Founded in 1356, and lasting for almost 450 years, a secret cult of nomadic robbers and murders traveled the Indian sub-continent committing crimes. In Hindi, this group was called “thaggi” or pronounced “Thugee." in English. The members of the Thugee were referred in Hindi as “thag,” which means deceiver.
The word “thag” has collectively become known to be known by the enduring colloquial term: Thug
Last weekend, I shared a screenshot of a comment that came from my own Facebook page. The comment was made in a discussion I published regarding NFL players and their protest during the national anthem. This particular commenter clearly felt that all of the NFL athletes should stand for the national anthem and that the act of protest by kneeling represented a form of sordid disrespect towards the United States of America.
Part of the beauty in America, is in the principled idea of freedom, that all Americans enjoy. Those freedoms extend to having the constitutional authority to have vastly divergent views of each other when it comes to our thoughts and opinions. However, in the particular screenshot I shared, this person had voiced their displeasure over the player’s actions by calling them “thugs.”
The word thug has English etymological origins to the time of British Imperial rule of India. During this era, many Indian words passed into common English terms. By the mid-1900’s the term thug lost its original connection to a band of Indian criminals and was adopted to a more general characterization that was associated with “ruffians,” “crooks,” or simply criminals.
From a cultural standpoint, the word thug carried very little connotation in America for some time. The word thug was used sporadically to describe some of the Italian and Irish mobsters of the early 20th century. Additionally, the term was attached to the 1920’s and 1930’s to described the romanticized era of bank robbers, such as Bonny and Clyde or Baby-Face Nelson.
The broad connotations in which thug was exclusively associated with the criminal acts of a person, shifted in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when the term began to be associated almost exclusively to describe African Americans.
The word thug being synonymous with African Americans during the emergence of a new subgenre of hip-hop music called gangster rap. Many, if not most, gangsta rap artists openly boasted associations with street gangs, among a host of controversial topics such as violence, sexual promiscuity, drug use and dealing, materialism, and a hodge-podge of varying crimes.
The subject matter of gangsta rap would face wide criticism, particularly from White-America and both the right and left sides of U.S. politics. For many people, the subject matter of gangsta rap was not only unsettling, but it also seemed to them to present a glamorized image of violence and crime, would contribute to inspiring criminal actions in its listeners.
Now, it might be difficult for some people to associate the gangsta rappers of the early 1990’s as being civil rights activists. In truth, their songs were not necessarily about racial equality. However, for the first time in history, Americans living in the suburbs were confronted with the realities of life in predominately African American urban inner-cities. While many suburbanites had been able to successfully lock their doors, roll up their car windows, or avoid these areas altogether, people like 2pac brought the inner-city into average American’s home.
What was lost in people’s horror over the language or scenes being depicted by gangsta rappers, was that these artists weren’t promoting criminal behaviors, as much as they were describing the life in which they were growing up and living in. The truly disturbing thing that gangsta rap highlighted was never contained within the actual songs being published. Instead, the actual unsettling truth was that gangsta rap exposed all of the contradictions of American culture. The music uncovered the critical issues plaguing low-income inner cities. The response, from the political establishment, as both George H. Bush and Bill Clinton condemned gangsta rap during their presidencies, was to criticize the music or in effect suggest its censorship.
The response to gangsta rap by middle-class America and U.S. politicians demonstrated the entire hypocrisy of a social system that at no time actually desires to deal with inner-city urban blight and suffering. Instead, they would prefer to be oblivious to its existence.
Now you could try to ignore or even demonize gangsta rap. However, consistent with all of history, such as the biblical account of the Hebrews exodus from Egypt, the oppressed always seem to find a way to strike back at the oppressors. In the case of gangsta rap, the tip of the spear hurled into suburbia and Washington D.C. was thrown by arguably the most famous hip-hop artist of all time.
Tupac Shakur, aka 2Pac.
In an American society, where money equates to freedom, 2Pac would part the seas and sell over 75 million records worldwide, and release two of the best-selling albums in the U.S. history with “All Eyez on Me,” and “Greatest Hits.” The latter album being released two years after he was murdered in 1996 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tupac’s influence on hip-hop music is still felt today and just recently in April of 2017, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, and by no fault of his own, Tupac Shakur would leave another legacy on American culture. A legacy that over time has come to be a more infamous illustration of race relations in American society, than any gangsta rap lyric ever uttered by the late rapper.
When he died, Tupac Shakur had no less than 18 tattoos on his body. Today some of 2Pac’s tattoos are more recognizable than others, however, almost inarguably, the most famous of all of his tattoos were the words, “Thug Life” tattooed across his stomach, in which the “I” is replaced with a bullet.
