Public Editor

The word ‘thug’ in Baltimore coverage ignites debate

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is one who used the word “thug” to refer to Baltimore rioters. She later apologized.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is one who used the word “thug” to refer to Baltimore rioters. She later apologized. The Associated Press

What do rioters in Baltimore, allies of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Liberian civil war fighters and even Darth Vader have in common?

They’ve all been referred to as “thugs” in The Kansas City Star in recent weeks.

The word is on many people’s lips after the recent unrest in Baltimore surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. President Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, both of whom are black, used it to describe those causing mayhem in the city’s streets.

But other voices find it problematic. In a testy exchange with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Baltimore city councilman Carl Stokes explicitly voiced what the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman and others have said for years: that “thug” has become a coded, genteel way to say “N-word.”

But what about the examples where the term has been used in different contexts? It clearly doesn’t always refer to African-Americans, so is it fair that Obama, Rawlings-Blake and others have taken so much heat for using it?

The answer lies in who is making the objection. If there’s anything I’ve learned in speaking to uncountable readers through the years, it’s that each one of us brings our own set of life experiences to how we perceive language.

I’m here to tell you that someone who grew up in a stable family and insulated from the fear of going hungry simply cannot get inside the mind of another person who endured an early life of absent parents, drug abuse, or any number of the factors that make children prone to perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty.

That goes in all directions, too. I have had good discussions with many white, suburban conservatives who have understandably bristled at broad-brush stereotypes articulated by columnists and letter-writers in the Opinion section. Their objections are just as fair.

That isn’t an equivalence, though. It is impossible for someone whose primary identity is in the majority to truly understand the power an epithet can wield. Yes, “cracker” might be thrown around in anger, but it cannot land with the sting of the worst of the too many ugly terms we have for minorities of all stripes.

A caller last Friday said she was glad she hadn’t read “thug” cavalierly in The Star referring to Baltimore, but only in direct quotes or commentary about its use.

“There are different, better words to use, and I hope (The Star) chooses those instead,” she said.

‘Stupidest argument’

A lot of readers strongly disagreed with my last column, where I wrote that the public has the right to know the names of police officers involved in the death of criminal suspects.

That was “the stupidest argument I’ve ever heard,” as one of my critics wrote.

Fair enough — and it’s my fault because I left out an important caveat.

I didn’t mean that the name of every officer who’s involved in a death should be disclosed, though the column implied that.

I should have said journalists should consider disclosing the officer’s name when there is a credible accusation of wrongdoing.

But when officers’ actions are deemed justified, their privacy should be respected.

Derek Donovan will return May 6.