Shots rang out at a T.I. concert last night shortly before the rapper was set to take the stage. One person was killed and three were wounded. On a local radio show Thursday, NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton said they have a “pretty good idea of what happened,” shortly before calling rappers “thugs” and “so-called” artists.
“The crazy world of these so-called rap artists who are basically thugs that basically celebrate violence they did all their lives, and unfortunately that violence often times manifests itself during their performances, and that’s exactly what happened last evening,” Bratton said on WCBS 880, as Buzzfeed reported.
News anchor Wayne Cabot said in response, “it’s been a while since we’ve seen any problems in the rap world and thug culture that has been so prominent and so violent. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen it in New York City.” He then asked Bratton, “Did you think you left that behind when you were police commissioner the first time back in the 90s?”
“No, this world has not deformed,” Bratton said. “It’s unfortunate.”
“The background of a lot of these young people, they are significant artists in that world, if you will, rap, but unfortunately the lifestyles that they lived often times follow them into the entertainment world and the success they have in it,” Bratton continued. “You’d like to think that with all the wealth that comes from the fame, that they’ll be able to turn their lives around but they continue hanging out with the same people they hung out with when they came out of that world of desperation, poverty, and crime.”
By calling rappers “thugs” Bratton is relying on coded language with specific, racist associations for black men. By definition, “thug” is supposed to refer to someone who is violent or a criminal, but over time, the word has come to stand in for specifically black people. In particular, thug is a one-word way to invoke the racist concept that all black men are violent criminals.
In this case, Bratton is invoking certain racial tropes commonly used to discount rap music and conflate black hip hop artists with gangs.
Coded language matters, because it allows people to say bigoted things without seeming bigoted.
“It allows people to say, ‘Hey, I’m just criticizing the behavior, not criticizing a racially defined group,’” Ian Haney-Lopez, a professor at University of California Berkeley and the author of a book on coded language, told Vox.
When Michael Dunn shot and killed a black teenager sitting in a car and said he felt threatened, he said they were listening to “thug music.” It’s how the media, politicians, and people on Twitter portrayed rioters in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray protests. It’s a word many in the media use to describe unarmed black men and boys after they are killed, implying that they weren’t good people and maybe they deserved it.
After Richard Sherman, a black NFL player was called a thug for a fiery post-game interview, he broke down what thug really means.
“The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays,” he said. “It’s like everybody else said the N-word and then they say thug. And that’s fine. That’s where it’s kind of, you know, it kind of takes me aback. And it’s kind of disappointing because they know. What’s the definition of a thug, really?”