Lee: The definition of a 'thug'

BY ASHLEY LEE | JANUARY 31, 2014 5:00 AM

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While I’m not a serious NFL fan, I did hear about the controversy surrounding Seattle Seahawk 25-year-old cornerback Richard Sherman. It was his heated and passionate behavior in an interview following the NFC Championship Game that instilled tremendous fear and even disgust among some viewers. Some took it upon themselves to further insult Sherman with racial slurs and call him a thug.

Granted, many people had no problem with his outburst. Football is a physically demanding and arguably violent activity in which players are bound to express an array of feelings on and off the field. Sherman’s anger in his interview with Erin Andrews was directed at 49er receiver Michael Crabtree, who immaturely rejected his handshake at the end of the game.

But more concerning than Sherman’s postgame behavior was the horrendous and offensive public scrutiny that ensued after his interview. Footage showed him yelling and photographs focused solely on his wild expressions. This depiction is all too familiar — the image presented in the media is that of a black male as a hostile menace to society who must be restrained.

The stereotype of the Brute Negro has circulated since Reconstruction — internalized by those who hold anti-black prejudices close to their hearts. This vicious, aggressive, and animalistic creature resembles a beast who must be stopped — a caricature created by white people to dehumanize black males. This portrayal has encouraged the country to see how inadequate black men are by themselves without white intervention.

In 21st-century vernacular, the Brute is now referred to as the “thug.” It was used to refer to the late Trayvon Martin, and it continues to be an epithet used in the criminalization of black men. A black face means trouble. There’s no surprise angry tweets and messages poured in deeming Sherman as such.

There are certain words in the English language that have racial connotations. Regardless of the tone used, the context in conversation, or the images we have been trained to associate with particular words, they render discomfort. “Thug” is merely a derogatory name attributed to black men that allows someone to implicitly insult them.

Sherman admitted in a recent press conference, “The only reason [thug] bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.” He then asks, “What’s the definition of a thug, really?”

To understand the history behind the Brute stereotype is to then understand how and why the word “thug” has transformed into an abusive and racially coded term for black men.

It’s easy to consider Sherman as a hot-tempered black male. While I think his behavior after the NFC game was uncalled for, I don’t think it’s right to further assume that he’s terrible person overall, however.

Perhaps the diss from Crabtree, coupled with the joy in knowing he will play in the Super Bowl, created a sense of empowerment — so much that he loss his temper.

Regardless, to call someone a thug is to deem the individual unworthy, unintelligent, and up to no good. It strips away their humanity and forces them to become nothing but a one-dimensional idea.

Sherman is far from a thug. From Compton to Stanford to participating in this year’s Super Bowl, he truly is the epitome of the rags to riches success story.

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