Mathews: “Thug” is the new n-word: the criminalization of Richard Sherman


By Alan Bean

Joseph Mathews is a writer and public speaker who is currently working on his doctorate in urban youth culture and education at Columbia University.  I met Joseph at an organizing meeting at Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas in 2007.  When he learned that I had been the first outsider to organize in Jena, Louisiana, he asked if he could visit the community with me.  He was interested in shooting a documentary.  When he met some of the Jena 6 defendants it took him about ten seconds to get them rapping.  In the picture to the left, Joseph is filming their impromptu performance.

My response to the Richard Sherman post-game rant differs from Joseph’s.  For one thing, I have followed Michael Crabtree’s career since he played at Texas Tech and didn’t like hearing his talents impugned.  To me, Sherman sounded more like a professional wrestler than a football player.  Moreover, he was giving full, uncut expression to the hyper-competitive aspect of American athletics that has always repelled me.

But my first thought was, “Oh, no, the haters are going to have a field day with this.”  Which, of course, they did.

Joseph identifies with Sherman at a much deeper level than I do because he shares so much of Sherman’s experience.  Growing up as a gifted athlete who initially struggled academically, Joseph has experienced prejudice and rejection firsthand.

When we were driving out of Jena after the big rally in September of 2007, Joseph kept saying, “Doc, could you slow down just a little bit?”

When I explained that we were just a couple of ticks over the speed limit, he said, “Doc, how many times have you been pulled over by the police?”

“Two or three times,” I replied.

“And why did they pull you over?” he asked

“Because I was way over the speed limit,” I admitted.  “How many times have you been pulled over?”

“Thirty three times,” Joseph stated flatly, “and it is almost always for nothing.”

This deeply divergent life experience influences perception at a basic level.

Joseph Mathews is right: in the vernacular lexicon, “thug” has replaced the n-word.  No one is going to call you a racist for characterizing Richard Sherman as a thug.  As this interview clearly demonstrates, Sherman is a well-spoken, highly educated young man.  He also grew up on the mean streets of Compton, New Jersey, and those streets will be with him to the day he dies.

Thug is the New “N” Word: The Criminalization of Richard Sherman and Black Youth

by Joseph Mathews
Thug – a tough and violent man; a criminal
It wasn’t five minutes after I posted my thoughts on Facebook that many of my white childhood Facebook friends went in on me about him. Their comments were so full of hate I had to rewind my TiVo to make sure that I had not missed something, like him shooting or stabbing another player. As I began reminiscing about what it was like to be black and playing sports while growing up in Oklahoma, this country’s most conservative and what many would argue one of the most racist states in America, my memories were haunting. I have seen more than my share of young black males killed, incarcerated, discriminated against, harassed and criminalized in the name of being a thug, including myself. And the comments being made on my page represented the larger narrative going on simultaneously around the country and the feeling of many people in very low and high places.

Man! Richard I wish you would have told them that you graduated 2nd in your class from a high school in Compton and went to Stanford where you graduated with a 3.9 GPA! I wish you would have told them you were working on your Masters Degree! I wish you would have told them that you were not a thug but a hero to your hood because despite the odds, you accomplished your dreams! This is what I was thinking they should have had him saying as I sat in front of my TV and watched the Beats by Dre Head Phones commercial that set the stage for what was about to transpire around the country. During the NFC championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, as the reporter on the commercial said to him “what do you think of being known as a thug around the league?” I shook my head as he just put his head phones on, because I knew what was coming. NFL defensive back Richard Sherman’s character was about to be assassinated, he was about to become the latest victim of the dreaded New N-Word “Thug”.

The racist venom reached a fever pitch after he gave the post-game interview. I watched as negative comment after negative comment poured in – every last one of them questioning his character and calling him every name in the book, stopping just short of calling him the “N” word. But the foundation had already been laid. They could not get away with calling him a no good “N”, but they could get away with calling him a no good “Thug” which was the word of choice being used to characterize him nationally. Unlike the painful racially charged N-Word, which carries much historical baggage, the usage of the “T” word is not publicly frowned upon at all nor is it politically incorrect, and in many cases its used to justify the mistreatment and criminalization of black youth.
This guilt by characterization and classification mindset has been at the center of many recent racial controversies that have resulted in those who committed acts of violence against unarmed black youth being free to walk away, because in death the victim’s character was put on trial, and in life they were all found guilty of being thugs, which in the court of public opinion is punishable by death. You see, no one really cares about what happens to kids that are not fully viewed as human beings, who are guilty of something. But I think it would be an insult to the intelligence of those who now know Richard Sherman’s background and continue to call him a thug. Because I truly believe that they realize he is not a thug. They know exactly what they are saying and where their hearts truly are. They understand very well that people are treated like they are viewed, and that historically the practice of stripping away young black male’s humanity, through giving them names that automatically cast a shadow of guilt and suspicion over them, makes them more susceptible to harassment and discriminatory practices. Now that the word thug has taken on a new meaning, white folks who continue to call black kids thugs, and young men like Richard Sherman thugs, are really saying we don’t care how smart and educated you are, how much money you make, or how great you are at doing something we love, we still hate you and you’re still a “N”. We’ll just change the n-word to “thug”.

