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Is “posse” racist?

Q: “Posse”? Racist? I trust you know the current controversy over that word. If a black celebrity says it is, I guess that makes it so, but has it been? Where does this come from?

A: Is “posse” a racist term? Not necessarily. But it has a negative, “gang” connotation in some dictionaries. And an African-American might consider it racist when used in reference to his friends.

“Posse” made news on Nov. 14 when Phil Jackson, president of the New York Knicks, used the word in comments he made about LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In an interview with ESPN, Jackson was critical of James for demanding “special treatment” when he was playing for the Miami Heat a few years ago. The NBA star, whose hometown is Akron, Ohio, apparently demanded that he get to spend an extra night in his home state after playing a game in Cleveland.

“When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland and he wanted to spend the night,” Jackson said. “They don’t do overnights. Teams just don’t.”

The Knicks president went on to say: “You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.”

Here, “posse” was a reference to James’s longtime friends, fellow athletes, and business associates, some of whom grew up together.

James, who is a successful businessman off the court, took offense at “posse,” suggesting it had racial overtones:

“I believe the only reason he used that word is because it’s young African Americans trying to make a difference,” James said. “If he would have said LeBron and his agent, LeBron and his business partners or LeBron and his friends, that’s one thing. Yet because you’re young and black, he can use that word. We’re grown men.”

We were surprised to hear that “posse” was objectionable, but many people were not.

The next day, Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks told ABC News that “I think everybody would understand” why James objected to the term. “To some people, the word ‘posse’ might not mean anything. It might just be a word. To some other people it could be a derogatory statement. It all depends on who you mention it to and who you’re talking about in essence.”

As for himself, Anthony said, “I would never want to hear that word about me and my—I don’t want to say crew—but people that I consider family or people that I come up [with], been through thick and thin with. I’d want to be called a tight-knit group or family. That’s what I consider those close people to me.”

Stan Van Gundy, head coach of the Detroit Pistons, was also sympathetic to James, according to the New York Post: “When all that came out, I had to ask myself: Have I ever used that word before with a white player? The answer is no.”

“I understand why it’s offensive,” Van Gundy added. “I’ve never used that word publicly, but I have used it in talking to people I know. It has never been in conjunction with a white player.”

Others were less critical of the term. Magic Johnson, according to New York Newsday, praised James and his business team in several Twitter posts, then wrote: “Phil Jackson made one small mistake by using the word posse.”

“I know Phil Jackson, he’s a good man,” he continued. “I don’t think he meant to disrespect LeBron James and his team.”

So what about the word itself? In all the news coverage, there’s been very little about its etymology or its definitions.

In classical Latin, posse was a verb meaning “be able.” It was derived from the phrase potis esse (esse for “be” and potis for “able” or “powerful”).

In medieval Latin, as John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, posse came to be used as a noun meaning ‘power, force.’ It formed the basis of the expression posse comitatus, literally ‘force of the county,’ denoting a body of men whom the sheriff of a county was empowered to raise for such purposes as suppressing a riot.”

“The abbreviated form posse emerged at the end of the 17th century, but really came into its own in 18th- and 19th-century America,” he writes.

As it turns out, the noun “posse,” which was introduced into English in the mid-1600s, has had negative associations in some of its usages, but other senses of the word are benign or positive.

Like the longer phrase “posse comitatus,” the short form “posse” once meant “the population of local able-bodied men whom a sheriff may summon to repress a riot, pursue felons, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was used this way in 1646, for example.

But at almost the same time, in 1645, it was also being used loosely to mean “an assembled force, band, or company, often with hostile intent.”

This is the OED’s earliest example: “All the Posse of Hell, cannot violently eject me.” (From Thomas Fuller ‘s Good Thoughts in Bad Times, the reflections of a Loyalist in the time of Charles I.)

However, by the 1700s “posse” was being used figuratively, according to the OED, to mean “any throng or assembled group (of persons, animals, or things); a clutch.” In this sense, the word is found “now usually without negative connotation,” the dictionary adds.

