Baltimore flip-flop: When did ‘thugs’ become a radioactive word?

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Why on earth are we having a debate about the word “thugs”?

Isn’t that an utterly appropriate term for people who set police cars and buildings ablaze, loot burning stores and capitalize on an unfortunate death by destroying a community?

And given the seriousness of the issues raised by the Baltimore riots, how did this become a linguistic discussion?

President Obama complained about the “thugs” who rampaged in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake complained about “thugs” as well—and was careful to spell out who she meant. She made a sharp distinction between those who protect peacefully “and the thugs who only want to incite violence and destroy our city.” 

But the mayor, whose performance in this crisis might generously be described as erratic, took it back a day later.

“There are no thugs in Baltimore,” Rawlings-Blake declared. “Sometimes my own little anger translator gets the best of me.”

Non-anger translation: I took heat from the black community so I’m now disavowing my own words.

Excuse me, but when did “thugs” become a racial term? There are lots of white thugs out there. Anyone who engages in thuggish behavior deserves the label.

This is just PC run amok.

The debate then took a more ludicrous turn when Carl Stokes, a Baltimore councilman, was so outraged by the thug talk that he upped the ante. “These are children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us. No, we don't have to call them thugs," Stokes told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “Just call them n-----s. Just call them n-----s. 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, and how thug is just as bad. And that’s led to media-on-media criticism. MSNBC’s Alex Wagner said that “there are folks, like CNN's Erin Burnett, who don't understand why it's offensive, and why some people are saying the T-word is the new N-word."

The T-word, of course, was used by the first African-American president of the United States. And the White House hasn’t issued any “clarification” about that.

There’s no way that people who merely protest, or everyone in an impoverished neighborhood, should be smeared as thugs. But this whole thing strikes me as a sideshow, empty calories for the media.

What we should be debating is how police deal with urban disturbances, how to address the poverty and dysfunctional families that create fertile conditions for riots—complicated stuff that isn’t going to be neatly resolved in time for the Sunday shows.

But I guess it’s easier to beat up on people who allegedly use the wrong words—or change their minds about what words are acceptable.

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