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Why some Baltimore leaders say ‘thug’ is the wrong word to use

WATCH ABOVE: Baltimore city councillor Carl Stokes said, during an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, that using the word thug to describe the young people involved in Monday’s riots was no different than calling them the n-word.

WARNING: This post contains language that may offend. Discretion is advised.

A Baltimore city councillor said referring to young people involved in riots on Monday as thugs is no different than using racial epithets.

“Calling them thugs… just call them n***ers,” Carl Stokes said Tuesday night on CNN.

CNN host Erin Burnett challenged Stokes as to why “thugs” was not the appropriate way to describe some young rioters who looted and vandalized businesses, and set a seniors centre ablaze.

Stokes said it was inappropriate to use that term — even though Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and President Barack Obama both described rioters that way.

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“Of course it’s not the right word, to call our children ‘thugs. ‘These are children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us,” Stokes said in the interview.

Rawlings-Blake made the “thug” comment on Monday, but later backed away from it.

But, White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Wednesday defended Obama’s use of “thug.”

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“I don’t think the president would in any way revise the remarks he shared with you,” Earnest told reporters. “Whether it was arson or the looting of a liquor store — those were thuggish acts.”

The riots in Baltimore broke out just hours after 25-year-old Freddie Gray was laid to rest. He died on April 19, a week after sustaining a spinal cord injury when Baltimore police arrested him. His death sparked protests over police brutality, as have the deaths of other black men killed by police in other U.S. cities in the past year.

READ MORE: What we know about Freddie Gray and the Baltimore riots

WATCH: Maryland’s governor says Baltimore has turned a corner after the riots on Monday. There are still protests, but they are small and peaceful. Aarti Pole reports on the uneasy calm in a city still simmering with anger.

But the protests have been as much about police use of force against minorities as they are about the marginalization of black communities and racial inequality in the United States.

Let’s not pretend the system is fair,” Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid said Tuesday. “Millions of Americans feel powerless in the face of a system that is rigged against them.”

As Forbes magazine reported, one-quarter of Baltimore’s population lives below the poverty line and in the area where rioters took to the streets Monday night — Gray’s West Baltimore neighbourhood or Sandtown-Winchesterk — the unemployment rate is double the city average, according to Slate.

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Meantime, Vox reported the median income of households in Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park ($24,006) is almost half what it is for Baltimore as a whole($40,803).

READ MORE: Images and video from violent riots in Baltimore following Freddie Gray funeral

The term thug originated from the 19th century Hindi word thuggee (or tuggee), according to The Atlantic, which in turn comes from a term that means “deceiver,” “thief” or “swindler” and over time and evolution became associated with gangsterism.

But in the 1990s, the term thug became a “negative label” that was reclaimed and “embraced” by rap artists “as an unapologetic affirmation of their experience as black men,” Gawker quoted Wellesley College professor Michael Jeffries, in his book Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop..

According to Tricia Rose, author of The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop and Why It Matters, “the thug both represents a product of discriminatory conditions and embodies behaviors that injure the very communities from which it comes.”

READ MORE: From Selma to Ferguson and NYC: ‘This action now is a movement’

But when it comes to looking at the underlying issues that are fuelling protest and violence — in Baltimore and last year in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of teenager Michael Brown — those working in areas such as West Baltimore argue it’s “offensive” to equate disenfranchised and disadvantaged youth.

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“These are not thugs, these are upset and frustrated children,” Rev. Jamal Bryant told CNN on Wednesday.

“You don’t call six police officers who kill a man without probable cause ‘thugs,’ but children who are frustrated and don’t have an outlet, you call them ‘thugs.’ ‘Thugs’ is the 21st-century word for the n-word,” he told CNN.

Bryant not only works in the community where the violence took place, he delivered the eulogy at Gray’s funeral earlier that day. He also called on young people in Baltimore to avoid acting out violently that day and urged them to take part in a peaceful discussion.

Former Maryland congressman and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Kweisi Mfume, in that same Tuesday night segment with CNN’s Burnett, said arguing over terminology takes attention away from “poverty, despair, hunger, homelessness and a sense of not belonging.”

Please note: An earlier version of this story indicated Freddie Gray lived in the neighbourhood of Harlem Park. He was raised in the adjacent neighbourhood of Sandtown-Winchester.