By Nina Hall
SACRAMENTO, CA – Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette, at a sentencing here late last week, repeatedly used a word now often considered to be “code” for racial prejudice—“thug”—to describe a young Black man.
“I don’t want Mr. Alston to think that because people say good things about him and try to characterize this in a good light, that anybody thinks he is anything other than what he is…and that is a thug,” said Marlette about Creamon Alston, a 23-year-old Black man, who was sentenced for accessory after the fact and possessing a firearm as a felon.
On the day in question back in 2019, Alston was driving with two other men in his car. The other defendants got out of the car and reportedly got into a shootout with another unknown vehicle. The victims were never identified. However, Alston was not involved in the shooting himself.
“He [Alston] actually stopped the car so that the two passengers could get out,” Deputy District Attorney Samuel Alexander charged, adding, “These are not just gentlemen he met the night before. He’s all over Instagram with them. In fact, they’re all gang members together.”
Defense counsel White was clearly taken aback by this gang allegation, arguing, “I take issue with the People’s characterization calling my client a gang member. There is no evidence that supports any of that. This is not charged as a gang case. There are no gang allegations in this case.”
DDA Alexander responded that the incident had been caught on a nearby security camera. The officer who viewed the tape, who then was working in a gang unit, instantly recognized Alston from viewing his Instagram for suspected gang activity, though it was never proven.
Additionally, Alexander pointed out that three days after the incident, Alston was found with a gun that matched one of the firearms from what he deemed as an attempted murder.
The court agreed with White not to take gang affiliation into consideration with the defendant’s sentencing, but it was not without hesitation, relaxed penalties, and perhaps prejudice.
“I will not consider gang affiliation here,” Judge Marlette stated. “Now, I want to make a distinction here that Mr. Alston has thoroughly embraced the thug life.”
Over the recent years, “thug” has largely become a racialized term used to describe African American men.
According to an article by Calvin John Smiley and David Fakunle, “Terms such as ‘thug,’ ‘ghetto,’ ‘hood,’ ‘sketchy,’ and ‘shady’ are all examples of coded language that are used to refer or speak of Blackness without overtly sounding racially prejudiced.”
Additionally, many have argued that the term “thug” is becoming increasingly derogatory.
In an NPR interview in 2015, John WcWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, stated, “Well, the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blonde hair.”
In the interview, WcWhorter explains that when white people say the word “thug,” it means something different than when African Americans use it.
“Words never keep their meanings over time. A word is a thing on the move. A word is a process. And that’s what’s so confusing about the N-word. And that’s what’s so confusing now about this word, thug. Any discussion where we pretend that it only means one thing is just going to lead to dissension and confusion,” said WcWhorter.
In the Sacramento courtroom, Judge Marlette went on to call Mr. Alston a “thug” multiple times.
“I was not aware that the gun in Mr. Alston’s lap on the 22nd was one of the guns that matched shells left on the 19th,” Judge Marlette said, adding, “But Mr. Alston, even after the 19th, is clearly up to his neck in this [thug] life.
“He has done nothing to disabuse himself of an impression that he has embraced the thug life and continues to embrace the thug life,” Marlette declared from the bench.
Judge Marlette then went on to impose the maximum prison sentence of three years and eight months. As well, he took away 10 days of time served in order to differentiate between “people who behave in jail and people who don’t.”
Before the hearing was over, Judge Marlette sent Alston away with some scathing words, “I don’t want Mr. Alston to think…that anybody thinks he is anything other than what he is, and that is a thug.”
Nina Hall is a sophomore from Colorado at Santa Clara University, studying English and sociology.
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