Michael Vick flap has some asking if the word has become a racial slur
By JOHN KESSLER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/25/07
In discussion of Michael Vick's latest trial by public opinion, a word keeps popping up to tarnish the image of Atlanta's $130 million man.
Considering that Vick is not a hardened criminal or known to be a gang member, has the use of the word "thug" about him, and other young black men, started to sound like a racial epithet?
"I've been astonished at the blanket bigotry in some cases," said Jamie Dukes, the 680 the Fan talk host and former Florida State offensive guard. "Thuggery denotes a criminal element."
How did a word with roots in Hindi and historical associations with the likes of Al Capone emerge as another marker on the fault line in America's race relations?
Last Friday, as Vick's latest unfortunate event unfolded, these fault lines became explicit on talk radio, in sports blogs and around the office coffee pot.
Bloggers on ajc.com have hurled the word at Vick and analyzed its meaning at length.
One popular talk-show host, as well, made no effort to avoid the word.
"That's the way I look at him," said syndicated talk-show host Neal Boortz in a telephone interview after he aired a show last Friday that was critical of Vick. "There's no doubt that he's immensely talented as a football player, but when he's off the field, he just becomes another two-bit gangster thug walking around the streets with his pants down eight inches about his knees and God knows what else."
Vick's hip-hop fashion sense, cornrows and jewelry drew as much condemnation in these arenas of public discourse as his string of unrelated personal problems. The incident last week at the Miami airport was the latest to draw attention, with an accusation that Vick tried to take marijuana through the Miami airport dismissed Tuesday. (Earlier this year Vick made an obscene gesture to game spectators and settled a lawsuit alleging he knowingly infected a woman with herpes.)
"It's become a very racially sensitive discussion," observes Steak Shapiro, host of 790 The Zone's "Mayhem in the A.M." sports talk radio program, with some callers basically saying, "If a white athlete screws up, he's made a poor decision; if a black athlete screws up, he's a thug."
"It's just an irresponsible way to label somebody," says Atlanta Hawks captain Joe Johnson.
From India to White House
The word came into the English language in the early 19th-century from India, where it was used in several languages to refer a murderous group.
In traditional English usage, thugs often refer to henchmen in organized crime syndicates. President George H.W. Bush memorably called General Manuel Antonio Noriega of Panama a thug in 1989 before capturing him and bringing him to trial in the United States.
Around the same time, the word also gained popularity in the National Basketball Association when intimidating, temperamental black players were labeled "thugs on the court."
However the word's great champion was the late rapper Tupac Shakur, who popularized the phrase "thug life" to describe inner-city violence in the 1990s. (He also founded a hip-hop group with that name.) In his hit song "Shorty Wanna Be a Thug," Shakur described how a young black man from a middle-class family was drawn into a violent street life. He condemned the lifestyle but also romanticized its ensuing code of ethics. The word has been featured prominently in hip-hop culture.
Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, calls this process â€” turning a pejorative word on its head â€” amelioration. Minority groups can "defuse a word's impact by using it in a positive way."
The O.E.D.'s definition notes this amelioration in a definition of the adjective thugged out:
"Resembling a thug in dress or behaviour, tough-looking. In extended use, as a term of approval: tough, hardened, or dispassionate."
Sheidlower also notes that "it's typical for in-group amelioration not to extend past the group." In other words, a minority group may reclaim an epithet for self referential use but it remains a slur outside of the group.
For the record, Sheidlower has not noted "thug" used as a pejorative term by whites to describe young black men.
Johnson of the Hawks disagrees. "I do think it's definitely a race-based stereotype. And I think it's one that, in our culture today, too many people are willing to accept and tolerate, even when they know it's wrong."
Staff writer Sekou Smith contributed the quote from Joe Johnson.