One of the most volatile discussions to erupt from Baltimore this week involved not the need for police reform, not our troubling tendency to demonize members of other races without due process, not the ongoing, frustrating, seemingly futile struggle for equality in an allegedly “postracial” nation. Nope, it involved White America’s right to use the word “thug.” My God, you’d think we’d been stripped of our dignity and robbed of our civil rights.
Fox News’ Howard Kurtz emerged to support the linguistically oppressed, tempering his outrage with wounded indignation. “This is just PC run amok,” he sniveled, taking Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to task because she apologized for using the term, then blasting city councilman Carl Stokes for chiding a “thug”-happy CNN anchor with “Just call them [deleted]. No, we don’t have to call them by names such as that.”
“So now we’ve veered off into arguing about the N-word,” Kurtz continued, “and how thug is just as bad.”
Yup. Sorry. That’s how language works. Meanings change. It’s happened to less deserving words than “thug.” What began as a 14th century gang of Indian cutthroats and killers has survived various permutations — murderous rumrunners, two-bit punks — to the present day, where it’s overwhelmingly invoked as a default slur against, well, people who don’t look like Howard Kurtz. And, as it’s evolved over more than a quarter-century, you’d have to be terribly obtuse, a fictional character or a time traveler from 1936 to be so oblivious.
The trajectory goes like this: Hip-hop reintroduced the word to the popular lexicon. White culture seized the imagery and emulated it, built upon it or, more insidiously, capitalized on it as an acceptable substitute for an epithet they were no longer allowed to utter in public (rooted in the old “Hey, that’s what they call themselves!” defense, as if that makes it fine). Honestly, I haven’t seen “thug” as a description of Caucasian misdeeds since Hunter S. Thompson’s evaluations of the Nixon White House, and Hunter’s been dead 10 years.
Look. I love words. I love their etymologies. I love mashing them together, crushing them into symphonies. I’ve even railed in this space against the overuse of “relevant” as a synonym for “popular” and lamented the decline of “thong.” But I don’t mind losing “thug.” Good riddance, in fact. It was always an ugly word (but fun to employ in political screeds), and somehow White America made it uglier. We’ve abused the privilege. Let it go.