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The black thug stereotype

    Richard Sherman’s fiery post-game interview and the resulting backlash has brought the word ‘thug’ back into the forefront of American consciousness.

    The day after Sherman’s mini-rant following the NFC Championship Game, ‘thug’ was used over 600 times on TV to reference the star cornerback. When asked how he felt about being labeled with a term denoting criminal behavior, Sherman said it was a disappointing mischaracterization that seems to be the accepted way of saying the n-word.

    And he’s right. But more than just a sneaky way of uttering a racial slur, ‘thug’ is evidence of a racial stereotype about the dangerous, criminal black man that dates back to slavery and still infects the American psyche today.

    The invention of the black thug stereotype for the preservation of white innocence

    It’s no secret that whites originally created the stereotype of the dangerous black criminal to justify their own crimes relating to slavery.

    Kidnapping men, women and children from their homeland, selling them at auction, breaking apart families, abusing and torturing human beings, publicly murdering them and generally subjecting them to the immense physical, mental, emotional and spiritual suffering that slavery represented—all to increase one’s own wealth—is the work of imperialistic sociopaths, the world’s true criminals.

    But not only did whites commit the original crime of slavery, they further compounded it by accusing blacks of being the criminal savages in an effort to lessen the worth of black life and absolve themselves of guilt.

    Desperate to diminish the magnitude of their crimes, whites invented false stereotypes about blacks that became accepted by many as “truth.” The black thug stereotype could just as easily be called the white innocence stereotype—somebody had to be guilty, and it sure wasn’t going to be white people.

    The black thug stereotype in modern culture

    These false beliefs equating blackness with danger now permeate the American psyche, influencing every aspect of our culture, from the legal system to entertainment. Minstrel shows notoriously mocked black stereotypes for profit, and modern entertainment—most notably mainstream rap music—has become a vehicle to promote the black thug stereotype ad nauseum.

    Though hip hop culture in its inception featured a wide variety of perspectives and personalities—from hippies, hustlers, pro-black teachers and romantics to militants, gangsters, scholars and poets (you know, all the things that human beings can be)—rap music under corporate control depicts only cartoonish, one-dimensional images of black men as sex-crazed, materialistic criminals.

    Community concerns have been disregarded in favor of corporate interests and diverse tales of the black experience have been replaced by the thug narrative—the narrative that white America has been telling about black life for centuries, the narrative that reinforces white privilege and superiority, the only narrative that white America will apparently recognize as valid.

    Rap music is far from the only form of entertainment that promotes this thug stereotype. Movies are quite effective at including a black cast member only to make him the criminal or the prison cellmate. But rap music is undoubtedly the most prominent, consistent and widespread source of this stereotype in popular culture.

    While rappers blather on about their wealth and imaginary power, they’ve apparently failed to notice that they are corporate pawns in a game that ends in their own destruction.

    Deadly consequences of the black thug stereotype

    Associating blacks with danger is as American as apple pie. But more than just a harmless misconception, this stereotype has serious consequences, prompting irrational knee-jerk reactions that often lead to the murder of unarmed blacks.

    Trayvon Martin, for example, was senselessly murdered and then vilified and held responsible for his own death. Even though Trayvon Martin was simply walking home from the convenience store with a bag of candy and a bottle of iced tea in his hands, George Zimmerman perceived a threat where none existed, called the police, followed Trayvon Martin against the advice of a dispatcher, initiated a confrontation, responded to whatever exchange ensued with lethal force and ultimately murdered a teenage boy. And still it was Trayvon Martin who many called “a thug who deserved to die”—although reality provided zero evidence to support this—while George Zimmerman took a life but was found not guilty of any crime.

    And Trayvon Martin is just one example. Numerous unarmed blacks have been shot and killed by delusional people who perceived danger where none existed and responded with lethal force. Renisha McBride. Jonathan Ferrell. Amadou Diallo. Kendrec McDade. Timothy Stansbury Jr. Kimani Gray. And far too many more to name.

    It has become a crime merely to exist as a black person in this country, and the punishment is execution without trial. It doesn’t matter if you’re minding your own business, walking home from the store with a handful of snacks or asking for help. You can be perceived as a threat, shot and killed, and there’s a very good chance that your murderer will go free.

    So when Richard Sherman is called a thug hundreds of times after a passionate post-game interview, when Trayvon Martin is murdered by an unstable neighborhood watchman and then branded a “thug who deserved to die,” when unarmed black people are being murdered without consequence for the crime of existing while black, when Stop and Frisk policies openly and unapologetically target minorities, when innocent black and Latino men like the Central Park Five are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, when blacks serve more jail time than their white counterparts for similar crimes, when black popular music has become a means to forward stereotypes about the criminal nature of black men, it’s time to acknowledge that these are not isolated, disconnected incidents but symptoms of a sickness that grips our culture while we’re busy pretending to be post-racial.

    The association between blackness and danger in this country is irrational, it is epidemic, and it is getting innocent people killed while their murderers walk free.

    Rap music’s responsibility

    Rap music certainly did not invent these stereotypes, but it is being used—quite successfully—to spread them and keep the idea that blacks are savage, criminal and dangerous firmly implanted in the American consciousness. We can make excuses, we can say rappers aren’t role models, we can claim ‘it’s just entertainment,’ but the reality is that the art of the oppressed is never just entertainment, and we’ve allowed a forum for black power and self-expression to be corrupted by outside forces and used as anti-black propaganda.

    There is a lot we can’t control when it comes to racism and stereotypes. But how we choose to portray ourselves through our art is something we can and should control, with the well-being of our people—and not personal wealth—as the end goal. Hip hop is our most intimate, personal and important art form. We should be addressing injustice through our music, not helping to perpetuate it.

    True, a radical change in rap seems unlikely at best, because a vast network of white corporations control the music with a vise-like grip, and because the majority of those connected with the industry are in deep denial. But in an ideal world, all of us associated with hip hop—artists, executives, publicists, A&Rs, journalists, radio and TV personalities, promoters, DJs and fans—would step back and re-examine how we spend our money and what actions and ideals we devote our time and energy to.

    Because it’s quite possible that when we support mainstream rap music in its current form, to some degree we support a system and a set of beliefs that help to get our people killed.

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    Lauren Carter is a writer, editor and creative consultant based in Boston. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and check out her blog at www.bylaurencarter.com. For more information about her writing, editing or consulting services, email her at [email protected].