Making the Word “Tribal” a Term of Derision

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke wrote a piece published in The Hill yesterday describing the recent violence in the city of Milwaukee as “tribal behavior.” He was commenting on the rioting that erupted in the city this weekend after an African American officer shot an armed African American man. (Clarke himself is African American, and critical of both Black Lives Matter and the “policies of liberal Democrats.”) In his piece, he wrote:

What happened Saturday night and again Sunday night had little to do with police use of force – it was a collapse of the social order where tribal behavior leads to reacting to circumstances instead of waiting for facts to emerge. The law of the jungle replaced the rule of law in Milwaukee Saturday night over an armed career criminal suspect who confronted police.”

Clarke’s word choice is powerful and problematic. Without going into the details of the Milwaukee incident, notice the deeply negative connotations of the word “tribal.” Clarke could have made his point without using the word. It creates unnecessary harm. The association most people have with tribes are Native American tribes, more appropriately called Native nations. In the Op-Ed, tribal life is characterized as savage and uncivilized, a collapse of social order. Tribes are characterized reacting without thinking. They are living under the “law of the jungle.”

(Merriam Webster defines “tribe” as “a group of people that includes many families and relatives who have the same language, customs, and beliefs.” So unlike Clarke’s use of the term, “tribal” does imply a social order.)

This is not to say that Clarke’s word choice was intentionally offensive. It just shows how these negative images of Native Americans and “tribes” are deeply ingrained in our language and culture.


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