I'm trying to get together a post on public discourse about race in Milwaukee, but I am all caught up in getting a law review article written.
In the mean time, there has been recent discussion around Milwaukee about whether use of the word "thug" to describe a black man is racist. Jim Rowen argues that the term has acquired racial significance and Mike Plaisted (who ought to think long and hard before he accuses anyone else of name-calling)suggests that it is the new "n-word."
As a general proposition about the word, this does not, as we say, bear scrutiny. "Thug" has a longstanding and contemporary meaning that has nothing to do with race. It is commonly used to refer to people who are not black and is even used by some Democrats to refer to "Rethuglicans." The notion that it has acquired some generally understood secondary racial meaning is, notwithstanding an exceptionally foolish article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a proposition lacking in evidence.
The AJC piece simultaneously argues that Tupac Shakur popularized the term "thug" in connection with inner city violence while suggesting that the Tupac opus "Shorty Wanna Be A Thug" is an example of amelioration - minorities turning a bad word unfairly imposed upon them into something positive. As if, in the words of the song, young men "blazin" with their "fingers on the trigga" who are "getting buzzed" and "getting with hoes" are anything but that. One can certainly hear the Tupac song as a tragedy. Maybe it was even so intended, although lyrics about "carrying weight like a Mack truck" and standing "six feet ten" may mix the message a bit. In any event, I doubt that those most at risk of becoming "thugs" have heard it that way. This so called "ameliorative" use of the word is hardly positive. If "thug" has come to be used to refer to inner city gangsters, that is certainly not a creation of racist right wingers.
Indeed, one could argue that returning the pejorative sense to the term "thug" - as many black leaders have tried to do - is a public service rather than, as Plaisted would have it, an exercise in "self-hating license."
There are, however, two other senses in which Jim and Mike may intend their arguments. One is the idea that racial sensitivity or some other idea about the supposedly irresistible prompting of the dispossessed to violent crime requires that we stay away from such judgmental language. Thus, Plaisted says that it is "unfortunate," "divisive" and "name call[ing]" that Mayor Barrett has chosen to call "out-of-control kids on the street "thugs" – as if there were some other word for young gentleman who open fire into a crowd of people.
This is, of course, an overwrought charity that is intended to flatter the "open-mindedness" of those who propound it. See how good we are, turning the other cheek whenever someone other than us gets beaten, stabbed or shot. It can be an indifferent - and murderous - benevolence.
The other idea is that it is silly to call Lee Holloway - a "strong African-American elected official" - a "thug." No one would call a strong white elected official a "thug."
Except they do - George Bush and Dick Cheney, strong leaders both, are often called "thugs." James Widgerson demonstrates that's true for Bush and it's true for Cheney as well. I suspect that there are few politicians that someone somewhere has not called a thug. (Indeed, in about five minutes, I found examples of Jim Sensenbrenner being called "a portly beer house thug" (the writer sort of blew the intended Nazi allusion - the right term is "beer hall"), and WMC's Jim Pugh being accused of "thug-like" behavior.)
In fact - and this is a beautiful thing - none other than Mike Plaisted earlier this year referred to "right-wing thugs like Bill Kristol, Pat Buchanan and Bill Bennett ...." Kristol (or,as the Reddess calls him, "my boyfriend!") is Jewish. Is the term "thug" also anti-Semitic? Or was Mike confused about Bill's race?
Do conservatives ever use the term to refer to people who are not black? Well, in that same few minutes, I found moi using the word to refer to the white Jude cops, Charlie Sykes using it to refer to antiwar protesters who are, at least by stereotype, not black and Patrick McIlheran using it to refer to Vladimir Putin. Brian Fraley gave more examples in a comment to Plaisted's post.
A combination of these two arguments might claim that we should never call a black politician a "thug" because that associates him with actual or caricatured inner city violence. With a few exceptions like Michael McGee,Jr., that is an unfair connotation.
That's a better try, but, in my view, it slices the rhetorical loaf too thin and devolves into a presumption against saying anything negative about such politicians. It's unfair to their critics and unfair to the politicians themselves. Individuals who are treated with kid gloves are never taken seriously.
Can Holloway fairly be called a "thug?" He is, from public reports, something of a slumlord and the "un-sale" of a building he owned to OIC was rather curious. He did apparently get into an altercation with another supervisor, but thug (as opposed to certain other things) is not the first thing to come to mind. But, for better or worse, people use harsh language in politics. While he is clearly part of the problem and not the solution, I wouldn't call Holloway a "thug." But then I wouldn't call Bush or Cheney thugs either and I am not about to accuse people of being racists when I have no evidence of it.