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Slip or not, ‘thug’ is a word with a painful, complicated history

Cleveland Cavs coach John Beilein apologized for the slip, but the damage is done

After Trayvon Martin was killed by the self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in 2012, Geraldo Rivera went on national TV and said, “I was right about the hoodie wasn’t I? I mean, I hate to brag, but I got criticized by every pundit in America when I said Trayvon Martin would be alive today but for the fact that he was wearing thug wear – he was wearing the hoodie.”

After Michael Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that it could have been avoided “if he’d have behaved like something other than a thug.”

Almost a year after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police officer Timothy Loehmann in Cleveland in 2014, Miami police union president Lt. Javier Ortiz engaged in a debate on Twitter and said, “Act like a thug, and you’ll be treated like one.”

They all used the word “thug” in their description of the young men in an attempt to justify their killings to America. The word was used as a way to make the public feel less traumatized by the killings. Those statements are usually accompanied by “he was no angel.”

Enter Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein.

Beilein is in his first season as coach of the Cavaliers and during a film session in which he was actually singing praises of the team’s revamped play, he told the players that they were no longer playing “like a bunch of thugs,” according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Beilein later explained that “thugs” was not what he intended to say, but rather “slugs” was his targeted word.

“I didn’t realize that I had said the word ‘thugs,’ but my staff told me later I did and so I must have said it,” Beilein told ESPN on Wednesday night. “I meant to say slugs, as in slow-moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment. That’s what I was trying to say. I’ve already talked to eight of my players tonight, and they are telling me that they understand.”

Has the word “thug” become the new N-word? Is it a code word for black people misbehaving? Is it now a racial pejorative used to describe black men in a way that escapes the description of white counterparts?

I’m not here to judge the authenticity of his apology, or whether the players should forgive his claimed slip of the tongue, but one thing that can’t be denied is that the word “thug” has a history of being used in a very targeted way against black men.

Has the word “thug” become the new N-word? Is it a code word for black people misbehaving? Is it now a racial pejorative used to describe black men in a way that escapes the description of white counterparts?

In many cases, the answer to all of the above is a simple yes.

I remember in high school being pulled over by the police while on my way to a basketball game and being told to get out of the car and sit on the ground while they checked everything. That was routine in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by the Tulsa Police Department whenever they pulled over black and brown men back in the 1990s when I was attending Booker T. Washington High School. I remember vividly one of the officers saying, “he looks like a thug to me, keep checking. Sure he’s got a prior.”

That told me everything I needed to know about how those police officers viewed me. Didn’t matter that I was an honor roll student, on the speech and debate team, was a junior deacon at Antioch Baptist Church, all that mattered to those police officers was that I “looked like a thug” and they put me in a specific category.

If Beilein had a slip of the tongue and he apologized, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t happen again.

If I heard a coach refer to me as a thug, it would take me right back to that night in Tulsa when I was sitting on the curb with flashing lights and four police cars surrounding me while I tried not to make any sudden moves while I’m waiting for my fate as my life was in their hands. If Beilein had a slip of the tongue and he apologized, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t happen again.

Language matters, and those are mistakes that simply can’t happen in this day and age. And to all the people who think too much is being made of this, and it’s just the liberal society that is too politically correct now and that everything is offensive, imagine being the mother or father of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, and hearing a white person use the same word that was used to justify the murder of their son.

Then tell me we are being too sensitive.

Etan Thomas, writes for The Guardian and has previously written for The Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN, ESPN, Hoopshype.com and slamonline. He frequently can be seen on MSNBC as a special correspondent for “hot topics.” He continues to be invited on syndicated radio and co-hosts a weekly local radio show on WPFW 89.3FM, The Collision, where sports and politics collide.