Is ‘Thug’ the New N-Word?

The word’s evolution and increasing use are raising concerns about a negative racial connotation.

Tupac Shakur performs onstage in Chicago in 1994. (Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

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Jul 7, 2015· 6 MIN READ
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice, Flaunt, and other publications.

Back in the day, one word could conjure the image of rapper Tupac Shakur, whose infamous tattoo of the words “Thug Life” across his belly simultaneously frightened adults and led young people to embrace him and their hardships. Nearly 20 years after Tupac’s death, “thug” may have a very different meaning.

“I used to think ‘thug’ meant Tupac, a little rough around the edges but a genius nonetheless,” said Mike Black, a New Jersey fire alarm technician. “Back in the ’90s when you called me a thug, I wouldn’t have cared. Now, as a 30-year-old with a house and kids and a job, it bothers me.”

In the aughts, Black says he was wrongfully arrested for beating and robbing a man. By his telling, he was cooperative and calm throughout the mistaken arrest but refused to admit to a crime he didn’t commit. That’s when the policeman who arrested him called him a thug.

“How can you call someone who you don’t even know a thug? You’re doing it based on one of two things—the color of their skin or the way they look,” Black said.

Black is not alone in thinking that the color of his skin had something to do with the officer choosing that particular word—“thug.” There’s a growing feeling that the word has changed from its beginnings as Tupac’s call to fight for unity and social justice in the black community, becoming an acceptable racial slur to describe black men. Now, according to Texas-based language tracking company Global Language Monitor, “thug” is one of the top three trending words of 2015.

Part of what is offensive about the uptick in use is all that it assumes along race-based lines—yet it speaks volumes about the speaker too. Tracy Jones, 36, a freelance writer based in Japan, recalled a white neighbor almost yelling at him and a group of black friends at a bus stop when he was a kid.

“She said, ‘I thought you were a bunch of thugs,’ and she laughed. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but it made me wince a little. Years later, her son started flying a giant Confederate flag on his pickup truck. Guess that’s what made it stick with me,” Jones said.

Asked if they could remember a time being called a thug in a derogatory manner by a white person, the five black men I spoke to had little problem remembering the moment. So while personal anecdotes pervade black men’s memory and can corroborate that the derogatory usage has been in effect for several years, the word has maybe just begun to filter into mainstream media.

According to data from iQ Media, an independent media monitoring service that can track keywords, the word “thug” was near nonexistent on mainstream television prior to December 2010.

A slow, steady climb in the word’s usage was tracked in the following years, with a growing number of spikes coinciding with the shootings of young black men, including Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown. For example, the word came up in the high-profile trial of Michael Dunn, the middle-aged white man who shot and killed a teenage Davis in a 2012 dispute over loud music. Dunn’s girlfriend testified in court that he’d called the rap blaring from the boys’ vehicle “thug music”—something he denied, claiming instead that he had called it “rap crap.” The trial is the subject of the documentary 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets. (Disclosure: TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, partnered with the Filmmaker Fund/Motto Pictures and produced the documentary in association with Lakehouse Films and Actual Films.)

Then, strangely, a large spike in usage on television—the count was 625—was recorded by iQ Media on Jan. 20, 2014. The man accused of being a thug was professional football player, Stanford graduate, and outspoken advocate for civil rights Richard Sherman, whose aggressive postgame Super Bowl interview prompted commentators to call him a thug.

Sherman was floored by the name-calling, stating that it was a label he’d been trying to outrun his whole life. His assessment of why that word was used specifically for him, despite the widespread and cheered-on violence in football, was that it was because of the color of his skin.

“The reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word now,” he said.

So what exactly is a thug?

If you go by the way the word is used and if the iQ Media statistics and correlations are accurate, “thug” is increasingly only applied to younger black men—often from a lower socioeconomic status—and its use has grown at an alarming rate.

