The Search for Thugs

There was a sad inevitability to the media coverage of NFL star Sean Taylor's murder last week in Miami—Taylor succumbed to blood loss after a bullet severed his femoral artery. First, there was shock and disbelief—a standard response to a life cut down in its prime. Taylor was just 24 years old but was already widely feared throughout the NFL as one of its toughest hitters. He will be sorely missed in the Redskins' defensive backfield. Much of that grief, however, failed to gel into compassion or consideration of his legacy. Instead, it became a search for Sean Taylor the thug.

Taylor and his girlfriend were sleeping with their 18-month-old daughter beside them when someone broke into his house and shot him. So far, investigators are considering it a botched robbery and have brought in two teens and a young man for questioning. Within hours of his death, though, cable-news hosts and sports columnists were looking for proof that he was a bad boy who lived and died gangsta. Taylor did give them some ammo: he skipped a day of the NFL-mandated rookie symposium three years ago and was fined seven times for late hits and uniform infractions. He spat in the face of an opponent during a playoff game, missed a mini-camp and sometimes freelanced outside the defensive scheme—all considered bad form in the image-conscious NFL. Off the field, he was pulled over for a DUI in 2004, but the charges were thrown out. In 2005, Taylor was arrested for aggravated assault and faced 46 years in jail for waving a gun and beating up the alleged thieves of his ATVs. He pleaded no contest to reduced charges, and was sentenced to 18 months probation. His SUV was later shot 15 times in a drive-by. These events indicate that Taylor was far from an angel. But do they mean he was a menace to society destined to die bloody?

The drive-by shooting and then the birth of his daughter, Jackie, in 2006 seem to have scared Taylor straight. Taylor's close friend, Arizona Cardinals player Antrel Rolle, even suggested Taylor was targeted because he was trying to build a new life. His team has been eager to tell the press that he had matured. Fox Sports reported that Taylor wanted to work hard and play by team rules: "If you don't take it serious enough, eventually one day you're going to say, 'Oh, I could have done this, I could have done that'," he said at this year's training camp.

But Taylor's redemption song has been forgotten in the crush to judge him by the character of his assassins. Michael Wilbon, an African-American sports columnist from The Washington Post, commented in his Q&A blog, "Taylor grew up in a violent world, embraced it, claimed it, loved to run in it and refused to divorce himself from it. He ain't the first and won't be the last." Yes, Taylor grew up in a violent world if you take the football into account. Yet he was primarily raised by his chief-of-police father in a middle-class home and attended private school.

So why the rush to make Taylor a thug? Perhaps because that's how the average American sees young black men—unapologetic thugs hustling and acting out. But for oft-mentioned exceptions such as Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama and Will Smith, our media are awash with thugs—whether it be "I Love NY" on VH1, "Socially Offensive Behavior" on BET or the recently released movie "American Gangster," starring Denzel Washington. Demeaning images of African-Americans are encouraged not only by mainstream media sources that use them to attract the eyeballs and dollars of black youth, but also by black entertainers who profit from it. The Rev. Al Sharpton was biting in his analysis of the situation last week. "Young black men have become stigmatized by this image of young black men as thugs," he said. "And young black men have bought into it. Now studious young black men aren't really black, and the people who are fighting this imagery aren't keeping it real."

So with another death of a young black man blanketing news coverage, African-American leaders are beginning to ask if the thug is a self-created narrative that's gotten out of control. Black males ages 15 to 19 die by homicide at 46 times the rate of white males their age. They are also seven times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. Groups like Concerned Black Men, Enough is Enough, and the National Urban League are fighting back against what they portray as a culture of self-destruction fueled by entrenched poverty, racism, failing schools and the relentless hip-hop fairy tale of drug dealer turned Veuve Clicquot-swilling multimillionaire rapper. Leroy Hughes of Concerned Black Men describes their work as "putting kids in a position to mitigate stereotypes. They don't know that they are more than what they see on TV."

And there is growing proof that African-Americans are weary of their sons' being encouraged or assumed to be thugs. In a survey performed last month by the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of African-Americans said that rap had a negative impact, while 54 percent of young black adults believed that portrayals of African-Americans in movies and TV had a negative impact on society's view of black people. Taylor was not a thug. But it is sadly true that he will not be the last young African-American to die pointlessly. If we are to change this course of events, both the name-calling and the glorification of the gangsta life will need to stop.

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