A Semantic of Racism - Richard Sherman’s Media Storm

The big news item of the week: Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, in an immediate post game interview, talked some major shit about the wide receiver he was covering that game and against which he had just made a major game-winning play.   He said things like "Well, I'm the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get! Don't you ever talk about me!” and "Don't you open your mouth about the best, or I'm gonna shut it for you real quick!”  At first blush, some pretty rude comments and sore-winning remarks.

Make no mistake, Richard Sherman is a brilliant man and a brilliant player.  Look up any number of brief biographies published in the wake of this incident and you will find that he was an honors student from very modest means who went on to play for the academic-focus Stanford.  He excelled at wide receiver yet elected to switch to cornerback despite the loss in glamor.  He is articulate - more so than any number of professional athletes black or white - and is not afraid to push back against critics.  To anyone who is not already biased against him, his comments are forgivable because they came after a moment of high tension and accomplishment.

Much has been said across the media spectrum about his exhortations, with commentary oscillating back and forth between derision for his lack of decorum, the need to let a pumped-up player cool down from the biggest moment of their career before asking for something substantive to come from their mouth, to then analyzing the reaction to his rant.   This last part is where I think we can learn the most about society: from Twitter and Facebook, where racists commented while hidden in the anonymous aether of social media.

Racists, you say?  Yes, there were a small minority that, as always, hold no qualms about immediately latching on to his behavior as indicative of the character embedded in his origins.  They are easily ignored in an era where such things are no longer socially acceptable.  However, much more insidious reactions have made their way to the surface of the discussion, declaring the all-around good human being Sherman to be a “thug.”  No big deal, right?  Hmmm, not so much.  In a recent press conference, he pushed back against the use of that term as coded language of new racism.

"Maybe I'm talking loudly and doing something I'm not supposed to. But I'm not ... 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, 'Oh, man. I'm the thug? What's going on here?’” says Sherman.  Indeed he hits the head on the nail.  How many hockey players have you heard called thug recently?  (Maybe goon, a specific role for the people whose job it is on a hockey team to instigate fights.)  How many white football players are called thug?  How many white people are in general, outside of a self-identification? To me, what he said sounded like the taunts of a professional wrestler á la “DO YOU SMELL WHAT THE ROCK IS COOKIN’?” but no one ever calls those guys thugs.

The reality of the situation is that “thug” has come to be the new nigger.  When that dirty word fell out of favor, the sentiment was not erased but merely the lexicon for expressing it.

There is a theory that explains this.  Roland Barthes, noted French semiotician and sociologist, explained how words and images have dynamic and changing meanings.   His classic example was the statue of a young black French soldier saluting the French flag.  To the white French observer it is received as a symbol of French heritage and ascendancy - the power and pride in being French in accepting other cultures in to their own.  To the Algerio-French immigrant, the statue represents imperialist oppression of their home country, under rule of the French empire for more than a century and forced to sacrifice aspects of their own culture for the comfort of the conqueror through conscription.  In this way, the statue does not have a single meaning - just as the word “thug” does not describe the same thing to each person who hears it.  

As another example, here is a visual I created to teach this subject: 

Immediately, you see a swastika and you see evil.  At least, I think most of readers of this blog would given my social network.  However, that meaning is time and place dependent.  Before the rise of national socialism in Germany, the symbol was a positive one with religious association, as it remains today in much of the world.  The meaning is audience dependent.  There are three aspects to what is communicated - the sign which is the intended meaning of the communicator, the signifier which is the meaning received by the one who hears it, and the signified which is the middle ground which creates a social understanding we move forward with.  Is there discord between the intended and received meanings?  Almost always, yet in order to actually communicate anything we rarely take the time to parse out these differences unless they expose glaring inconsistencies.

So, to those calling Richard Sherman a “thug” - what exactly do you mean by that?  Do his comments make him more thuggish than the wide receiver he was covering, who had apparently been talking shit to him across the line before each play?  Think hard about what you mean when you use that word, and what Sherman, a member of an historically oppressed class, will hear when you use it.  Think especially of how that label is applied - most commonly to people within Sherman’s demographic - and the implications that narrow application.  Perhaps there is a word or phrase we can all agree on that he should be called for his brash comments - like “jerk” or “asshole,” but be aware that when using the word thug that any keen observer of race will know what you really mean.  Just because you don’t call him a nigger doesn’t mean you aren’t calling him a nigger.

Zach Rubin, 2018