Words matter, and they may mean different things to different people. Someone who prides themselves on being candid might say, “I mean what I say.” But that ignores the role of the receiver of the information. What did he or she hear?
Steve Sisgold, writing in Psychology Today a few years ago, said, “Over and over we see conflict arise from communication breakdowns, whether it’s between couples, co-workers, families and even countries.”
“Although some communication breakdowns are intentional, most of what we say is unconscious and from poor habits we learned from others,” he wrote.
Governor Jim Justice now finds himself in a communication kerfuffle. A girls basketball game between Justice’s team, Greenbrier East, and Beckley Woodrow Wilson, ended with a Beckley assistant coach getting into an altercation with a fan. Afterward Justice criticized the opponent.
“I hate to say it any other way, but honest to God’s truth is the same thing happened over at Woodrow two different times out of the Woodrow players,” Justice told the Beckley Register-Herald newspaper. “They’re a bunch of thugs. The whole team left the bench, the coach is in a fight, they walked off the floor, they called the game.”
The word “thugs” has racial connotation. I’ll confess to not knowing that myself until recently, when Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein got into trouble because his players thought he called them “thugs.” (Beilein said he was calling them “slugs.”)
To many, especially in the black community, “thugs” is now the equivalent of the “n” word, and the Beckley team has a number of black players and coaches.
Civil rights attorney Charles F. Coleman wrote in Ebony magazine back in 2016 about the evolution of the word.
“It’s hard to determine the exact point at which the centuries-old “n——-“ was supplanted by its newer, more criminal progeny ‘thug’, but take a cursory glance at social media and mainstream news media alike, and it is clear that the replacement is now in full effect.”
For West Virginians who reject this argument, consider this: If you jokingly call your neighbor and good friend a “hillbilly,” you’ll both probably have a good chuckle. But what would your reaction be if a presidential candidate said he was not going to campaign in West Virginia because “hillbillies” would never vote for him anyway?
Justice released a statement the day after the incident saying he did not use the word as a racial epithet, and I believe him. Justice is given to folksy and occasionally culturally outdated language. For example, two years ago he said there wasn’t a “Chinaman’s chance” he would support raising natural gas severance taxes to fund teacher pay raises.
That doesn’t excuse them, but it helps to understand them.
Some verbal missteps are generational. My late Talkline co-host, Don Marsh, was one of the most intelligent—and liberal—people I have ever known. Whenever Pearl Harbor came up, he would refer to the enemy as “the Japs.” But then again, Marsh came from the World War II generation.
I suspect Justice falls into that category when it comes to the racial implications of his use of the word “thugs.” But beyond that—and this is a critical point—he should not be referring to high school girls on an opposing team that way.
His position as Governor guarantees that his comments are going to receive considerably more attention than if he were just the coach. Additionally, Justice’s complaints about physical play should be directed to the state Secondary School Activities Commission, which oversees high school athletics.
It’s disappointing that Justice doubled down on his “thugs” comment. He should have made a simple apology and learned from his mistake.