What Is The Difference Conservatives See Between 'Thugs' And 'Frat Boys'?
"Thug" has emerged in the past decade or so as a plausibly deniable conservative replacement for "nigger." It conveys all the racial animus of the (yes, it's still) verboten epithet but is also shorter and more adaptable ("thuggish" and "thuggery"). If "thug" has a white counterpart, it's probably not "honky" but "frat boy," and during Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings, Republicans have succeeded in spinning criticism of Kavanaugh's "frat boy" past as an attack on white youth and white people in general.
When Senator John Cornyn ludicrously compared Kavanaugh to Tom Robinson (no relation) from "To Kill a Mockingbird," he implied that both the fictional character and the testifier of fiction were "unpopular [men] who many people presumed was guilty of a heinous crime because of [their] race, and [their] race alone." Kavanaugh is now the second Republican Supreme Court nominee who's the victim of a liberal-led "high-tech lynching." Apparently, "frat boy" and "entitled white man" are now protected classes, and once Kavanaugh's actually on the Court, this could literally happen.
It's been simultaneously amusing and infuriating to watch Republicans shamelessly appropriate the heartfelt rhetoric, even the cultural linchpins, of those who have long opposed racial discrimination. Republican Senate leaders and conservative pundits lately sound like a Bizarro World Ta-Nehisi Coates. The very people quick to dismiss Black Lives Matter and insist we pull up our pants and get over all this racial victimization now demand that we sympathize with the plight of the marginalized white male ruling class.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that conservatives did not similarly empathize with the marginalized youth who damaged private property or even simply protested in Ferguson or Baltimore. There is no justification for their anger. Rich Lowry at the National Review claimed the Baltimore protests represented "the failure of the Great Society" (you know, all that welfare). But only in America does the aristocracy believe the serfs are oppressing them. Kavanaugh socialized with people in high school and college who would've considered themselves future masters of the universe. He could hang with someone like Mark Judge and not fear getting arrested and tried as an adult. A black teen in Ferguson meanwhile fears his Judge-like friend will someday be left to rot on the street like Michael Brown. If Kavanaugh were poor and black, Judge would've been his "Doughboy" or Ricky, the friends who never makes it past adolescence.
And if Kavanaugh was just black, conservatives wouldn't see the teenage Brett as a harmless "Bluto" Blutarsky from Animal House. David Brooks -- the New York Times columnist who'll magically appear if you speak into a mirror, "White man, please advise!" -- blew off the disturbing stories about a young Kavanaugh. Like, really, he just "drank beer and threw ice." There's no apparent recognition that a teenage Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault, which is a violent act, so it's kinda relevant if he was a belligerent drunk well into college. Kavanaugh even defended himself by proclaiming to our innocent ears that he was a virgin during high school, college, and so very long afterward. I think his wife even backed it up with a dated copy of his performance review from their honeymoon: "Gentleman's C, needs improvement, total virgin." Kavanaugh's hairy palms weren't the issue. It's whether he put them on other people when sloshed.
During George Zimmerman's trial for killing Trayvon Martin, the defense was allowed to present evidence that Martin was basically a "thug" who got in fights at school and texted about smoking pot. Conservatives also nodded intently as FOX News read volumes into the "gang symbols" Brown supposedly flashed in photos. These are the same people who thought Democrats "embarrassed" themselves asking Kavanaugh questions about expressions in his yearbook such as "ralphing" and "boofing" and who gullibly bought Kavanaugh's sanitized for TV definition of "Devil's triangle."
Thugs are perceived as a lost cause, as social vermin that society is better off without and whose killers, either cop or random psychotic, did everyone a favor. When Martin or Brown's lost potential is mourned, conservatives roll their eyes. To them, nothing important was lost. This is the key contrast to frat boys. Frat boys are just raising a little youthful hell but will go on to prove productive members of society. "Bluto" from Animal House -- who famously doesn't even know who bombed Pearl Harbor -- went on to become a US Senator, and that's not just fiction. Frat boys can become Supreme Court justices and even presidents. It's the difference between, to borrow from Chris Rock, living in a world where "the sky's the limit" versus one where "the limit's the sky."
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He recently fled Seattle, where he did theatre work for Book-It Rep and Cafe Nordo.