Current Events

The Baltimore Thug Debate: Why It’s Not Solving Any Problems

Jarvis Williams

The Baltimore riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, destroyed the property of many innocent, law-abiding citizens in the city. Local authorities suggested that 15 buildings and 144 cars were set on fire during the chaos. According to the Washington Post, this mayhem initially erupted in Northwest Baltimore’s Mondawmin neighborhood and rapidly spread to other parts of the city—all in response to the death of Freddie Gray. Despite the Gray family urging Baltimore citizens to pursue peace—and despite speakers at the funeral offering many calls for justice and peace—chaos emerged on the day of his funeral services.

Senseless Acts

Instead of peaceful protests for justice, certain opportunists sought to capitalize on the emotional vulnerabilities of Baltimore’s citizens with senseless acts of violence against their fellow man. Certainly, many protests have been peaceful, but violence was the headline last Monday. The police made 235 arrests. 19 police officers suffered injuries. This criminal behavior evoked anger from President Obama and other African-Americans. The President’s anger moved him and the Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlins-Blake, to identify those responsible as “thugs” for the outbreak of violence on Monday—a word that Rawlins-Blake later apologized for using.

The Thug Narrative

In a surprising turn of events after last Monday’s violence, a number of African-Americans have expressed outrage over the fact that the term “thug” has been applied to those African-American youth responsible for Monday’s criminal acts. Numerous privileged African-Americans, such as CNN’s Van Jones, Marc Lamont Hill (Morehouse Professor and CNN contributor), Baltimore Councilman Carl Stokes (D), and others have stated that they think it’s inappropriate to identify the perpetrators of these violent acts as “thugs” because “thug” has become a racialized word used by whites with specific reference to African-American men. Stokes even suggested that “thug” is the new term for the N-word.

As a Baltimore outsider, who is also an African-American, I’m shocked that certain African-Americans on the ground in Baltimore and in the media say that the criminal activity of those responsible for last Monday’s violence is the result of misguided anger. I do not think any African-American would argue that the recent high profile deaths of African-Americans at the hands of white cops were the result of misguided white privileged behavior. No! Instead, many African-Americans say that these white cops are murderers, assassins, racists, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Others have even said that cops want to exterminate black men, while some of the cops’ critics simultaneously refuse to identify clear criminal behavior committed by some African-American youth in Baltimore as “thuggish.”

Fruitless Dialogue

Nevertheless, debate over whether “thug” is an appropriate word to describe those involved in Monday’s violence is fruitless dialogue. There are much bigger problems for African-Americans in Baltimore besides debating the racialized rhetorical function of the term “thug.” According to a recent census, 63% of Baltimore is black. The city has a black mayor, black police chief, and several black officials leading the city. Many of the crimes are committed by blacks—even against blacks. The black employment rate is low. The violent protests were led largely by blacks. Many black kids in Baltimore are without a two-parent household. And many blacks are not receiving a quality education that will put them in a position to succeed economically. The problems facing African-Americans in Baltimore are spiritual, systemic, familial, economic, personal, and communal.

Jesus’ teachings provide answers to the spiritual problems facing African-Americans in Baltimore, as well as some helpful solutions to some of the other challenges currently affecting both black and other racial communities in the city (i.e. blessed are the peacemakers). On the contrary, debate whether “thug” is the new N-word does absolutely NOTHING to help African-American’s current plight in Baltimore. I pray that the dialogue would focus on both the spiritual and systemic issues that currently divide the citizens of Baltimore.

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