Rogue cartoonist Keith Knight, tapping into the streams of overt racism which have surfaced over young, black athletes being called "thugs," has created a handy series of images to help Americans discern between misguided youths and sinister threats.
This one (NSFW) image is the most helpful, in my view:
Predictably, Smart – just 19 years old – was castigated widely as a "thug" for having the temerity to respond when confronted by a racist. And Doug Gottleib of ESPN, who is simply one of America's worst sports broadcasters, Tweeted this after the incident:
Marcus Smart was like lil Anakin last year, now he is like Revenge of the Sith Anakin... Dark side creepin in..what's the deal?— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) February 9, 2014
What's the deal, indeed.
The Nation's Mychal Denzel Smith, in an article posted this week called, "How to Create a Thug," related a racist incident he recently experienced:
“I’m not trying to be racist…”With his anger bubbling to the surface, Smith restrained himself, and did not engage this drug-seeking bigot with anything but words. However, he admits that, at 19, he would have slugged the guy.
Last night, a stranger started a “conversation” with me using those exact words. There was nothing positive that could have come out of this exchange.
“I’m not trying to be racist, but do you know where I can score some coke?”
I heard him. It was a pretty noisy bar, but I heard him loud and clear. Still, I wanted him to say it again. “What?”
He repeated himself. My gut reaction? Punch in the face. I didn’t.
“So, what you’re saying is, because I’m black, you picked me to come ask to help you find cocaine?”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not trying to be offensive…”
And then he writes from the gut, explaining his decision not to punch this guy within the larger, painful, context of the black experience:
I made my choice last night on the basis of feeling that I had something to lose. I haven’t always felt that way. Being black in America feels like having nothing. But at 27, there’s something I try to live for. I use my anger in a way that feels productive. I write, I speak, I teach, I shout, I learn, I grow. Last night, I decided to keep doing that. I decided that’s how I fight back.--§--
Imagine having to make that decision when every muscle in your body tells you to do otherwise. Imagine having to make that decision when you don’t know how to operate on anything but anger. Imagine having to make that decision on an almost daily basis. Imagine having to make the decision when you’re sure there isn’t a future for you in this world. Imagine having to make the decision knowing it could be your last.
Are we still thugs now?
This may surprise those who know me and my writing, but I spend a lot of time at sports bars in surrounding Pittsburgh neighborhoods, getting away at night to decompress, grab a good beer and watch whatever game might be on.
And despite many of these neighborhoods being in mixed, liberal areas, it is rare for me to not overhear something implicitly (or overtly) racist. And more often than not, word thug is bandied around within these contexts, as though it's a normative word to use when describing a black athlete who shows any sort of aggression.
And when I hear the word, I have the good fortune, as a white, Jewish American, of not having it elicit an impulsive stream of anger.
But if I were black, and had to make the calculations Smith and Smart and most black Americans must make on a weekly basis, I can say one thing with near certainty: I would either have spent time in jail or would be there today.
Would I be a thug? Is any black American who refuses to stand quietly as institutional racism persists in this country?
If you don't know the answer, you're a part of the problem.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.