In 2014, using “thug” 625 times on television in one day was the peak, a flash point. But since the Baltimore unrest in April, “thug” has been uttered around 168 times per day on television alone, not including instances on social media, Twitter, blogs, forums, or digital media, which would account for most times when “thug” was being used as a discussion point and not as a pejorative. When you add in all the mediums iQ Media tracks, the usage jumps to about 1,255 times per day.

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There were some instances when the word landed in global conversations, such as when Secretary of State John Kerry called Syrian leader Bashar al Assad a “thug” and accused him of attacking his own people with chemical weapons in 2013. To complicate the matter, after the initial spike in usage, articles on the etymology of “thug”—a derivative of thuggee, a Hindi word used in the 1300s to describe thieves—began trending on the Internet, though that doesn’t figure into iQ Media’s television counts. However, in Global Language Monitor’s report of the most popular words, the company gives only two examples of popular “thug” usage: President Barack Obama calling Baltimore rioters thugs and the word’s Hindi origins.

But Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chair of the department of African American studies at Temple University, warns that the public’s sudden focus on the deep origins of the word could distract from its contemporary usage and that people are far more worried about the word’s definitions and origins than they are about how the word evolves. It’s like giving fuel to those who defend the use of “thug.”

“Forget the origin of the word,” Asante said. “Its connotations, despite denotations and origin, are often meant for black males.”

Charis Kubrin, a professor and researcher on the intersections of criminology, space, and hip-hop at the University of California, Irvine, agrees. In multiple court cases against black men who write rap lyrics, Kubrin has been called in to analyze the words for violent or malicious content that could be used against the prosecuted. Today, nearly 20 years after Shakur’s death, Kubrin has to navigate the complicated meanings of “thug.”

“I have a paper I wrote where I found ‘thug’ is one of the most commonly referred to words in rap music,” she said. “ ‘Thug’ means a lot of different things, but when we’re talking about other people applying that term, it takes on a different meaning, and the stereotypes about rappers or young black men get activated.”

Kubrin has seen those stereotypes pop up time and again in court, which led her to re-create a 1999 study in which participants were given the lyrics of the Kingston Trio’s “Bad Man’s Blunder,” a folk song. Half the group was told it was reading rap lyrics, and the other half was told it was looking at country lyrics.

A sample of the lyrics reads, “Early one evening I was roaming around; I was feeling kind of mean, I shot a deputy down,” and they go on to describe the narrator’s capture and sentencing.

Two weeks ago, Kubrin found that when subjects were given “rap” lyrics, they said the language was violent and threatening and needed to be regulated. Those given “country” lyrics? Just good ol’ boys having fun. Perception was dictated by genre, to an extent, and race.

“Nothing has changed in 20 years,” she said.

Kubrin also pointed out that Shakur’s “Thug Life” tattoo is largely misunderstood and that it represented a strict moral code Shakur helped write that was signed by Bloods and Crips to reduce violence.

“That’s the thing about language,” she said. “Context matters.”

Context is also Asante’s specialty. He writes often on how words become racialized over time. The N-word was originally a word without malice, but its heavy usage in slavery times steamrolled it into the heated term it is today. In Asante’s eyes, words can take on new meanings much more quickly with the Internet, now even internationally.

“The Internet is a relatively unrestricted arena for new language. Anyone who can get on the Internet has the chance to express themselves and secure acceptance or rejection of their terms,” he said. So if a word that was used in black culture positively is hijacked and used maliciously, if there is some kind of consensus with the user and the hearer, the term can be racialized, no matter the definition or origin.

“You can call a policeman a ‘pig’ and go to the dictionary and find a definition that will say it is an animal,” Asante said. “However, context and expression are grounded in usage.”

So, when the media is applying the term “thug” almost exclusively to young black men to imply they are dangerous, as Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera did when referring to Martin and his hoodie, the usage has already changed—something for which Rivera became a poster child when he later apologized for calling Sherman a thug.

“My definition of a thug is a bully, someone who picks on another who couldn’t defend himself. That police officer was the thug. Not me,” Black said. “I wanna go back to the time when you said ‘thug’ and I thought about Tupac.”

Unfortunately, as language evolves, that may not be possible.