“My definition of a thug is clear — it means violence, bullying and disorderly conduct” is what Greenbrier East girls basketball coach Jim Justice said after being widely criticized for calling an opposing Woodrow Wilson team “a bunch of thugs.” Justice, who occasionally dabbles in being West Virginia’s governor, said the fact that Woodrow is racially diverse and both its coaches are black had nothing to do with it.
The word thug, etymologically speaking, is, in fact, quite ancient. It comes from the Sanskrit “sthagati,” meaning “he covers or conceals.”
Indeed, Kahir, a Hindu poet quoted by R.C. Zaehner in “Our Savage God,” refers to God as a thug. For many centuries, the word might not have had racial connotations.
But it does have an inherently disparaging quality about it. As Megan Garber pointed out in an Atlantic article on the origin of the word:
“Spoken aloud, “thug” requires its utterer first to sneer (the lisp of the “th”) and then to gape (the deep-throated “uhhhh”) and then to choke the air (that final, glottal “g”). Even if you hadn’t heard the word before, even if you had no idea what it meant, you would probably guess that it is an epithet.”
Here’s the rub: “Thug” now is widely perceived as a pseudo-slick way to say the n-word without actually saying it. This is how black people, on the whole, perceive it. Whether Justice himself perceives it as racist isn’t the point.
Same with his now-notorious use of “Chinaman.” Justice might regard “Chinaman” as merely part of his formidable repertoire of folksy sayings, but if Chinese people find it offensive, then it doesn’t really matter if Justice agrees. At best, he’s genuinely ignorant of these things — which is inexcusable, and serves to perpetuate the stereotype of West Virginians being prejudiced and anachronistic in their thinking.
Now, for your consideration:
Prior to his election, Justice was pulled over for speeding by a Lewisburg police officer. Justice proceeded to chew him out for doing his job, calling the lawman a “total lunatic” and, when the officer asked whether an explanation of the citation was needed, Justice responded, “I don’t want you to explain anything; you can explain it to your boss.”
Then there was his back-and-forth with Ryan Ferns, then a Republican delegate in the West Virginia House. “I hate to say this, but it’s just the fact. I’ve done more in my little finger for West Virginia and West Virginians than Ryan Ferns has done.” (He loves this “little finger” bit. We’ll come to that again.)
Justice continued: “It’s almost like a grizzly bear walking through the woods and then a poodle walking behind him, barking and nipping and all this kind of stuff, for nothing,” Justice said. “And basically, at some point in time, if I’m the poodle I’m concerned that the grizzly bear is going to get tired of all the tweeting and the little crap that’s going on and turn around and eat your ass.”
Remember the time Justice was accused of trying to intimidate officials in Kentucky by suing them over their attempt to collect millions of dollars in unpaid fines from Justice-owned companies? Yeah, and Justice sued the workers themselves, personally, not the agency for which they worked.
“This sounds like it may be an effort by Mr. Justice to intimidate critics and to silence anyone who speaks out about government enforcement actions brought against his enterprise,” said Paul Bland, executive director of Public Justice, a nonprofit law firm that has successfully sued coal companies for environmental violations.
If you’ll permit me to talk about myself for a moment, I have some personal experience with the governor. In August 2018, I wrote an op-ed criticizing Justice’s skirting (and outright breaking) of legal and ethical norms. He didn’t much care for it. In fact, he called me out by name at a news conference that was ostensibly on road projects coming in over estimates. He referred to the piece I wrote as “absolute garbage” and went on to say that (here we go again) the tip of the fingernail of his pinky finger has done more for the state of West Virginia than I would do in a lifetime. “This sounds horribly egotistical, but it’s just a fact,” he said.
Bullying? Personal belittlement? Statements that could be taken as threats of political retribution? (Remember, threats of violence are all that most bullies have. Justice, however, doesn’t have to threaten physical violence. As governor, he is uniquely positioned to carry out all manner of political retribution against his opponents.) Using wealth and power to intimidate a public servant? Implying that — and acting as if — you’re above the law? Using your platform as the most powerful man in the state to (try to) publicly shame someone who has a negative opinion of you?
If Jim Justice wants to see what a thug looks like, he can skip the high school girls basketball game. In fact, he doesn’t even have to leave home. He need only look in the mirror.