Blog: The Slippery Slope of Using Racialized Language Like ‘Thugs’

A thug is heartless and disassociated from the larger society, and therefore he/she will take whatever he/she desires. A thug, simply, is a violent criminal.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said it was a shame to see the city of Baltimore destroyed by “thugs” in a press conference concerning the riotous Baltimore city protests, which broke out last week in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death.

Freddie Gray’s death is just one of the many, which have sparked outrage from the black community. It wasn’t too long ago citizens were protesting over the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and countless other black men before them, who died at the hands of police.

It is not easy to watch as countless black Americans, of all ages, are killed, and time and time again there is no one to answer for these atrocities. By attributing this characteristic of criminality to a group of blacks, the stereotype of blacks as aggressive and violent is affirmed.

I am not supporting the riots but I understand the black community’s losses, which are not being reconciled through the justice system. I recognize that these protesters recklessly damaging and destroying their own communities act out of fear, anger and frustration not heartlessness.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake did recant her statement via Twitter saying, “I wanted to clarify my comments on ‘thugs.’ When you speak out of frustration and anger, one can say things in a way that you don’t mean.”

But she is not the only one who seemed to use racialized terms to describe the rioters in Baltimore. Gov. Larry Hogan also called the Baltimore rioters, “gangs of thugs,” which did not receive the same level of backlash as the mayor’s comments. Unlike the mayor, the governor of Maryland did not demonstrate any signs of remorse for his word choice.

Racialized language such as the term thug is problematic because it begins a cycle of stereotyping and racial profiling oftentimes leads to devastating outcomes. The problem is Baltimore city is a primarily a black community, and a substantial portion of the community has been affected by the death of one of its members. The protests, which have taken place over these past few years, stemmed out of the collective frustration and agitation of the Black community.

It has been proven when individuals have to respond quickly, they are more likely to factor race into their decision on whether to shoot someone or not. Vox reported in the study by Joshua Correll, on average 30 percent to 40 percent of the thousands tested were “more likely to mistake a black man’s phone for a gun and to shoot to kill him than they were to make the same mistake with a white man.” A fact, which held true, even when tested with black shooters.

“This represents an awareness of a cultural stereotype,” Correll said. “They’re getting the idea that black male goes with violent. The group and the idea are linked together in their minds whether they agree with that stereotype or not.”

It is this type of stereotyping of African Americans, in particular African American males, which has allowed racial profiling to flourish. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, racial profiling happens “every day, in cities and towns across the country, when law enforcement and private security target people of color for humiliating and often frightening detentions, interrogations, and searches without evidence of criminal activity and based on perceived race.”

It is time for the black community to speak up against police brutality, along with the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, as stated by the NAACP.

The fact of the matter is, racial profiling is another form of racism, and it starts with stereotypes such as angry blacks being synonymous with thugs. History has shown stereotyping blacks leads to unspeakable violence and immeasurable suffering. Now, we all know about the Civil Rights Movement and the 1964 law. To ignore the existence of racism in modern times is to accept racism. It may not be as explicit as it once was, it still exists.

This is not to say the mayor, the governor or anyone else who chooses to use racialized language endorse racism, but rather these terms and this type of stereotyping is a slippery slope.

The black community in Baltimore, is a mere sample in the scheme of the black community in the United States, whcih is fed up with the injustices continual instances of police brutality.  It doesn’t justify the Baltimore riots, who were largely students. Their actions were destructive and accomplished nothing. These rioters were mostly students but there were some outside agitators among them. They did not destroy because they wanted a solution. Their violence is an expression of anger and anguish felt at the lack of security and perceived value placed on their lives as young black Americans. The Baltimore rioters purely reacted, with very little consideration for the damage they caused and should not have resorted to such violent acts.

But one cannot expect such a mistreated population to suffer in silence. The week prior to the violent Baltimore protest, there were multiple peaceful protests in Baltimore, which is the avenue protesters should take in order to combat injustice. These protesters remained peaceful despite their frustration unlike the rioters.

Freddie Gray was taken into police custody and died of spinal complications. Many see the solution as body cameras. However, the chokehold, which killed Eric Garner was caught on tape, yet the officer was not charged with murder.

This is not to say police and law enforcement are “public enemy number one” to the black community. Police carry out vital functions in society, benefitting all. Police officers can sometimes have their own agendas and they may bring racialized tendencies to their policing, which can become problematic. In the end, they too are a part of a bigger system within American society.

Just as police should not be the enemy and blacks should not either. Applying terms like “thug” to a population which has an already limited trust of the system, only enhances the stereotype of young blacks as criminals.  It is wrong to speak out against a group of outraged citizens – who are young and live in poor crime-ridden areas – and resort to using the same racialized language that puts them at risk for more violence to occur against them.

It is the start of a centuries-old cycle of racism. This cannot be undone in a matter of decades, least of all in a matter of months. The black community has to learn to be patient and peaceful in order to make leeway in the fight for justice.

As a population, which makes up about 15 percent of the United States, African Americans have been subjected to heinous and unforgivable crimes and policies, still affecting them today.

One should not place judgment, where understanding is needed. One should not condemn a population so plagued by tragedy at the hands of discrimination, and call them savages for lashing out in the face of injustice.

headshotNadia Barnett is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at

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