Leave it to Shakespeare to pose probably the most famous rhetorical question in the English language: “What’s in a name?” Juliet — of “Romeo and Juliet” fame — asks. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Inspired by Shakespeare and current events, I’ll pose a rhetorical question of my own: What’s in a “thug”?
answer, insofar as I’m concerned, is a predisposition to engage in acts
of violence, vandalism, or intimidation, regardless of race, color,
creed or national origin.
My personal definition is consistent with those found in any modern dictionary.
I find it curious, therefore, that African-Americans seem to have appropriated the term as a racial slur aimed at them. President
Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have both felt
compelled to apologize for characterizing as “thugs” those who reacted
to the death of Freddie Gray by throwing rocks and bottles, setting
fires, and looting. To my mind, no apology was necessary.
and Rawlings-Blake both were merely drawing a reasonable and necessary
distinction between the Baltimore residents who demonstrated peacefully
and those who rioted.
A common misconception is that dictionaries prescribe the meaning of words. They
don’t; they describe how words are commonly being used, and both the
connotation and denotation of words can change over time.
“thug” comes to us from the Hindi word for thief. It was commonly
applied to professional thieves and assassins who preyed upon travelers. The
current sense of the term in English dates to the mid-19th century.
Now, within the span of a few days in one American city, “thug” has
entered the lexicon of racial antagonism.
I’m wondering if it’s OK for African-Americans, among themselves, to refer to black rioters as “thugs.” My
Webster’s New World College Dictionary tells me that the N-word is
“acceptable only in black English,” implying that black people have
license to use the word within the black community, but the rest of us
may not utter it. The word “thug,” I’m told, is similarly thrown
around among black rappers in celebrating or lamenting the gangster
lifestyle of the ghetto. But unlike the N-word, white people have
never exclusively used “thug” as a hostile racial epithet. A “thug” is
as a “thug” does, whether the “thug” is black or white.
As it just
so happens, I’m writing this on Mother’s Day, and I’m well aware that
some are extolling Toya Graham as the mother of the year. Graham,
you may remember, has been credited with striking a blow against
“thuggery” — quite literally — by smacking and dragging her
rock-throwing 16-year-old son away from the riots in Baltimore. She
has been praised for pulling her son out of harm’s way, but also
criticized for hitting him. “I don’t believe you should ever hit a
child,” I heard one commentator say.
Under the circumstances, to fall back on the vernacular, I have no problem with her going up alongside his head. Our
society would be a lot better off if more teenagers, black and white,
had some sense knocked into them. Still, personally, I can’t side with
those praising Graham as mother of the year.
As Graham herself has admitted, her only motivation was to keep her son from becoming “a Freddie Gray.” She was not making a statement against rioting. Her goal was to “keep him safe.”
according to the Huffington Post’s Julia Graven, she was motivated
mainly by a long-standing fear of the police among the black community
But even more troubling from my perspective is the fact that Graham is the single mother of six.
less than President Obama has observed that, unless we deal with the
underlying problems of inner-city black communities, we can look forward
to what happened in Baltimore happening again and again. And the
“biggest impediment” to progress in those communities, as George Will
pointed out in 2013, is the breakdown of black families. Between 1965
and 2010, the percentage of African-American children born to single
mothers rose from 24 to 72 percent.
This too has been challenged by the Huffington Post, which recently quoted from an article in
The Atlantic arguing that the birthrate among black women, single and married, has been declining.
that as it may, just watch the daytime court-TV shows, and you’ll
witness cases brought by black single mothers complaining about the
“baby daddies” who blithely pass through their lives.
Not that it
justified his death, but Walter Scott, the unarmed black man a police
officer shot in the back in South Carolina, was a “baby daddy” running
from his responsibility to support his children.
As long as young
black women allow themselves to be impregnated and discarded, and young
black men run from personal responsibility, the ghettos will continue to
Contact Ed Palm at email@example.com.
- Edward F. Palm
- Forest, Virginia, United States
- A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)