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A Dallas Weatherman Resigned After Describing Grieving Moms As “The Mothers Of Thugs”

In his resignation, he denied that his statement had a racial element. Let’s talk about the history of the word ”thug.”

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 26: Mothers of the Movement (L-R) Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton; Annette Nance-Holt, mother of Blair Holt; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland; Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis; Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; and Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley, mother of Hadiya Pendleton; Lezley McSpadden, Mother of Mike Brown and Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant; and Lezley McSpadden, Mother of Mike Brown stand on stage prior to delivering remarks on the second day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

During the Democratic National Convention, the members of “Mothers Of The Movement”—a Black Lives Matter-adjacent organization made up of the mothers of Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and other black Americans killed by police or gun violence in recent years—spoke to the crowd about the deaths of their sons and daughters.

Dinner tables around the country play host to arguments about who’s to blame for those deaths, where the problem actually lies, and how to solve it. One place people don’t tend to turn for insight on complicated racial issues involving grieving mothers, though, is their local weatherman. But that didn’t stop Bob Goosmann, former chief meteorologist at Dallas radio station KRLD 1080, from weighing in on Facebook. Goosmann wrote on July 27: “As many of you have probably noticed, I’ve stayed away from politics on FB. The DNC parading the mothers of slain thugs around on their stage has me furious.”

The response was swift. By the next day, Goosmann had resigned. Speaking to the San Antonio Express-News, he explained that though he did tender his resignation, he refused to accept the possibility that there was a racial element to his calling a number of slain black Americans “thugs.” “There was nothing racial about the post,” he told the paper. “It was frustration that I believe the DNC will do anything, like using these mothers, to garner votes. Some have said the word ‘thug’ is a racial term. It means a violent person, as in a criminal. It does not mention color. Anyone can become a thug. If some want to make this state out to be something else, I cannot control that.”

Goosmann is technically correct that the word “thug” doesn’t refer specifically to a person’s color. But treating the word as racially neutral largely ignores the context that comes with the word’s recent history.

The word “thug” comes to us from Hindi. In the original language, it refers to a band of swindlers, called thuggees, who robbed and killed travelers, and was introduced into the English language during the British colonization of India. New York Times article from 1852 traced parallels between the thugs of India and their counterparts, the “rowdies” of New York, asking, “Between Thuggism in Hindostan, and Thuggism in America, what are the varying features?” before declaring that the only difference is that thugs in India tend to strangle their victims while American thugs shoot, bludgeon, or stab theirs. There’s a lot of myth-making about Indian thugs engaging in their acts for religious purposes, and there were shared beliefs among them—including that musicians, dancers, and elephant drivers shouldn’t be attacked. Still, historians dispute the sensational, Victorian-era characterization that thuggees worshiped of the goddess Kali.

Nonetheless, the word had utility in English, and in English it stayed. Its meaning shifted a bit—rather than the outside-the-law “rowdies” the Times bemoaned in the mid-1850s, the word was used to describe men who practiced violence and intimidation. You’d see it frequently in stories about violence in connection with organized labor, whether it was to characterize unionists who left replacement workers beaten in alleys, or to describe strikebreakers who used violence to bring workers to heel. Labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones used it as an adjective to decry “thug-statesmanship” and “thug-economics.”

The word continued to have a neutral connotation for some time. As Gawker noted in 2014, a study by sociologist Orinn E. Klapp on “American villain-types” in the fifties looked at how people responded to the various kinds of villains he presented—outlaws, bullies, authoritarians, and more. The top villain cited, according to Klapp, was the “desperado or outlaw,” and in the groups that he would survey he found that, “Violent behavior places him beyond the pale in popular conception. The group tends to unite against him.” The words they used to describe this kind of character included “hoodlum,” “bad man,” and, of course, “thug.”

But the word didn’t stay race neutral. In exploring the racial connotations of “thug,”  NPR spoke to Columbia professor of English and comparative literature John McWhorter about the word last year.

“It seems to have made a major change with the rise in popularity and cultural influence of rap music and the iconography connected with that,” McWhorter explained. “I would say that the word thug in the black community had a very different meaning by 1990 than it had had in 1980.” He went on to talk about its meaning in African-American communities—how, to his ear, when a black person uses “thug,” they’re describing someone who’s got a roguish charm. But from a white person, “thug” is coded language that definitely doesn’t refer to someone with blond hair, McWhorter says.

