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Use of the word 'thug' and the Baltimore riots

A protester throws a tear gas canister back toward riot police after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A protester throws a tear gas canister back toward riot police after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/AP

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This week's riots in Baltimore have prompted many politicians to condemn the violence. 

Many chose to use one word to describe the young people who have taken to the streets to protest and riot: Thug. The word has roots in the Hindi language, and it's been used to describe wrong-doers for nearly 700 years. 

Now, Baltimore community leaders are concerned that the word has become a slur. Some are even calling it "the new n-word." 

Jamell Bouie, who's been covering the Baltimore riots for Slate, provides an analysis of the usage of the word for people in Baltimore.


The African American community has used the word "thug" to describe a certain urban lifestyle for decades. How do you think the community feels about being called thugs now?

"I think this word is very context-heavy. In Baltimore, the mayor initially referred to the people who looted stores, and burned cars and participated in the riots as 'thugs,' as did President Obama in his statement on the riots as well. There, the context is very much and intracommunity criticism. It's people looking at bad behavior and labeling it with a word that generally has been used to describe people who are engaged in criminal behavior, people who disregard social norms. But there's also a second usage that's a bit more specific -- and a bit more particular. The trouble with talking about this is it's hard to point to numbers to prove anything here. People have used the word thug in such away as to specifically refer to young African American men. And that is a usage that is also being thrown around and discussed in the Baltimore riots, and that is a usage that people find disturbing because often times, from their vantage point,  the young men involved here -- they're certainly not doing anything good -- but they're not thugs. They're not wanton criminals. They're misguided."   

In a recent interview on CNN, Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes recently asked, "Why not just call them the 'n-word'?" Do you think that the word carries as much weight as the "n-word" in this situation? 

"I don't think it does. The 'n-word' is a word that does carry a pretty much singular meaning, a very particular meaning, when used in most cases across American history. I don't think thug is like that. Thug is a much more flexible word, thug is used in a nonracial context, but it is also used in a racial way as well. Again, it's very context-dependent. Last year, I think, Rush Limbaugh on his radio program referred to President Obama as a 'thug.' I would count that as a racial usage of the word because there's no reason to describe President Obama as such if you're not trying to invoke a particular image of a threatening African American male." 

In your recent piece for Slate, you make the case that these riots were a long time in the making. What are some of the key factors that contributed to these riots? 

"If you go through west Baltimore -- and east Baltimore, for that matter -- and these are referring to areas bordering downtown -- and if you ignore the riots for a moment, ignore this last week, if you've ever driven down part of the city at any time ever, you'll notice vacant homes, burned-out homes, boarded-up storefronts, really nothing in the way to indicate that there's any thought or care given to the people who live in these areas. There's obviously something fueling the anger right now, and that is not an accident. That's not something that happened, that's not something that people in those places wanted to happen, it was sort of by design. If you go back to the 1910s, you see groups of white citizens concerned over the influx of African Americans into the city and afraid, citing social Darwinist theories, that these African American workers and families would end up tainting the stock of Baltimore. [They created] a committee for segregation to lay down plans for cordoning the black population in Baltimore in these two what we see today is an enduring fact of those past policy decisions, and those past policy decisions created the conditions for real devastation when large shocks came to the city."