Social Justice

Emotional Intelligence: Baltimore, Ferguson, and the Thug

Baltimore, Maryland, 1968

Baltimore, Maryland, 1968 – Photo Courtesy of ABC News

In the media recently, there has been much conversation about the shooting deaths, of young American men by white police officers in Baltimore and Ferguson. To the perspective of some, this is an example of race baiting, reverse racism, or both. This is because some believe that the deaths of those young men – Michael Brown of Ferguson and Freddie Gray of Baltimore – are being used to assassinate the character and attack the credibility of police officers in Baltimore, Ferguson, and across the nation. Moreover, they believe these events are rare, unimportant, and are used to drum up feelings from the past. As Harry Houck, retired New York police detective exclaimed when asked about how to move forward from such police killings of young American men in the cities in a CNN debate, “What ever happened a thousand years ago, stop, alright? Let’s move from here. Let’s get to the discussion.” To others, it is just not that simple. It is more complex than Mr. Houck proposes and to pretend otherwise is just irresponsible. More importantly, to others, it is a continuation of an unjust experience in the United States.

To those who experience systemic forces on a daily basis, and to those in the social justice movement, it is a continuation of the black codes of the northern United States during the 19th century, where whites attempted to prevent the economic viability and upward mobility of free American men, women, and children, where whites successfully prevented American men from participating in the representation process as either a voter or a candidate, and where whites successfully acculturated African men, women and children into a eurocentric culture; it is a continuation of exclusive laws, those in constitutional power that desired to maintain the oppression and depression of the subordinate American group, and the subsequent slave patrols who enforced such laws, during the early and middle 18th century; and it is a continuation of the black laws and Jim Crow after reconstruction and how those constitutionally supported laws perpetuated the advancement of the dominant group over all other groups in the United States and well into the 20th century. There are two perspectives, at the very least, and, indeed, the historical context is absolutely factual in the case of one.

Emotional Intelligence Diagram

Emotional Intelligence Diagram

Immediately, one may ask, “What does Ferguson, Baltimore, and the term ‘thug’ have to do with emotional intelligence? Clearly the title of this paper is loaded.” For some, Baltimore, Ferguson, and “thug” may correctly correspond with those “blacks” who reside in those urban environments. Thus, they are “thugs” because they are “gangbangers” and they destroy local businesses. For others, Baltimore, Ferguson, and “thug” perpetuate a myth about the residents being “gangbangers” and destroying businesses. This is clearly an oversimplification of the arguments but it is nonetheless the respective arguments. Before the analysis and application of emotional intelligence can be applied to Baltimore and Ferguson, a bit of background on emotional intelligence is needed to prevent any misunderstanding.

Emotional intelligence is about considering the circumstances of another person and considering the components of the self. In other words, it is about the self-actualization of one’s self and the relationships that person has with others in the system. An example of the self can be illustrated by one’s own privilege as a straight, white man who is perceived Christian and the subsequent awareness, feelings, and actions that may follow because of that awareness of privilege. Another example of the self is how one may view their own plight. As Harriet Tubman once so eloquently and honestly stated, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed more if only they new they were slaves.” Ms. Tubman’s point, those slaves were not aware of their own existence as slaves. In emotional intelligence terms, those slaves lacked emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, and confidence, which is completely understood considering the circumstances and power dynamics of the institutional structure and the physical and psychological depression they experienced and faced from one generation to the next.

Emotional intelligence, which can be traced as a fundamental idea to the early 20th century in E.L. Thorndike’s Social Intelligence model, is about self awareness and social awareness. Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, proposes that there are four categories of recognizing and acting on one’s own emotional intelligence. First, there is the self; that is, self awareness and self management. Second, there is the social; that is, social awareness and relationship management. Although these sectors are broken down into two halves, one of the self and one of the social, they ought to be taken together as interacting agents. They ought to be viewed as dynamical, non-linear systems interactions.

Continuing with Harriet Tubman’s example, the other half of the self, self management, can be better understood. Ms. Tubman herself was once a slave. She was born a slave, existed as a slave, but recognized her own plight and the oppression of the slave master and the environment itself. As a response, she freed herself from the bonds of chattel. In one action of defiance and American patriotism, she displayed self awareness and self management; that is, the recognition of her existence and the action to do something about it. Of course, moving one person out of a depressed state is much easier than moving an entire population out of a depressed state, and Mr. Tubman was well aware of this very point.