Tupac got his “Thug Life” tattoo in December of 1992, at Dago’s Tattoo shop in Houston, Texas. One of the things lost on people who have never examined 2Pac’s life is the fact that the son of Black Panthers, was brilliant. He possessed a deeper intellect than would be assumed by a self-proclaimed gangsta rapper. However, it was his brilliance that ultimately led to him becoming one of the most famous music artists of the 1990’s.
A demonstration of the deeper thought by 2Pac can be found in his famous tattoo sprawled across his stomach. Seemingly, the phrase “Thug Life” is self-explanatory. However, it actually was an acronym. The tattoo stood for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody.”
Remarkably, lost on virtually everyone today is that 2Pacs “Thug Life” tattoo wasn’t about the celebration of criminal life. It was about the instilled sense of inequality and hate that is bred into our children and how it ultimately contributes to all of our determent.
Tattoo and acronym aside, 2Pac ultimately can be arguably considered the single source in which the term “thug” became associated almost exclusively with African Americans.
In 1992, Tupac with his Stepfather Mutula Skaur drafted a “code of the streets.” The basis for this “pirates code” of sorts was over concern for the escalating violence between gang fractions throughout major cities in America. In Los Angeles, there was “Truce Picnic,” in which both Crips and Bloods sat down with Shakur and helped write over 20 rules that represented the “code of the streets” gang members would be expected to abide by. This code was called, “The Code of Thug Life.” Suddenly, across America, the phrase “Thug Life” or the association with Black street gang members as “thugs” was born.
Prior to 1992, Tupac had frequently used the phrase “thug life.” However, Tupac defined the phrase dramatically different than the word original etymology. For Tupac, the phrase “thug life” represented life in impoverished inner-cities. He defined the phrase to mean a lifestyle that one lives where they succeed against all odds. Someone born rich would not be living a “Thug Life,” because they do not come from or understand “the struggle.”
Essentially, Tupac’s frequent use of the term “thug,” was meant to describe people who struggle in life, yet don’t give up. However, two decades after Tupac’s death, a new debate over the meaning of the word thug would emerge.
Ironically, coming full circle to the very place that motivated my pursuit in examining this topic, the contemporary use of the term thug was challenged from within no other than… The National Football League.
On January 22, 2014, outspoken Seattle Seahawks cornerback, Richard Sherman held a press conference to voice his displeasure regarding public remarks that had been directed towards him. A man who passionately plays the game of football, and is known for talking trash, assuredly must be accustomed to a certain degree of negative remarks directed at him. What was it that had Sherman so upset?
Just three days prior, Sherman had ensured the Seahawks victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, with a tipped pass intended for wide receiver Michael Crabtree. In his immediate post-game interview, he declared himself the “best corner in the game” and called Crabtree “sorry.”
Sherman’s comments immediately after securing the Seahawks birth in Super Bowl XLVIII, caused many people to take to social media or the airwaves, calling Sherman a “thug.” Three days after that interview, Sherman expressed his disgust with the fact that for African Americans the term “thug” had become the new N-word.
Sherman would spark a debate over whether or not Americans had culturally evolved a new way to codify African Americans by using the term thug, as a means of classifying behaviors that are deemed “undesirable” by White America? The debate regarding biased underpinnings in the use of the word thug would roll right along as race relations became a topic of polarized discussion in America over the last three years.
In 2015, media pundits such as former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien or Comedy Central host Larry Wilmore began to question the free-flowing use of the term thug to describe rioters in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death, or in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Grey.
Additionally, many people pointed out that not only were protestors, demonstrators or rioters all lumped into the same group, as thugs; but also the deceased in these cases were labeled as thugs as well. In fact, evidence for victim-shaping by being labeled as a “thug” was highly prevalent two years before Richard Sherman brought up the concern, in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Of course, the question regarding the term thug being used as a racial connotation became somewhat confounded, when then President Barack Obama, a Black man himself, called the rioters in Baltimore thugs. Ironically, during his presidency, Obama also had been repeatedly called a thug. Particularly by talking-head Rush Limbaugh on his radio show.
In the debate over the modern usage of the word thug, one side argues that thug has merely become a proxy for the “N-word.” Conversely, critics argue that unlike the “N-word” there is not racial etymology regarding the word thug.
Peeling through all of the layers of the “N-word” vs. “thug,” debate it begins to become fairly evident that thug cannot be the new “N-word.”
In actuality, the racial association with the word thug is much worse.
The “N-word” is an ethnic slur directed towards Black people, which originates from the Spanish and Portuguese word “negro” or Latin word, “niger.” All of these non-English words mean the color “black” in their respective languages. In the mid-nineteenth century in the good ole U.S. of A. the euphemism “the N-Word” would become unambiguously a racist insult.
The “N-word” under its cultural definition, is a term that is weaponized to oppress, enslave, and dehumanize people of color. Ultimately the “N-word” has no direct relationship to its semantical roots. Rather, the “N-Word” does not represent blackness, instead, it represents white hatred.