Tupac had “Thug Life” tattooed across his stomach. There are plenty of rappers with “thug” in their name—from Young Thug to Slim Thug to Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony—and artists from YG to Trick Daddy to Mac Dre have songs called “I’m A Thug.” Over the years, “thug” has been lobbed at a lot of black Americans, and sometime in the past three decades or so, a bunch of them decided to make it their own

All of which makes it a word with racial connotations that are impossible to ignore. Language evolves to communicate complex ideas. The black Americans who helped shape pop culture over the past couple decades decided they’d rather own the word than be condemned by it, and thug life became a badge of a certain kind of pride—pride that is absent when it’s being hurled by white folks describing young people killed in the streets. That context isn’t something that white people can decide doesn’t exist, no matter how badly they may wish to avoid criticism.

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  • José

    Apart from the obvious racism in using the word “thugs” in this context, there’s another serious problem with Goosmann using that offensive term for these people. In many cases the victims did not initiate the confrontation or the violence. Simply put, the victims just were not thugs by any reasonable definition.
    – Pendleton was an innocent bystander, accidentally shot by others.
    – Davis was shot and killed by a white man who was upset by loud music. His killer was convicted of murder.
    – Bland could be criticized for being bratty and argumentative but hardly thuggish. Unlike the police officer who overreacted.
    – Hamilton, a mentally ill man, was approached by two other police earlier in the evening who didn’t see reason for bothering him. Even if you accept the account of the last officer, the one who shot him multiple times, his behavior wasn’t that of a thug.
    – And Trayvon Martin. A rather unremarkable boy who that night was guilty of being black at the wrong time and place. Again, we only have the killer’s self serving account of the encounter, but even then it was Zimmerman who hunted down the kid and Zimmerman who has proven himself a thug ever since.
    When Goosmann looked at this group of grieving mothers and declared that their sons and daughters were thugs, he was making wild and reckless assumptions. Can there be any explanation for his outrageous comment other than racial bigotry?

    • Asher B. Garber

      Oscar Grant was trying to stop a fight, and Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes– hardly violent, barely a crime.

      Goosmann should change his name to Goosestep.

    • You have several mis-representations here, but the worst is the one about Trayvon Martin. There is zero evidence that his being black was the reason Zimmerman confronted him. But,if you happen to know of something that has escaped the media, please share here. Evidence, not wishful thinking or opining.

      • José

        I assume that you have a head on your shoulders and it is somewhat functional. So tell me, do you believe that Zimmermann would have been just as suspicious of a white kid walking at night through the same neighborhood? And that he would make the same effort to hunt down this kid? And pull a gun on him? And if a white boy had been tragically killed by a vigilante, do you think that the police would have said it was no big deal, there was no need to investigate, no need to hold the gunman? If you think that the actions of Zimmermann and the Sarasota Police would have been the same, boy, you need to get that head examined.

        • I assume you are a liberal because of your condescending smug, insulting, and patronizing tone. I understand, its the only way you can confront opposing views. As for your question, I asked for evidence, and you provided none. Instead, you simply argue that ‘it MUST be so’ because you think so. BTW, the police did not say it was “no big deal” or their was no “need to investigate”, that is just your political drama script. You basically admit that evidence is not needed, just the fact that a WHITE Hispanic was suspicious of a young black kid is all you need to know that racism was the core issue. Perhaps you should re-examine that kind of thinking.

  • biff

    “Thug” is dogwhistle racism. If you mean criminal, say criminal. He isn’t stupid, he knew exactly what he was saying.

  • Okay, I am now convinced that the Texas Monthly has become an outspoken media arm of the far left. Yes, for the TM, now any negative word applied to people who are black can be retroactively labeled ‘racist’, at the discretion of any far left progressive or militant activist. If not “thug,” then “pimp”, or “savage”, or “thief”, or “hoodlum”, etc. The purpose? To make it impossible, without the risk of being labeled ‘racist’, to use any negative word against any black person accused of anything if doing so will diminish the left’s agenda. Thanks for putting us all on notice, Dan Solomon.