To Wake Up Dangerous: on Thugs and the Criminalization of Black People

The war has become so complex and intersected that Black America is constantly fighting for survival across all classes and identities. The latest buzzword in the war is this concept of the "thug."
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There is a war on Black people in America; it has been raging for a while. Since slavery, Black people have been colored as savage, unclean, sexually and socially deviant and criminal. This war is fought in courtrooms which feed our prison system, in our media which feeds archaic stereotypes and in our schools which feed long term socioeconomic inequality. The war has become so complex and intersected that Black America is constantly fighting for survival across all classes and identities. The latest buzzword in the war is this concept of the "thug." Its etymology and definition state "thug" means common or violent criminal. We, however, have seen it tossed around to describe acts of Blackness across the board. It is used as a death sentence, to delegitimize and marginalize Black people, their rage and their resistance.

Consider America's favorite "thug," Richard Sherman. After a game where Sherman was assaulted by wide receiver Michael Crabtree on the field he gave an interview where he, in lack of better terms, came for Crabtree's life. This kind of trash talk is common place in Black communities of competition. Sherman was bombastically proud that even despite this interaction still secured a win for his team. His interview was lively and explosive with joy and pride, but Black men are not allowed to show that. The media had a field day. His win and pride was reframed as egotistical and unnecessary. He was painted as a "thug" and his achievements were marginalized. To the chagrin of public opinion, Sherman could not hold that title for long. In days following the media storm, Sherman's Stanford education and immense philanthropy came to light. This "thug" survived the war zones of Compton, Stamford and the NFL to bring his family and his team just pride. How easily can we attempt to erase this work? Anyone that believes in the post-race "we have overcome" fallacy does not see that regardless of class, wealth or prestige Black people can be reduced and made criminal. But the war against "thugs" is more than cultural -- it is violent.

As we learned from the recent acquittal of Michael Dunn, killing black people will never receive justice or retribution. Jordan Davis, who would have turned nineteen years old this past Sunday, was gunned down in a gas station for refusing to turn down his music when Dunn requested. Davis, with three friends, was unarmed. A day of teenagers hanging out ended in death and injury. Black boys on the town became "thugs." The violence that sits in this word is how it works to make black life irreverent as so expertly put by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The mistrial that followed only further reveals the lack of value on Black life and how racial epithets like "thug" and "nigger" are tools of dehumanization. We have seen it with Emmitt Till, Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride. Even in death, though, Black people are made commodity.

More concerning than the prevalence of violence is the industry it has created. We have George Zimmerman getting offers to fight and primetime interviews on CNN. We have 24 news cycles making a spectacle of these select stories. The trauma of violence becomes a circus act. Even in death, Black people are not offered peace or rest. High ratings, endorsements and even temporal fame come from killing Black people. The profit made off of their deaths is mortifying. Not all exposure is awareness, and awareness is the lowest form of allyship. People of color experience fairly constant attacks and microaggressions on their identity. To be a racial minority in this country is to live in a war zone.

We are living in an age where Black people are colored illegitimate. Classed, marginalized and stereotyped as "thugs" and "angry Black women." This age isn't new or better than recent history, just more nuanced. We see continued injustice and violence enacted on people of color and more publicly against Black men and women. This is not to ignore the countless other stories and cases of racial injustice people of color across all backgrounds have experienced. We are bought and sold on TV, in prisons and schools. We are fooled into believing some of us are exceptional, pitting ourselves against our own and others in the margins. We are taught to believe in the American Dream. We are silenced because things are "so much better now."

Black people are criminalized and are currently being murdered across the country with a staggering lack of justice or retribution. But what is the precedence? We have none. Murdering Black people was central to the creation of this nation, and remains a for-profit venture.

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