify brutal oppression of blackness — the black brute.

No longer exploited as weak, hapless and childlike, a narrative of the black man as an animalistic, irredeemably violent, sexual predator began to rise. Thousands of black men were lynched under the justification that they had raped white women, had threatened to rape white women, or had engaged in consentual sex with white women. Stories of the black man who would defile your wife and kill your children spread like wildfire through the south and were used to segregate and control black people.

Even as lynchings were outlawed, the threat of the violent black man continued to be used to justify violence against black men. Just as claims that black men were raping white women were never matched with outrage that white men were also raping both white and black women, modern day claims that black men are killing each other with black on black violence are not matched with outrage at how many white men are killing each other with white on white violence.

When states pass “Stand Your Ground” laws, they aren’t passing them so that black men can defend themselves against white men who threaten their lives. When the NRA talks about families needing to defend themselves against gang violence, they aren’t talking to the people of color most likely to be impacted by gang violence. When cities develop “stop and frisk” policies, they aren’t developing them in hopes of reducing violent crime in white men. These are all built on the same violent narrative used to lynch black people in the past.

Only now, instead of saying “brute” or “savage” they say thug.

By design, this narrative not only justifies violence against black people, it also denies black people the access to protection and government services that would help end cycles of violence in the black community. Black people do not have access to police protection for fear of police brutality. Black people do not have access to jobs when fear of blackness has made them unhireable. Black people do not have access to quality education when the narrative of black violence leads teachers to view young black kids at play as violent. It is not in the best interest of white supremacy for violence in the black community to end. How else would they be able to justify oppression and exploitation?

Thug is the word that says a thousand words. Thug sheds no light on the accuser, only the accused. Thug instantly condemns. Thug is a word that says “You. You deserved this. You are a menace who must be stopped. You are a danger to good people everywhere. Your death is justified — even required.” Thug removes the accuser from criticism, and reduces racist violence to a shootout in an old western. It’s the good guys versus the bad guys.

Thug is racist because it removes race from the picture. Thug is racist because unlike nigger, which places the racist opinions of the aggressor front and center, it takes an act of racist violence and legitimizes it. It takes an act of hatred and turns it into an act of heroism. It turns murderers into martyrs.

Without these justifications the murders of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and so many others would look like what they are — murders. It’s time we recognize the word thug for what it is, an attack on black people.