Richard Sherman and America’s War on “Thugs”

Richard Sherman’s trash-talking does not justify the racism against him. (Image source:


Last week, I read an article in Esquire entitled “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American N****r” (asterisks added by me), which was written by Black writer, producer and director John Ridley and published in November 2006.  Championing figures like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, Ridley argues that “ascendant” Blacks should distance themselves from certain segments of the Black community.  He ruthlessly claims that poor Blacks are bringing the entire community down because, in his estimation, they are too lazy, drunk and drugged up to realize the gains made by the Civil Rights generation.  According to Ridley, there are still “too many kids aggrandizing the thug life.”  Moreover, he has no qualms about using the n-word to describe poor Black people and makes no effort to hide his racism and classism, although he doesn’t identify his beliefs as such.  (As an aside, Ridley is a producer for the critically acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave; I’m curious if his politics impacted the film’s message.)

Reading Ridley’s article reminded me of the disgusting public response to Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s post-game interview last Sunday.  “I’m the best corner in the game,” said an exuberant Sherman to FOX’s Erin Andrews.  “When you try me with a sorry receiver like (San Francisco receiver Michael) Crabtree, that’s the result you’re gonna get.  Don’t you ever talk about me.  Don’t you open your mouth about the best or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick.”  Sherman’s comments came after a game-saving play that allowed the Seahawks to upend the San Francisco 49ers.  Seattle advanced to the Super Bowl, where they will play the Denver Broncos. 

Greg Howard perhaps describes the scene best: “This was a triumphant moment, and still to a lot of people there was something viscerally ugly about Sherman standing over a pretty blonde woman (Andrews), yelling into our living rooms with an emotional mixture of joy, relief, and excitement, arrogance, and anger.  Dude was turnt up.”

In a 29-second span, Sherman disturbed the racial “peace” with some simple trash-talk.  The Twitterverse was in utter chaos mere moments after the interview, and a full-fledged wave of racism commenced.  The ugliest tweets labeled Sherman a thug, monkey and the n-word.  One tweet even read, “Someone needs to introduce Richard Sherman to George Zimmerman. #ThugLifeOver.”

Golden State basketball player Andre Iguodala added injury to the insults when he tweeted, “N***ardomn is like roaches…” and “We just got set back 500 years….”  Aside from the obvious absurdity in Iguodala’s “set back 500 years” proclamation, there’s an even greater issue here.  In Ridley-esque fashion, Iguodala helped give credence to the idea that certain people who “set the race back” can be called the n-word.

By the next day, Sherman was defending himself; he wrote an article detailing what happened and explaining the history behind his feud with Michael Crabtree.  However, he would eventually apologize, stating that his post-game comments overshadowed the team’s accomplishment

Richard Sherman, the Stanford Man

Others also backed Sherman by highlighting the story’s complexities.  Journalists and commentators cite Sherman’s background to show that he’s far from a thug.  They point out how he graduated high school with a 4.2 GPA and was second in his class.  He attended Stanford and received his bachelor’s degree in Communications.  At Stanford, Sherman graduated with a 3.9 GPA and is now working toward a master’s degree. 

By all accounts, Richard Sherman is a very intelligent man.  He even has a column, “In This Corner” on The Monday Morning Quarterback, where he regularly writes about different issues pertaining to the NFL.  I personally like the position he takes in some of his articles.  For example, Sherman writes in one article: “If I were commissioner, I’d actually care about my players.  I’d recognize that most of them don’t spend more than three years in the NFL, and when they’re done, many of them are broken in mind and body, and I’d do everything I could to genuinely help them in their transition from athlete to retiree.”

Given the intricacies of this ordeal, larger questions arise.  What exactly is a thug?  And what are the justifications for calling someone a thug?  This is my problem with the framing of the discussion surrounding Richard Sherman: while I understand that those who defend Sherman are well-intentioned, their logic is entirely flawed.  Sherman’s background, upbringing, views and level of intelligence are irrelevant in this situation. 

Put simply, there is no justification for calling him, or anyone else for that matter, a thug or the n-word.  Even if he wasn’t a Stanford graduate and didn’t have a column, it wouldn’t be any more acceptable to make such hateful remarks.  By conjuring his background and intelligence in order to validate his reputation, many commentators and journalists (intentionally or unintentionally) adopt Ridley’s stance that it takes an “ascendant” Black person to escape being the n-word or a thug.  Or to put it differently, the argument basically concedes that all Black people are considered thugs and n-words unless they achieve upward mobility.  Words like the n-word, thug and monkey are hurtful, degrading and dehumanizing; they mean to violently confiscate a person’s humanity.  As such, Sherman was going to be the target of unbridled racism, Stanford or not.  And there’s no justification for it, Stanford or not.  Let’s not confuse education with humanity.

