EDITORIAL: Justice, racism and ‘thugs’


Chris Dorst | Charleston Gazette-Mail via Associated Press

In this January photo, W.Va. Gov. Jim Justice delivers his State of the State address in the House of Delegates’ Chamber in Charleston.

Gov. Jim Justice was accused of racism last month when he called members and coaches of a high school girls basketball team “a bunch of thugs” who “don’t know how to behave” after a tense game between Greenbrier East and Woodrow Wilson was ended early because of a scuffle.

After the incident, residents and legislators across the state called upon the governor to apologize for his obviously insensitive remarks.

In a tweet, Democrat Del. Mike Pushkin stated that Justice’s remarks were “thinly veiled racial slurs.”

As reported by West Virginia Metro News, Del. Shawn Fluharty also said during a later House session, “It’s clear that Jim Justice is an embarrassment on and off the court. Did he apologize? Of course not, he didn’t apologize. He doubled down on his statement that these children are thugs.”

Per the Metro News, Republican Del. Pat McGeehan said that while he does not think Justice is racist, he does believe the governor spends “too much time coaching basketball.”

Justice’s comments made national news in outlets such as the Washington Post, the New York Post and Sports Illustrated. During interviews in days following the incident, the governor doubled down on his remarks and defended his usage of the word “thug.”

Per the Metro News, “Gov. Justice said he didn’t make a racial slur when he called members of the Beckley Woodrow Wilson girls basketball team ‘a bunch of thugs.’”

In a statement released shortly following the incident, Justice stated, “My definition of a thug is clear – it means violence, bullying and disorderly conduct. And we, as West Virginians, should have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. Anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd.”

Earlier this week, the West Virginia NAACP released a statement condemning the governor’s actions and calling upon him to apologize.

Part of the statement reads, “We are profoundly disappointed in Governor Justice. His choice of words (…) are a direct affront to the African American Citizens of this state. We are all acutely aware that racism continues to be woven into the fabric of West Virginia. We are still in many ways combating the discriminatory practices and divisive attitudes of the majority population and the powers who continue to promote them.”

The statement says that Justice’s comments caused harm to the members of the Woodrow Wilson girls basketball team and his “lack of a true apology has inflicted further pain on the community” and “added insult to injury.”

It says that sports have traditionally been and should continue to be a forum for young people to develop positive life skills.

“While you may wear many hats, including that of coach, the one hat you do not take off is that of being governor of all people in the state,” the statement reads. “You have an opportunity to learn from this incident. We are asking that you meet publicly with and apologize to the students, faculty and families of the Woodrow Wilson High School community. Doing so will restore trust in your leadership, as a coach and as a governor.”

The idea that the governor of West Virginia may not realize the racial undertones, context and history of the word “thug” is almost unthinkable, but given the current sociopolitical climate across the country and the state, perhaps one would like to give Justice the benefit of the doubt.

Regardless of whether Justice knew of the impropriety of his comments beforehand, it remains clear that the governor’s word choice was deeply inappropriate, offensive and embarrassing for the state of West Virginia and its people.

All West Virginians understand what is too often meant when folks use the word “thug” and what constitutes actual “violence, bullying and disorderly conduct,” and it is difficult to imagine a more fitting scenario than a billionaire and the most powerful man in the state calling high school basketball players, some of them minorities, “a bunch of thugs.”

West Virginians also understand that half-hearted apologies do not suffice for such grievous and damning errors as causing serious harm toward undeserving prominent minority communities in our state. In West Virginia, we stand up for each other, especially those with the least power and the most silenced voices amongst us. Gov. Justice should respect the demands of the WV NAACP, apologize sincerely for the damage he has caused and commit to doing—and being—better moving forward.