STERN: Knocking out racist myths

A Stern Perspective

A couple days before Thanksgiving break, we received an email from Yale University Police Chief Ronnell Higgins. The email’s subject, “Public Safety Update,” certainly sounded innocuous enough, but its contents quickly dispelled this assumption.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tian“The New Haven police have shared with us that they are beginning to see incidents of something called the ‘Knockout Game’: groups of teenagers or young adults coming up to individuals on public streets and hitting them,” Higgins wrote. “The goal appears to be to hit and then to run away, rather than robbery.”

Higgins proceeded to mention several recent incidents that occured fairly close to Yale’s campus and added that “the ‘Knockout Game’ appears to be a national trend.”

I appreciate Chief Higgins’s concern. I especially appreciate the work done by the Yale University Police Department and the New Haven Police Department to keep me safe.

But Chief Higgins’s email plays into a troubling media narrative. It perpetuates a myth founded not in facts, but in selective statistics and racism. I am certain that Chief Higgins was unaware of the sordid history of his information, yet I feel someone must point out the damaging fallacies undergirding reports of a national “Knockout Game” trend.

In recent weeks, pundits have been sounding the alarm about the “Knockout Game.” According to CNN, the Knockout Game is a trend that is “spreading,” with victims “piling up.” Fox News expounded on this, reporting that “confirmed thugs on the street” are “polar bear hunting” — looking for white victims.

A great number of these media reports claim that the assailants are usually black, the victims usually white. Mark Steyn wrote in the National Review: “Groups of black youths roam the streets looking for a solitary pedestrian, preferably white.” Steyn proceeded to refer to the Knockout perpetrators as “moronic savage[s].” Respected journalists Thomas Sowell and Alec Torres repeated his claims.

The fear that bands of black youths are skulking the streets and terrorizing innocent passersby is hardly new. Following the Civil War, plantation owners reported mobs of former slaves threatening their wives and daughters. For the next century, these claims — wildly inflated and usually outright false — were the justification for lynching and Jim Crow laws. Pundits of that period used racialized language to spread fear of “savages” and “thugs.” Sound familiar?

Many liken the hysteria surrounding the Knockout Game with “wilding,” the idea, popular in the 1980s and 1990s, that groups of dark-skinned youths were on the streets making trouble for mostly white pedestrians. Fears of “wilding” led to the wrongful convictions and incarceration of countless teens, including the Central Park Five. Reports of the Knockout Game have been around since the ’90s, though they remain isolated and rare — often reported with racist code words.

The oft-reported claim of an epidemic of black-on-white street crime is a bigoted myth. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case. In 2011, there were 3,645 victims of “racially motivated hate crimes,” according to data compiled by the FBI. Nearly 72 percent of the victims, an appalling majority, were targeted because of “anti-black bias.”

Pundits have cherry-picked the data in order to wildly sensationalize claims that murderous bands of young men, especially black men, are roaming the streets, knocking out passersby. In this country, aggravated assaults occur at a rate of one per minute. There are more than 4 million violent attacks each year, 125,000 with “hands and fists.” With so many cases of random street violence, to interpret a few isolated instances of Knockout as a national trend is simply wrong.

Philadelphia police have seen 5,000 violent assaults without guns this year, and just one of these has been confirmed as the Knockout Game. There is — and always will be — street crime. But that does not a national trend make. By treating every random and alleged assault as a potential case of Knockout Game fever, the media is attempting to create the false impression of an epidemic — one regularly couched in racist language. As one police spokesman told the New York Times last week, “If there ever was an urban myth, this was it.”

Urban myths derived from selective statistics and racialized punditry allow policymakers to enact harsh laws that disproportionately affect persons of color, such as New York’s stop-and-frisk policy.

These myths also mislead police officers, such as Ronnell Higgins. Chief Higgins’s email, while undoubtedly sent with the best of intentions and thankfully not hypothesizing about the race of the assailants, nonetheless perpetuates this dangerous idea.

The real trend at hand isn’t the Knockout Game — it’s the epidemic of powerful people deceptively spreading fear.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. His columns run on Mondays. Contact him at scott. stern@yale.edu.

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