Code Word ‘Thug’: Richard Sherman and Racial Taunting

“This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out for you with brutal clarity, and in as many ways possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity” – James Baldwin The Fire Next Time

The recent firestorm that erupted out of the post-game comments of Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks serves as a reminder of how race and in particular black male identity is perceived as problematic in the public sphere.

Black bodies still drip with the historical residue of commodification that America deployed in its initial relationship to blackness. The notion that blacks, both male and female, are inherently aggressive, overly emotive, and exceptionally violent has developed  into a never-ending American narrative. All of this seems to automatically come with the package of being black.

These mischaracterizations have created their own “reality.” A reality where the politics of respectability and behavioral analysis are too often deployed. And they are with the intention of maintaining surveillance of black bodies. So when Richard Sherman is characterized and described as a “thug,” with coded language, it drives at the idea of blackness no matter where it is presented as something “other.”

Richard Sherman emerges out of Compton, California where like most places with high concentrations of black life, there are sociologically designed limits on aspirations, hopes, and dreams. Sherman transcended the preconceived confines of his own reality against insurmountable odds. Sherman was second in his high school class and held down a 3.9 GPA at Stanford University. The Seahawks selected Sherman in the fifth round – the 154th selection overall of the 2011 draft.

In his own words at a press conference Sherman asked, “What’s the definition of a thug really?” Then he compared his actions in a post-game interview with the endorsed fighting that takes place in the National Hockey League: “Maybe I’m talking loudly and doing something I’m not supposed to. But I’m not … there was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey. They just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and said, ‘Oh, man. I’m the thug? What’s going on here?'”

Even in a predominately white sport like hockey, if some of their players are described as “thugs,” it’s rare and does not have the cultural, sociological, and historical ramifications that calling Sherman a “thug” has. Whites who are considered thugs are exceptions to the rule, but blacks are considered preordained thugs and are ruled by it without exception.

Sherman continues, “The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the ‘n-word’ nowadays. It’s like everyone else said the ‘n-word’ and they said ‘thug’ and they’re like ‘Ah, that’s fine.’ That’s where it kind of takes me aback and it’s kind of disappointing.”  To label Richard Sherman as a “thug” is to ignorantly and arrogantly deny everything that he stands for and everything that he has had to stand against to get this space in his life.

Monica Coleman was right when she said, “Naming has the potential to turn a subject into an object.”

The conversation around the complexity of race in America and in professional sports specifically will never be a genuine, honest, and intelligent dialogue by simply defining the likes of Richard Sherman as “thug.” The Allen Iverson era and the NBA Dress Code is one example that comes to mind. This rebirth of “thug life” in this context displays with brutal clarity that black bodies in the public square are dangerous and threatening no matter how educated, gifted, and philanthropic he or she may be.

Sherman says, “Just because you hear Compton, you hear Watts, you hear cities like that, you just think ‘thug.  He’s a gangster.  He’s this, that, and the other, and then you hear Stanford, and they’re like, ‘oh man, that doesn’t even make sense, that’s an oxymoron.’ You fight it for so long, and to have it come back up and people start to use it again, it’s really frustrating.”

DuBois posed the question and it still lurks in the imagination of American culture and in the “everydayness” of the business of being black: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Rev. Rashad D.Grove is the Senior Pastor of The First Baptist Church of Wayne in Wayne, PA, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He's a graduate of Genvea College and is currently a graduate student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Empire State College studying African-American studies. You can visit the church at www.fbcwayne.org and you can follow him @thegroveness.