Monday, July 21, 2008


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.


Jimi5150 said...

Absolutely beautiful. Exposes Plaisted for the hypocrit that he is.

Remind me never to get on your bad side.

Mike Plaisted said...

Where have I heard this before? You wouldn't call Holloway a thug, but those who do are just fine with you. Oh, yeah...You wouldn't have run that racist ad by Gableman, but those who did are just fine with you. What is it like to straddle racial issues like that? Must be nice, if that's how you want to pretend to hold the middle ground and end up taking no responsibility for either position.

I wasn't talking about how I used the word thug; I was talking about how the right-wing uses it when talking about a strong black politician. I think their defensiveness (and yours) speaks volumes about what their intentions are. I just wish they'd be honest about it, that's all. They might get more credit from the part of their targeted audience that can't, er, grasp the subtlety.

Rick Esenberg said...

Yes, when you use the term, it's all in the cause of righteousness but when others use it in support of positions you don't agree with, it's racist. That works.

I did not say that the Gableman ad on Butler's representation of a defendant was "just fine" with me - except that I wouldn't have done it. I didn't call it racist (I don't have that term on hair trigger), but my condemnation of it was unequivocal as was that of Sykes and McIlheran and all sorts of other conservatives that you seem to think are Snidley Whiplash. People who I might agree with in general may nevertheless do things that I don't like.

Is Steve Eggleston "just fine" with me? I've only met the guy a few times. He seems like a decent man. I might counsel that he not call Holloway a thug because, in my mind, it doesn't quite capture the many things that are wrong with the way in which Holloway operates. But I am sure as hell not going to call him a racist.

Are we too defensive about this? I don't think so. Calling someone a "racist" is a serious charge in America in 2008 - or at least it should be. You seem to be hell bent on devaluing it.

Rick Esenberg said...



Jimi5150 said...

On top of which, the left doesn't seem to have any problems with using descriptives like "war monger" or "Aunt Jemima". Particularly when it comes to references to black conservatives, the left is verrrrrrrrry bigoted.

More credit?

Give me a break.

Mike Plaisted said...

There is a difference between being a racist and playing racist games. As I said in my comments, the message people on the right are too intellegent to be racists themselves. But they know other people are and they deliberately play to those sentiments. I think knowing better, but doing it anyway for political advantage is worse.

You did not "condemn" the Gableman ad -- you said you "would have counseled against it" and then called an innocuous Butler ad just as bad. Then, as now, you deny the racial implications.

Mike Plaisted said...


You are wrong. I think the Aunt Jemimah comment was wrong, referring to Condi Rice or anybody else. If someone called her a "war monger" (hadn't heard that one), that sounds wrong too (more like "war monger facilitator"), but I don't see the racial implications there.

Rick Esenberg said...

What I said was this:

Finally, there is the Gableman ad. I am very disappointed that the campaign ran that ad. If the point of the ad is that criminal defense lawyers are "unsafe" as judges, it works against one of the presuppositions of our adversarial system of justice (albeit a presupposition that the general public tends to be uncomfortable with). There are criminal defense lawyers who come to have a certain type of guerrilla complex and see themselves as called to throw monkey wrenches into an unfair system. They shouldn't become judges. But that's a far cry from making an argument for a client.

I don't think it's fair to criticize a lawyer for his or her clients. It wasn't fair when the Senate Democrats did it to Miguel Estrada and it's not fair here. It was Butler's job to look for "loopholes" on Mitchell's behalf. I have nothing to do with the Gableman campaign, but I would have rather strongly counselled against this ad. If one wants to criticize Justice Butler's approach to criminal cases, there are far better ways to do it.

I think that's fairly clear. The ad was wrong. If I didn't condemn it with adjectivial overdrive, well, that's not what I do.

But this is an attempt to change the subject. You want to say that using the term thug to describe someone you like who is black is the new n-word. Defend that.

3rd Way said...

Something that has been missing from this debate is the phenomenon of cliques within the urban african american community coopting "Thug" and using it as a term of pride. Tupac was the principal perpetuator of that use. He had "Thug Life" tattooed across his abdomen.