The other side of the emotional intelligence model is the social aspect. That is, social awareness and relationship management. Social awareness is the application of empathy, organizational awareness, and service orientation. Relationship management is the application of building bonds and teamwork, of being an inspirational leader and influencing others, and of being a catalyst for change.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an example of these two components of emotional intelligence. He was very aware of his own organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the role it would potentially play in the American civil rights movement. He was, obviously, not only empathetic of the struggle of those disenfranchised, but he was also empathetic of those who wished to hurt him and his cohorts in the civil rights struggle, including those white police officers and white vigilante groups that dared to beat, rape, and kill those Americans marching for their constitutional rights on March 7, 1965 – “Bloody Sunday.” Despite this violence, this face of oppression, Dr. King preached non-violence and tolerance.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation

Throughout the civil rights movement, Dr. King recognized the needs of those inside the civil rights movement and those outside the civil rights movement. Many people think that Dr. King was only marching and preaching for those who had and continued to be disenfranchised, but in reality, Dr. King was marching for all Americans, even the vast majority of those white Americans that disagreed with him, and surprisingly, those non-white Americans who disagreed with him. Dr. King understood oppression to be a structural and privileged sickness. He understood that in order to push the envelope for equity and equality, the needs of the oppressed had to be met and the needs of the oppressor had to be anticipated. In other words, he understood that privilege was blinding and in order to achieve a healthy society, the blinders of privilege needed to be taken off once and for all.

In this piece, Harriet Tubman has been used as an example of the self and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been used as an example of the social. Easily, these roles could have been reversed. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could have been used as an example of the components of the self of emotional intelligence and Harriet Tubman could have been used as an example of the social components of emotional intelligence. This very substitution illustrates the power of Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the power of emotional intelligence. But how could this power be applied to Baltimore and Ferguson? How could emotional intelligence be used to improve the plight of the residents of Baltimore and Ferguson? How could emotional intelligence be used to change the conversation concerning those disenfranchised residents of Baltimore, Ferguson, and other cities? How could emotional intelligence be used to curb and change the conversation from a highly privileged and, frankly, ignorant and unproductive exchange to that of a conversation that contains self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management? How is this possible in today’s highly partisan politics and media?

Can one person refer to another person as a “thug” and still maintain empathy? Does not the very term of “thug” say more about the person using the term to describe another than the person it is designed to describe? In this regard, would not the person using the term “thug” be deficient in empathy? Is not empathy a component of social awareness? Does not emapthy mean “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another?” Wouldn’t this include the plight of others; that is, the economic depression, the lack of political representation, and the appropriation of the social being and one’s history? In other words, is not “thug” a rhetorical tool of oppression? Perhaps the very use of the term “thug” illustrates the prejudice of the person using it towards another.

Thuggee, a group of Thugs, according to the British

Thuggee, a group of Thugs, according to the British – Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

What is meant by “thug?” The etymology of “thug” is not salient in the United States nor does it derive from the United States. The term derives from the Indian subcontinent when colonialism existed; that is, when the British empire occupied the territory. It is an Hindi word that describes “a cheat or swindler.” According to a piece in NewsWeek titled A Brief History of the Word ‘Thug’ the word was appropriated by the British, the occupying force, from the local residents. It was used to degrade and racialize the indigenous population. As Kim Wagner, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, explains in the article

It allowed [the empirialists] to criminalize any kind of indigenous activity as being something that was inherently irrational and politically illegitimate, not different from the way it’s used today. You’re effectively describing them as having no legitimate grievances and just being hoodlums.

Of course, the United States has its own colonial history and prejudice is a large part of that colonialism. It involved the genocide of the indigenous people and the participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade and the subsequent oppressions of other groups as well; for example, the prejudice against those Americans who call their ancestry the middle east or Persia, and the racialization of Islam. So from this perspective, it is easy to see how “thug” can be racialized in conversation without intent. One does not need to be prejudice, or racist in the American way, to use the term in a way that is detrimental or unproductive, because the use of the term unwillingly or willingly perpetuates certain stereotypes of certain Americans from particular groups.

To recall, prejudice is the state of irrational thought and the inexperience of interaction with another person or group. In this case, have those in the media experienced the daily life and circumstances of those Americans in Baltimore and Ferguson? Do they understand the historical context of the cities and of American history in general? Do those that use the term “thug” understand the economic, political, and social situations of those groups that are disenfranchised? Those disenfranchised groups are the very same that are being referred to as “thugs.” It is their parents and grandparents who experienced redlining practices; it is their grandparents and great grandparents that experienced lynchings, Jim Crow, and exclusive laws such as black laws; it is their ancestors who experienced American slavery as chattel; and it is their ancestors who experienced the Atlantic Slave Trade in all of its dark glory; the capitalistic industry that ripped generations of Africans from their homeland, 12 to 15 million Africans over the course of 200 years to be exact.

Therefore, would Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. really use the term “thug” to refer to the young men and women of Baltimore and Ferguson? Is there a person who would attempt to argue such a point? If emotional intelligence involves perspective taking in the form of self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management, how would it be possible for a person to apply the term “thug” to a group of Americans who’s history encapsulates the intersectionalities and experiences of physical and psychological depressions of more than 400 years? Would that person contain a high level of emotional intelligence?


Matt Johnson is a writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog; and is a mathematical scientist. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News.

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

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Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist

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