Sometimes it’s even used semi-humorously, as shown in many OED citations. In a letter written in 1728, for example, Jonathan Swift mentioned a “whole posse of articles.”

And in a 1787 journal entry William Beckford wrote, “A whole posse of the young lady’s kindred—brothers, cousins and uncles—stood ready at the street door to usher me upstairs.”

In her Letters From Abroad (1841), Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote: “Found her flying from a posse of cock-turkeys.”

In other citations, the word simply means a group, as in these examples from Oxford:

“I met Mr. Ferdinand, M. d’Herigny, and a posse of their friends, who were just entering the Carreau Wood, to hunt.” (From Benjamin Webster’s play The Village Doctor, 1839.)

“He posed a posse of rhetorical questions.” (From Frederic Raphael’s biography Byron, 1982.)

“May I suggest that the Transport Secretary, together with a posse of ministers, visits Heathrow and Gatwick.” (From a July 1990 issue of Flight International.)

The word is also used colloquially, the OED says, to mean a peer group, especially of the young. Oxford cites these examples:

“[In 1982] the d.j.’s developed a specialized presentation. … ‘Posse’ was used to refer to any group.” (From Anita M. Waters’s book Race, Class, and Political Symbols, 1985.)

“He … jammed with both a posse of M-Base acolytes from Belgium and with Surinamese musicians based in Amsterdam.” (From a 1990 issue of Straight No Chaser, a British magazine devoted to black music.)

“There are about 20 seats up there, so there was Leo and his posse and his mom all watching the movie.” (From a January 2001 issue of a London newspaper, the Star.)

This sense of the word—a group of friends—is also found in all the standard dictionaries we’ve checked, both American and British.

In Jamaican English, however, “posse” has a more pejorative meaning—a criminal gang, often involved in drugs. This sense of the word is known in the US, since two of the OED’s citations are from American sources:

“Enforcement agents blame Jamaican posses for some 500 homicides and … gun-running.” (From Boston magazine, July 1987.)

“Blake, a former posse leader, has agreed to help attack the Caribbean drug pipelines.” (From a September 2000 issue of the Commercial Appeal, Memphis.)

Though the OED doesn’t say so, this criminal sense of “posse” is also used in reference to American gangs, according to at least two standard dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has the old “sheriff’s posse” definition, plus these others: “A search party”; “A gang involved in crimes such as running guns and illegal narcotics trafficking; “(Slang) A group of friends or associates.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) lists those same senses of “posse.” It words the criminal sense this way: “a gang, esp. one engaged in selling drugs.”

We don’t find that meaning in any other standard dictionaries. Merriam Webster Unabridged, for example, includes all of those above, except the gang sense.

Getting back to your question, is “posse” racist?

Standard dictionaries generally define “racism” as the belief that one’s own race is better than others, and as discrimination or prejudice based on that belief. The adjective “racist” describes someone or something that fosters such discrimination or prejudice.

By that definition a white man’s use of the term “posse,” with its Jamaican gang associations, in reference to the friends of a successful black athlete and businessman may perhaps be seen as racist.

In fact, we often hear the adjective “racist” used loosely to describe anyone or anything that demeans a racial, ethnic, or religious group. This sense isn’t in standard dictionaries, but we wouldn’t be surprised to find it there one of these days.

However, dictionaries may not be the best place to settle a dispute about whether a word like “posse” is racist in certain situations.

As the editors of Merriam-Webster Online say in a usage note, dictionaries “are not always well suited for settling disputes” like this:

“The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.”

We doubt that Phil Jackson meant to refer to LeBron James and his associates as a gang. He likely meant the word in the sense of a group of friends or associates.

But LeBron James didn’t interpret it that way.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this. Words don’t operate in a vacuum. The same word can be neutral, positive, negative, or perhaps even racist, depending on the context.

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