One of many media subplots to the recent unrest in Baltimore has been the popularity of the word “thug” among members of the media, and the racial connotations thereof. The debate over that particular word began with the much more clear-cut example of the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman being labeled a “thug” for behavior that’s usually called “fiery” or “brash” when white players do it.
Since then, though, the label has been applied to peaceful protesters and violent rioters alike during periods of unrest over police violence, but not to white rioters at pumpkin festivals. In both instances, context matters, but more so in the latter. It is into that debate that the White House press corps has waded for several days now, attempting to extract an apology or a walkback from Press Secretary Josh Earnest on several (five) occasions for President Obama’s use of the term at a press conference Tuesday. Earnest has, thus far, resisted, but at Thursday’s briefing, the press corps enlisted the aid of Larry Wilmore, host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show.
Wilmore lodged an objection to the word “thug” on the most recent episode of his show, capping a montage of media figures using it with the clip from President Obama’s speech:
“Et tu, Obama?”
That quote found its way into Thursday’s White House briefing, as McClatchy‘s Lesley Clark became the latest reporter to try and eke some news out of this (but not the last). Earnest absurdly spent a good three minutes explaining how it isn’t racist for President Obama to call someone who’s throwing cinderblocks at police a “thug”:
“Yesterday, you were asked about the president’s use of the word thug, and you said that he wasn’t going to walk it back, but I’m just wondering whether the President or his staff have been aware of the racial connotations of that? Richard Sherman sort of famously talked about it back a year ago. Did nobody think about that? Larry Wilmore was, last night, you know, ‘Et tu, Obama?'”
Yes, but Richard Sherman wasn’t throwing cinderblocks at police, and President Obama isn’t code-talking to a white audience. He’s the first black president, he can call a thug a “thug,” and that doesn’t make it not racist to call Richard Sherman (or Freddie Gray, as I’m sure is already happening) a thug to your white audience. It’s like Wilmore’s guest said a few seconds later, you can tell who’s getting jollies and who isn’t.
Good on Larry Wilmore for achieving this moment of zeitgeist zen, though. Maybe tonight, he can do a bit about a room full of mostly white reporters (there were four black reporters there, none of whom asked about this nonsense) asking if the first black president has a sufficiently deep understanding of racial connotations, and the degree to which that understanding figures to sew Freddie Gray’s spine back together.