There are a few words that no public official should toss around lightly in 2016, and one of them is “thug.” Apparently no one told NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. In the aftermath of a deadly shooting at Irving Plaza, a music venue in Manhattan, this week, New York’s top cop unloaded about “the crazy world of the so-called rap artists” during a radio interview:
Basically thugs that basically celebrate the violence that they live all their lives and unfortunately that violence often manifests itself during the performances and that’s exactly what happened last evening. The music, unfortunately, oftentimes celebrates gun violence, celebrates the degradation of women, celebrates the drug culture and it’s unfortunate that as they get fame and fortune, that some of them are just not able to get out of the life, if you will.
Bratton’s comments represent an interesting cultural moment, for several reasons. The reason that it’s unwise to talk about “thugs” is—as Megan Garber explored in a fascinating piece last spring—that the word is heavily coded racial language. You don’t get many instances of people referring to white hooligans and troublemakers as “thugs”; it’s a term generally reserved for black criminals, or those viewed as criminals, or even those who seem like entirely upstanding citizens, like Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who has only ever robbed wide receivers.
This taboo is one reason it was notable when both Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and President Obama referred to rioters after Freddie Gray’s death as “thugs.” Both of them, prominent black politicians, knew exactly the racial valence of the word when they deployed it. That hardly shielded them from criticism—nor should it; political speech ought to be debated—but it was a conscious act. There are certain things that certain people can say, but others cannot. Bill Bratton, a white guy from Boston, should probably avoid “thug.”