On Thursday, KMBC 9 News published a story on a black man who robbed a Jimmy John’s on 39th Street, pulling out a gun and pointing it mere inches from an employee’s head. Within the story itself, the man’s reprehensible actions were reported with the professionalism one would expect from a news organization. He was labeled a “suspect” and a “gunman.”
When KMBC shared the story on Facebook, however, professionalism was abandoned for racially-charged language. “Do you recognize this thug?” the status asked.
What most thinking persons suspect, yet the news station seems oblivious to, is that “thug” has indeed become a modern racial slur. Thug is almost exclusively used, by media and individuals, to describe black male suspects or criminals (or even, at times, peaceful black protesters or nonviolent black drug users). Richard Sherman put it best when he said, “The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.” This was after he was labeled a thug despite not engaging in any violent or vulgar language or actions, the precise same label actual rioters in Baltimore received thousands of times on major networks like ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox.
Defined as a “ruffian,” “criminal,” or “violent person,” the word has gone through slight evolutions over the years and been applied to many different social troublemakers, from members of the Italian mob to unionists to civil rights and anti-war activists. Like the N-word, thug was adopted by black hip-hop and rap artists as a way to describe self and culture, and is sometimes used to describe black suspects and criminals by prominent African Americans like Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. And there are exceptions to the rule — when thug is used for whites. However, none of this makes it acceptable for media outlets to also partake, knowingly or unwittingly, in language that is today typically reserved for people of color. It is indecent and insensitive for any professional organization that serves a diverse community.
It is almost difficult to envision KMBC asking, “Do you recognize this thug?” in reference to a white man. This is because our language, like our society as a whole, has yet to reach a place of racial equity, a place where blacks are viewed and spoken of in ways no worse and no better than whites. We must watch media portrayals of black criminals closely for signs of bias.
KMBC needs to recall that words can have a great deal of power. They can move us toward that place of racial equity or take us farther away, but they rarely keep us still. The station also must realize avoiding terms that have been tinged with racial meaning is not terribly difficult. As one black Kansas Citian commented on the story: “Thug??? Why not man, suspect, person, criminal, gunman, etc. We all know why he was referred to as a ‘thug.’” Whether or not KMBC realized this word has racial meaning, this seems like a good time to listen to Kansas Citians of color and reflect upon why and how language can hurt its own viewers.
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