The indiscriminate labeling of black males as thugs has created an atmosphere of disdain and insensitivity and has made them targets of crime with very slim chances that they will get justice, compassion and least of all protection under the law. In the name of neutralizing so-called thugs, police have been allowed to shoot and kill unarmed black men like Oscar Grant and trigger happy citizens have been allowed to get away with with murdering unarmed children like Trayvon Martin.

The reality is that most people who subscribe to this white supremacist ideology don’t believe that Richard Sherman is a thug, but they do want him to be guilty of something because that would reinforce the negative raciest stereotypes of young black males that they hold onto to feel better about themselves. Richard Sherman is not guilty of being a thug. He is guilty of being something much more dangerous. He’s guilty of making certain white people uncomfortable. He is young, black, rich, educated, and cocky, feels he is the best, and is the best at what he does. But worst of all he is not afraid to let the world know. That is why in many ways Richard Sherman simultaneously represents the American dream and the American nightmare. He has the bravado, drive, and leadership abilities that are often touted as quintessentially American, BUT one of America’s greatest fears is for one of its black athlete’s (i.e. Mohamed Ali, Jim Brown, Paul Robeson ) to use their influence and platform to speak out against injustice and inequality. Richard Sherman has the potential to be that athlete. If they neutralize him with the “T” word before he recognizes his true potential then their fears will be put to rest — for now. So be careful not to think too much of yourself or you might be the next “N” Word, I mean thug.

5 thoughts on “Mathews: “Thug” is the new n-word: the criminalization of Richard Sherman

  1. Perhaps like many people, I had never heard of Richard Sherman until the aftermath of the rant after the Seattle-San Franisco game. In that event, Sherman gave the impression of an angry, young black man screaming in a bearly intelligible manner, not what one would anticipate from a Stanford graduate with a 3.9 grade point average.

  2. This morning on Morning Edition, Ukraine Activists Charge Police Beat And Even Kill Protesters was full of the word thug used in a “proper” manner. In my mind, I associate thugs with Nazis and Neo-Nazis, as in: “Some 120 retailers took part in the “Diversity Destroyed” event to remember the 75th anniversary of the ‘Kristallnacht’ (‘crystal night’ or also referred to as ‘night of broken glass’) when Nazi thugs conducted a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the streets of Berlin and other cities on November 9th 1938.”

    It’s interesting to see the move to apply this to African-Americans in the United States, for much less serious actions. We do have two sets of standards.

  3. Ok America! Here is your SAT Political Question for Today! Who is the Thug? Is it Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks Cornerback, who threatened to knock down any quarterback’s pass thrown his way in a football game or is it Congressman Grimm, of Staten Island, who threatened to throw a reporter off Congress building’s second story balcony, for asking Rep. Grimm a valid First Amendment protected question, while they both were standing on the second story balcony of Congress?

  4. I appreciate what Joseph Mathews wrote, what you, Jean Humphreys wrote, and my view of “thugs” is the same as yours. Richard Sherman was not a thug or did not exhibit thug-ish behavior.
    And your question, Reginald Lyles, is the perfect one to ask. “Thug” is the code word that people are using instead of the “N” word. It’s like words used for anyone (“Shylock” comes to mind) when they want to semi-disguise, or at least think they are, what they mean in the belief it makes their remarks acceptable to others.
    Like others who don’t follow football, I didn’t know who Richard Sherman was until the brouhaha over his remarks. Football is often on TV in our home and I watch as little as I can. I am horrified by the violence, the knowledge that we all have now about the risks these men take for … money and entertainment. (Where did the sport go?)
    When I saw the re-runs of the play (WOW!), the post-play interaction btw. Mr. Sherman and the other player, and heard Mr. Sherman’s remarks, I attributed it all to high adrenaline levels and a game with higher-than-normal-even-for-football emotion. Mr. Sherman’s reaction was not unlike Howard Dean’s scream after his victory in the Iowa caucuses some years back. (That scream – which to me was an appropriate level of excitement expressed – caused the downfall of Gov. Dean as a candidate for Pres. He however wasn’t called a thug.)
    Hearing Mr. Sherman speak about who he is expected to be on the field and reading more about him, I thought “It’s not him; it’s ‘us’ – the owners, coaches, viewers – the expectations of tough guys doing and saying tough stuff. People don’t want players like Richard Sherman, person, scholar, mentor, good guy, on the field. They don’t want players like Jonathan Martin; they prefer Ricky Incognito and his behavior tho’ I don’t remember him being called a thug for his bullying, direct ugly comments.
    If we want justice, we want to have a conversation about how to change expectations. IS pro-football now what wrestling is or is that the expectation of the viewers? And about racism – it hasn’t disappeared at all. The code words have simply changed.

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