Under no uncertain or ambiguous terms, the “N-word” is a disgusting term that represents hatred and violence towards Black people.
Now, many White Americans love to enjoy a mythical revisionist history that suggests that in 1865 when slavery was abolished things became racially even-steven in America.
In truth, since the abolition of slavery, African Americans have faced a host of horrific racial terrorism and brutal methods of oppression.
When enslaved, African Americans were viewed as hapless, unintelligent, docile and childlike. However, at the onset of the post-slavery era, White America’s narrative changed and presented African Americans as animalistic, inherently violent, social predators. These are the seeds of implicit bias that have been planted in even the most consciously un-racist persons today. Ultimately they can be traced to things like the unethical real estate practices of Block Busting, or in literature and media of the time that depicted caricatures of Black men as “brutes.”
There is a collective belief in the mind of White Americans today that much of the violence against African Americans during the 20th century was based solely on the color of one’s skin. This is only the root factor of the underlying hatred. The actual motivation, which provoked a great number of the lynching’s that African Americans were victims of, stemmed from the “Black Brute” stereotype.
The portrayal of Black men as terrifying, destructive, savage, animalistic, sexual predators is what many White Americans used as justification for the lynching of thousands of Black men during the post-slavery era. Fables and stories that Black men on the loose could at any moment rape White women, or gasp… engage in consensual sex with a White woman, was enough motivation for many White Americans to either engage in murder or at a minimum turn a blind eye to these horrific acts.
The indecent truth no one wants to seem to acknowledge is that the concept of the “Black Brute” still endures today.
How many times have you heard the term “Black on Black Crime?” Often it is used to justify some kind of inaction on the part of a person who pretends to be a concerned citizen.
“I support all lives matter! If Black Lives Matter, then Black activists would be in the Black community trying to stop Black on Black crime!”
That is a very ironic statement to make, considering if indeed you support “All Lives Matter” then why aren't YOU in the Black community helping save Black lives? Are not Black lives part of “All lives?” Better yet… if that Black community is a little too scary for you, how about why aren’t you doing something about the rampant “White on White Crime?” Indeed, 84% of all White people are murdered by other White people.
The reality can only be either the majority of White people really don’t care about crime or murder. Or it is simply more palatable to maintain the notion that Black Americans are inherently more violent and dangerous.
Ultimately, a great number of people use the term thug and seemingly do so with no conscious consideration behind the racial undertones of it. This, of course, is because unlike the “N-word,” thug has no inherent racial association. Yet, this is exactly why the word thug is more dangerous than the “N-word.” Because thug denotes antisocial, violent, and criminal behavior. However, it is used as a term almost exclusively to describe African Americans. Often when they have engaged in no criminal behavior what-so-ever.
Take, for example, the manner in which the person used it in their comment regarding the national anthem protest. This person immediately described the players who engaged in protest as “thugs.” Why? In light of the common misinformation campaign that has been waged to make some feel better about themselves, U.S. flag code is merely a set of uniform standards and not criminal law.
However, these athletes were immediately called “thugs” by this person.
Going back to Richard Sherman, who some could say holds the claim to starting the entire debate over thug as a proxy racial term. Richard Sherman is indeed a professional football player, however, he also possesses a graduate degree from Stanford University. A school that ranks as one of the top five colleges in the nation. Now, Sherman’s educational background shouldn’t be a measure of whether he’s a “thug” or not, however one has to ask the question, what about Richard Sherman allowed for people to so freely call him a thug?
The truth that is very difficult for people to recognize and come to terms with. It is the fact that indeed, thug hasn’t become the new “N-word.” It actually is just an extension of the “Black Brute” stereotype.
It is this EXACT mindset that allows for people to instantly condemn victims of violence. In fact, it says that the person isn’t even a victim at all. Rather, their death is justified- even required because they are a dangerous menace to society… They are a thug.
This is also the EXACT mindset that says, I don’t have to listen to your concerns. You’re a thug, a criminal, an outsider from the society that doesn’t deserve a voice.
What makes anyone think that if we can so easily carry the “Black Brute” stereotype into the 21st century under the guise of proxy terms like “thug” that we cannot just as easily carry along the ability to justify lynching people? Only now the nooses look like prison cells or handcuffs?
Equally as damaging, we are allowing the term “thug” to be our justification for why we don’t have to listen to others because their voice is that of criminal, derelicts, who do not deserve to be heard.
Lastly, through our innocuous methods of creating new ways to mitigate the immorally destructive behaviors we cling on to, could we be missing the fact that most simply of universal truths actually come from a “thug.”
“The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody.”
There is more truth in that statement than anyone would like to acknowledge. Because we are all disillusioned if we think that by not providing true freedom to everyone, it means that anyone actually has freedom themselves.