Brian Williams has been accused of many things, but being racist has not been one of them. Yet one of the stories Williams told whose authenticity has been called into question bears the hallmarks of subtle bigotry.
That story -- told over the years to various reporters, writers and others -- concerns the time Williams spent at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, where he claims groups of dangerous men roamed the hallways with criminal intent.
“Our hotel was overrun with gangs,” Williams told former "NBC Nightly News" managing editor Tom Brokaw in a video published by Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in June 2014. “You’d hear young, kind-of-thuggish kids walking about and down the hall all night,” he told author Judith Sylvester for her 2008 book The Media and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to The Washington Post.
It was revealed this week that Williams’ portrayal of the security situation at the Ritz-Carlton during Hurricane Katrina may not be accurate. As The Post points out, three individuals have said no gangs infiltrated the hotel, as Williams claims. The Post also spoke with the hotel’s manager at the time, Myra DeGersdorff, who said the closest thing to there being “gangs” in the Ritz-Carlton was one incident where “maybe one or two” looters entered the hotel but were “immediately” chased out.
Whether or not his story is true, Williams’s choice of words is telling. Why did he seek to portray the criminals as “thuggish kids”? It seems that in grasping for a scary stereotype to add drama to his story, he settled on a word that conveyed a very specific image -- that of a young black male, and one that white people might find frightening. The word “thug” is particularly useful in conjuring that stereotype because it’s a loaded term that stays (just barely) within the boundaries of what’s typically deemed “acceptable” language.
But “thug” is a heavy word, fraught with hidden meaning. “It seems like it's an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word now," said professional football player Richard Sherman during a press conference in January of last year after being called a “thug” by hundreds of people on TV and the Internet, merely because he’d briefly taunted a player from another team in the presence of a video camera (after a truly exceptional play which no doubt left him feeling exhilarated).
Sherman asked, “Can a guy on a football field just talking to people” be a thug? He questioned whether people would use the word to refer to white athletes who were acting belligerently: “There was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey! They just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and said, 'Ah, man, I'm the thug?’”
Sherman’s remarks represent only one of the latest examples in an alarming trend, where the word “thug” is used as a kind of code. Ever since 2008, the word has been a convenient dog whistle for conservatives and the right-wing to refer to President Barack Obama. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Karl Rove and Michelle Malkin have all used the word to drum up anger against the president and his policies. Limbaugh in particular seems to employ it on a fairly regular basis for this purpose. (Hat tip to the research group Media Matters for America for keeping track.)
The liberal media are perhaps less guilty of, but by no means immune from, using the word “thug” to evoke an offensive stereotype. Bill Maher said Michael Brown was “acting like a thug” when he stole cigarillos from a 7-Eleven the day he was shot by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. Brown was also called a thug by a guest commentator during an MSNBC discussion about race in December 2014.
The outcry from watchdog groups, race scholars, bloggers and others is growing steadily louder when prominent voices drop the word “thug” in conversation. Yet until members of the media stop using it to demonize young black men -- or, as appears to be the case with Williams, imaginary young black men -- the double standard will continue.