‘Atlanta’ fact check: Is the phrase ‘caught red-handed’ actually racist?

Should you be avoiding the expression “caught red-handed?” Thursday’s episode of “Atlanta” on FX posed the question, where does that phrase actually come from? And could it be racist?

The episode titled “Money Bag Shawty” has Ern (Donald Glover) trying to spend a $100 bill in style. A white clerk at a movie theater tells him she can’t accept it, but then accepts a $100 from a white man behind him in line. After they’ve left, Ern sees it for what it is — blatantly racist and says he “caught her red-handed.”

But Van (Zazie Beetz) stops him, saying the expression itself is racist and refers to Native American thieves. Van is teasing, but they suddenly start to wonder if the phrase’s racist origins they thought was a joke might actually be true. It sounds plausible, and the gag makes a clever observation about how we’ve come to realize that so many colloquial expressions have offensive undertones. But the show cuts away before they take the time to look it up.

So just where does “caught red-handed” come from? It’s actually not racist, or it at least isn’t related to Native Americans. “Red-handed” has its roots in 15th Century Scotland, and it literally refers to being caught with blood on your hands after a crime.

The first recorded instance of someone referring as having a “red hand” comes from “The Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I” in 1432:

That the offender be taken reid hand, may be persewed, and put to the knawledge of ane Assise, befoir the Barron or Landeslord of the land or ground, quhidder the offender be his tennent, unto quhom the wrang is done or not…  And uthers not taken reid hand…

To be more specific, “red-handed” can be found in Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” from 1820:

“I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.”

There you have it — Ern and Van can sleep easy on that one!

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LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Actor Donald Glover attends Vanity Fair and Barneys New York Private Dinner Celebrating 'Spotlight' Director Tom McCarthy at Chateau Marmont on February 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 18: The cast of FX's 'Atlanta' (L to R) LaKeith Stanfield, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Paul Simms, Donald Glover, and Hiro Murai pose in the Getty Images Portrait Studio at the 2016 Winter Television Critics Association press tour at the Langham Hotel on January 18, 2016 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 16: Creator/Executive Producer/Writer/Actor Donald Glover speaks onstage during the 'Atlanta' panel discussion at the FX portion of the 2015 Winter TCA Tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel on January 16, 2016 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 15: Actor Donald Glover attends the FOX winter TCA 2016 All-Star party at The Langham Huntington Hotel and Spa on January 15, 2016 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 10: Actor Donald Glover attends InStyle and Warner Bros. 73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards Post-Party at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)
Actor/rapper Donald Glover attends the GQ Men of The Year Party - 20th Anniversary, in West Hollywood, California, on December 3, 2015. AFP PHOTO/VALERIE MACON / AFP / VALERIE MACON (Photo credit should read VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 02: Donald Glover attends the 12th annual CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards at Spring Studios on November 2, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 13: Actor Donald Glover at the Vanity Fair toast of 'Freeheld' at TIFF 2015 presented by Hugo Boss and supported by Jaeger-LeCoultre at Montecito Restaurant on September 13, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 11: Actor Donald Glover attends the premiere for 'The Martian' at Roy Thomson Hall during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 25: Actor Donald Glover arrives at the Los Angeles World Premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures 'Magic Mike XXL' at TCL Chinese Theatre on June 25, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Barry King/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 13: Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino performs on June 13, 2015 in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/WireImage)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 24: Donald Glover seen out in Tribeca on FEBRUARY 24, 2015 in New York, New York. (Photo by Josiah Kamau/BuzzFoto via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 24: Actor Donald Glover visits the SiriusXM Studios on February 24, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Rapper Donald 'Childish Gambino' Glover attends Power 105.1's Powerhouse 2014 at Barclays Center on October 30, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 05: Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover attends Rolling Stone and Google Play event during Grammy Week at the El Rey Theatre on February 5, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)
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NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Tracee Ellis Ross and Donald Glover attend the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Tachman/Getty Images for Vogue)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Actor Donald Glover attends the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for New York Magazine)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Donald Glover and Frances McDormand attend the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/MG18/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Donald Glover attends the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- 'Donald Glover' Episode 1744 -- Pictured: Musical Guest Childish Gambino performs 'This Is America' in Studio 8H on Saturday, May 5, 2018 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- 'Donald Glover' Episode 1744 -- Pictured: (l-r) Donald Glover as Mr. Lando Calrissian, Leslie Jonas Keeb Beeba during 'Lando's Summit' in Studio 8H on Saturday, May 5, 2018 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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