“Thug” is an empty concept that is devoid of concrete meaning.  Like the n-word, “thug” is an umbrella term that racist whites (and Black race traitors like Ridley) use to describe undesirable Black people.  Said Sherman, “The only reason it bothers me is because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the n-word nowadays.  It’s like everybody else said the n-word and then they say thug.  And that’s fine.  That’s where it kind of takes me aback.  And it’s kind of disappointing because they know.  What’s the definition of a thug, really?”

The Racialized History of the Word “Thug”

The term “thug” originates from the Hindi word thag, which means thief.  According to some historical texts, the Thugs were supposedly organized bands of assassins in India who robbed and killed travelers.  The word “thug” was introduced to the English language during the early 19th century as a result of British colonial rule in India.  In her book The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India, Martine van Woerkens argues that the threat Thugs posed was hyperbolized; British colonial authorities vilified the thug’s existence as an epidemic danger in order to evoke fear of Indian society and subsequently, entrench British power in India.  Thus, “thug” has always existed as a racialized term in Western thought.

Today, “thug” is similarly racialized in the American context, as it refers to stereotypes of Black criminality.  Because they understood its insidious connotation, rappers like Tupac Shakur embraced the thug label in an attempt to re-appropriate the word.  Tupac made “Thug Life” into an acronym: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.”  Nevertheless, despite this re-appropriation, the white racist conception of the word still dominates common interpretation, and “thug” is mostly used as an insult to Black humanity.

Despite attempts to re-appropriate the word, “thug” is still mostly used as a vicious and racist stereotype against Black people. (Image source:

Because “thug” lacks real meaning and merely functions as a broad and reckless stereotype, America’s war on “thugs” is more precisely a war on unpalatable Black people, or a race war.  Hence, “thug” is unrelated to criminality; rather, it is about race and class.  In the current race war, public discourse propagates false stereotypes regarding Black people as either good (“ascendant”) or bad (“thugs” or n-words).  These same stereotypes produced and normalized mass incarceration by broadcasting notions of the Black criminal.  As such, Black people are incarcerated at incredibly disproportionate rates.

Black Athletes Going Over the Line

The thug stereotype doesn’t just deal with incarceration, however.  Sherman’s post-game comments and the subsequent backlash demonstrates the degree of influence Black athletes have on American discourse.  Black athletes are frequently labeled thugs because they have a seldom matched influence in society.  Although the public sphere enforces a colorblind ignorance regarding race by concealing the existence of racial oppression, Black athletes often force the public to confront racism.  Through their successes and passion, athletes like Sherman, Allen Iverson and LeBron James become targeted by waves of overt racism that we rarely witness anymore.  When successful Black athletes demonstrate that they are thinking and feeling beings, racist folks view this as crossing the line beyond acceptable behavior.  In other words, Black humanity is seen as deviant.  Therefore, Black athletes elucidate white racism, even if unintentionally.

Sherman’s trash-talking garnered such strong backlash for this reason.  Racist attacks on Black athletes have the purpose of conditioning Black subservience to white racism by silencing the athlete.  Because Black athletes are consistently in the limelight, they are always seen as a threat to the white establishment.  Consequently, deviance and self-empowerment are punished severely, and producing subservience is the desired end. 

In sum, Sherman shouldn’t have to apologize for anything.  Although his apology was mainly directed toward his teammates for presumably taking away from the win, the media portrays it as an apology to the racist fans who called him out in the first place.  Sherman didn’t do anything wrong. 

This story will likely continue to resonate during the Super Bowl, in which Sherman’s Seahawks will go up against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.  Manning is routinely recognized as the quintessential “classy” athlete and shining example for which the NFL stands.  While Sherman is the young, brash Black man from Compton, California, Manning is the “everyman” to whom (white) people can relate.  If Sherman is the Black “thug”, then Manning is the white “knight.”

On Sunday, the race war will hit the field.  Sherman is right to assert that he’s the best cornerback in football – most knowledgeable fans would agree.  I only hope the hoopla doesn’t affect Sherman’s play so that he can shine on sports’ brightest stage.


Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York.  He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.

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