1) acronym for "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone". This acronyn was made popular by American rap artist 2Pac.
2) The Codes Of Thug Life where a set of codes written by 2Pac. The codes where designed to give order to the rise of gang violence and drug dealing. It made certain immoral actions, against the code which, would become a code of the street.
These codes where signed by heads from the Bloods and Crips at a peace treaty picnic called the Truc Picnic, in California in 1992.
3) Thug Life was a rap group formed by 2Pac which consisted of him and 4 others: Mopreme, Macadoshis, Big Syke, and The Rated R
After 2Pac was imprisoned on rape allegations the rappers would disband. Some would regroup after 2Pac's release and signing with Death Row Records and form the beginning of rap group called Tha Outlawz.

Entry 2

The Hate You Gave Little Infants Fucks Everybody, meaning, what you feed us as seeds, grows, and blows up in your face, thats Thug Life.

Usage of "thug" in the context Tupac and his ilk intended is race specific. Applying it to a politician you disagree with is inappropriate and arguably racist.

Rick Esenberg said...

Usage of "thug" in the context Tupac and his ilk intended is race specific. Applying it to a politician you disagree with is inappropriate and arguably racist.

Tupac wanted to glorify a set of behavior that fit pre-existing definitions of what a thug is. He glorified that behavior for black males but that doesn't mean that he has changed the word's meaning or removed it from polite discourse when applied to black people.

I am not oblivious to what prompts this type of hypersensitivity but it is really counterproductive. When you go around dropping the "r-word" at the slightest provocation, you devalue the world and people eventually turn you off.

3rd Way said...

I agree that going around dropping the "r-word" at the slightest provocation is counter productive. But it is equally counter productive to drop inaccurate racially charged labels on political opponents.

Rowen was right to call-out counter-productive speech for what it is. Having these discussions about racially charged language is productive.

William Tyroler said...

Interesting that (unless I missed it; always a distinct possibility), no one's mentioned Mayor Barrett's response to an especially wrenching murder:

... Some gutless thug decided he would solve his problem by shooting a 4-year-old girl. What a tough guy. He can brag about that to all of his buddies, that he took out a 4-year-old girl.

William Tyroler said...

Never mind -- I see that Michael's original post indeed referenced Barrett's remark. (Sorry about the oversight, Mike.)

Anonymous said...

I love the "it's ok if I use it, but evil if you do argument" when the entire premise of the article was that this is an awful word that "Always" has racial overtones. Watching Plaisted and Eisenberg in a war of wits is just not fair. Not even sure how to make it even. Maybe Rick can only use vowels, and has to type with his feet.

Thanks again Rick for your always thoughtful and well written commentary.

Dad29 said...

But it is equally counter productive to drop inaccurate racially charged labels on political opponents

3way, do you mean to tell us that Tupac is now editing the Oxford Unabridged? or Webster's? I must have missed the announcement.

SOME of us do not think that Tupac, or Rowen, are credentialed for such work.

Jimi5150 said...

Huh. Alderman Donovan, a lefty, doesn't seem to mind throwing the word around:

“These clowns and thugs are released from prison after serving ridiculously short
sentences and start committing crimes almost immediately,” Ald. Donovan said.

I wonder what "clowns" is in reference to?

Anonymous said...

LOL, in California thug refers to a gang style almost in a fashion sense and it doesn't refer to one specific race.

Anonymous said...

Clowns is a racially charged term and we shouldn't use it because the clown race will be hurt and confused. Then we will only have frown clowns...

Seriously Mike, the Democratic party and all groups associated with political correctness and sensitivity should really publish and update a list of 'racially charged' words and 'insenitive phrases' on a daily basis. The last I heard (and I don't live in California where they are usually ahead of us in the insensitivity department) thug was not a racist term. Included in your publication, please list in what applications this word is appropriate too, so we can still use the word if possible. Also, please list what races can use it and which ones cannot. I mean, if blacks couldn't use 'nigger' we could just have the word disappear so we have to have these directions. Is thug now a 'blacks only' word (and, of course, the sensitive liberals who only use the word on deserving white males)?

Excellent post Rick,