The Myth of the “Thug” in Contemporary American Politics

Kenyamarie Mahone (PO ’23)

The final Presidential debate on Thursday at Nashville’s Belmont University brought unexpected levels of professionalism from both Donald Trump and Joe Biden. After the chaos that unfolded during the first debate, it was unclear whether this one would offer any substance on either candidates’ platforms or policy goals. Fortunately, with the change in debate rules and stricter enforcement of them, both candidates provided viewers with more comprehensive visions of what the next four years may look like. 

During a discussion of foreign interference in American elections and America’s relationship with North Korea, Joe Biden referred to Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un as “thugs”. Of President Trump, Joe Biden criticized that, “he embraces guys like the thugs in North Korea and the Chinese president, and Putin, and others”. Biden then doubled down on the label by discrediting Trump for “legitamiz[ing] his good buddy [Kim Jong Un] who’s a thug. A thug”. Historically and today, the word “thug” has held significant political meaning. Political rhetoric has made evident that the word is typically reserved for a small group of people that have been deemed socially undesirable: corrupt foreign dignitaries, low-income black men in urban communities, and violent protesters. To better understand the implications of “thug” rhetoric on American politics and society, one must trace its origins and follow its meaning through American history. 

Origins of the “Thug”

The word thug can be geographically traced back to India. “Thug” is a derivative of the Hindi word thuggee or tuggee, which roughly translates to “deciever” or “thief”.  Between the 14th and 19th centuries, the word was primarily used to describe an organized group of thieves in India who were believed to have been responsible for almost 2 million deaths. Rumors floated throughout the region that these thieves coerced travelers into trusting them, then proceeded to murder and rob them. After Britain colonized India, Western culture began to develop a fascination with the idea of “thugs”. Mark Twain even went so far as to write an anthology of Indian thugs in his book, Illustration of the History and Practice of the Thug, describing the “bloody terror” that thugs left in their wake. As Kim Wagner, a renowned professor at Queen Mary’s University of London describes, “[t]here was never a clear definition of what a thug was, which is why it was so attractive to the British…It allowed them to criminalize any kind of inidigenous activity as being something that was inherently irrational and politically illegitimate”.  From its inception, the word “thug” has been used as a subjective label to relegate individuals to a subhuman status with no moral compass, thus rendering them undeserving of consideration in political processes. 

American Conceptions of “Thugs”

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the label “thug” became synonymous with young, lower-income black men. The so-called thugs were most commonly associated with drug dealing, gang violence, and hip-hop culture, which were seen as threats by white Americans. The phrase was commonly used everywhere — from newscasts to courtrooms — to disregard and dehumanize black men, ultimately working to justify their soaring incarceration rates throughout the United States in the 80’s and 90’s due to Regan-era War on Drugs policies.  

As the use of the phrase became more prevalent, so did the reclamation of the phrase in Black and Brown communities. Most famously, Tupac Shakur, the only solo rapper to make it into the rock-and-roll hall of fame, tattooed the phrase “thug life” across his abdomen. As Tupac later described, the phrase “thug life” was an acronym for him — “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everyone”. The acronym inspired Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel, The Hate U Give, which follows young teen Starr Carter as she grapples with racism and police brutality after witnessing her friend being shot by law enforcement. Since Tupac’s redefinition of the phrase, the word is now an integral part of rap and hip-hop culture with artists like Young Thug topping American charts.

The Language of ‘Thugs’ in Political Discourse

Despite reclaiming the phrase “thug life”, the word has maintained negative and destructive connotations for Black and Brown communities. In 2015, after the killing of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore police department, protests broke out across the city resulting in property damage and arson. In an address, the mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asserted that, “[t]oo many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs, who are in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for”. Disappointingly, President Barack Obama stood by Mayor Rawlings-Blake in her characterization of protesters as “criminals and thugs”. 

The use of the phrase conjured passionate debate. In an interview, White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended the phrase: “when you’re looting up a convenience store or you’re throwing a cinder block at a police officer, you’re engaging in thuggish behavior and that’s why the President used that word”. The President’s comments invoked a definition of “thug” from a bygone colonial age in which the word referred to individuals who commit irrational, violent acts. At the same time, he ignored the word’s contemporary legacy in American politics. During an interview with CNN, Baltimore city councilman Carl Stokes criticized the use of the phrase saying, “so calling them thugs? Just call them n*ggers… We don’t have to call them names such as that”. To Stokes, the use of the phrase “thug” was an intentional choice used to discredit and distract from the social issues being protested in the city. The labelling functioned to decrease protesters to less than human and to color their demands as invalid and illegitimate.  

The use of the word thug can be found on both ends of the political aisle. In an interview with Fox News, former president George Bush spoke of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations noting “[i]f we let down our guard against this group of thugs, they will hurt us again”.  Like Joe Biden in Thursday’s debate, George Bush used the “thug” label to denounce America’s foreign adversaries. And of course, words matter. If Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, and terrorist organizations are considered thugs, what are we to make of the protesters described in the same terms? While violence and property damage are never desirable outcomes, the dehumanization of individuals who cause it through the “thug” label also perpetuates harm.   Rather than addressing the root cause of violence, priority is given to criminalizing bad-actors.  While Biden did not hold any malintent against Black and Brown communities through the use of the word, its continued use in political arenas further legitimizes the ostracization and dehumanization of communities of color. 

Racial Dog Whistles in the 2020 Election

Using the word “thug” to define abusive and inhumane dictators creates a false equivalence between autocrats and oppressed populations in the United States. When figures like Barack Obama speak of protesters in the same terms as foreign terrorist organizations, the general public comes to see the two as analogous. Protesters fighting for the right to simply not be killed by the police become mindless, violent fanatics with no moral compass or legitimacy in the public imagination.

My exploration of the word “thug” is not to create debate over who should or should not be labeled as such.  Rather, it is to understand the purpose of employing the word in our political discourse. “Thug” from its earliest inception has not been used simply as an adjective to characterize individuals based on their behavior, but rather as a tool to define groups as worthy or unworthy of genuine consideration in political spheres.  

Between serving alongside America’s first Black president and putting the first woman of color, Kamala Harris, on his ticket, much of Biden’s rhetoric has been that a Biden presidency will be better than Trump’s for Black and Brown communities. Missing from this conversation is nuance, largely because of who Biden is running against. His Republican contender, Donald Trump, has set a rather low bar for Biden on issues of welfare, health and social mobility for Black and Brown communities. Let’s recall that during the first debate, Trump refused to denounce the white supremacist group Proud Boys, ordering them to “stand back and stand by”. Trump’s history as both a president and an individual have illustrated his loyalty to White America, with little concern for the issues like police brutality, economic inequality and underfunded schools in marginalized communities. As a result, Biden’s policies on racial issues have undergone sparse interrogation, with conversations about his policies often ending with the simple notion that they will undoubtedly be better than Trump’s. 
 Joe Biden’s legitimization of the phrase thug, even in discussion of foreign actors, must be scrutinized. Biden’s troubling past with policies like his 1994 Crime Bill, which accelerated mass incarceration by incentivizing municipalities to build more prisons and dole out harsher sentences, illustrate a need for communities to remain vigilant, even under a Biden presidency. Criticizing Biden and other politicians’ use of the word “thug” is not an attempt to shame them, but rather a means to interrogate the systems of oppression that have allowed for such racialized terms to emerge. In understanding “rhetorical racism” we can begin to unpack our history of institutional racism, and ultimately inch closer to the equitable society we so desperately desire to become.

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