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The “Knockout” Game, Race, and Fears of Urban Crime in American History

The idea that cities are havens of delinquency populated by morally deprived low-lifes is a longstanding notion in American history. But whatever the current level of crime in American cities, the denser, ethnically-mixed populations of urban areas has ensured that the cultural meme of “cities as havens of vice” has remained perennially popular.

CBS NewsThe latest fear of urban crime comes via the viral panic over the “knockout” game. Reports have emerged from cities such as PittsburghNew York, and Philadelphia of a game that, as the New York Times reported, involves “young assailants…randomly picking unlucky targets and trying to knock them out with just one punch.” Some of these attacks have been fatal, and reports of similar incidents by youths in other cities have ignited a heated debate over whether these assaults constitute a criminal trend or are simply unrelated incidents of random violence. The New York Times, for example, questions if the viral spread of these attacks has created an urban myth, while the Daily Beast describes the knockout game as a “phony panic” lacking in sufficient data to identify a trend.

In all likelihood, the “knockout game” is a potent mix of real crime and fear stoked by pattern-seeking media outlets connecting similar stories of random urban assaults. The knockout game does exist, but the idea that it’s a widespread trend smacks of the type of urban crime myth that has long been prevalent in American culture.

Further, as Slate notes, the fact that most of the knockout incidents appear to have been perpetrated by black teenagers against white victims has lent a decidedly racist tone to the whole story. The image of the urban black criminal is an old American cultural trope. Of course, right-wing race-baiters have used the knockout attacks as an excuse to exacerbate racial tensions. They know they’re stoking old race fires, and they get paid to shovel in the coal.

Since the beginning of America’s long transformation into an urban society at the dawn of the Jacksonian era, the city has fuelled social worry. As historian Paul Boyer observes, starting in the early 1800s, American reformers feared “urban decay” and remarked on the “impersonality” and “lack of human warmth” that characterized  urban life.* The city’s dynamic structure led reformers to conclude that city life was a “volatile…deviation from a familiar norm” of the close-knit, morally upright American small town. In response to concerns about urban depravity, reform organizations tried to remake cities in the social image of the righteous countryside. These groups, Boyer notes, promulgated the idea, still prevalent today, that cities were “seething cauldrons of licentious, brutalized creatures, contemptuous of morality” and “owning no master but the lustful dictates of their own wicked flesh.”*

Contemporary Americans continue to view cities as being inhabited by “brutalized creatures;” and race plays a large role in shaping perceptions of urban social decay. As the Village Voice reported in 2011, the more uncouth elements of the right-wing media complex, including sites like Urban Grounds and the ever loathsome Drudge Report, blame African-Americans for crime in cities while extolling small-town (white) values as antidotes to urban (black) ills. The right-wing fringe repeats a theme that a deviant “black culture” predisposes African-Americans towards behavior like the knockout game.

Such a charge amounts to little more than racial reductionism, but dismissing right-wing race-baiting doesn’t mean that African-Americans can’t be criminals. To put it bluntly: it isn’t that black people don’t commit crimes; rather, they don’t commit crimes because they’re black. Yet the perception that urban blacks are predisposed towards crime is historically woven into the fabric of American society.

In his book The Condemnation of Blackness, historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad traces the linkage of blackness with crime to the aftermath of the Civil War. In a nation where slavery was dead but white supremacy remained, black freedom “fueled far-ranging anxieties” among whites that materialized in the notion of black criminality, which spread via “national debates about the fundamental racial and cultural differences” between blacks and whites.* In this sense, black urban criminality became a self-fulfilling belief. Because whites believed that blacks were criminals, blacks became criminals in whites’ minds, a belief that justified racially discriminatory laws and social customs.*

The old association of blackness with crime remains potent today; hence the fear of the “black thug” driven knockout game. This process, what Gibran Muhammad calls “racial criminalization,” resulted in the “stigmatization of crime as ‘black’ and the masking of crime among whites as individual failure.”* To understand this prejudiced thinking, ask yourself: “if white kids were perpetrating the knockout game, would I describe them as “white thugs” or just “thugs?” Of course, the idea that “white thugs” represent a general “white community” is absurd, but “racial criminalization” means that violence committed by “black thugs” is viewed as indicative of African-American culture. In America, white people get to be individuals, but every black person still has to represent a “black community.”

The idea that African-American populated cities are more dangerous now is historical wishful thinking. Heck, 19th century American cities were way more dangerous, or at least were perceived as such, because they were rife with mostly white criminals. Consider a few reports from Philadelphia.

gangs of new yorkFollowing the murder of a pedestrian, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a December 1, 1864 report on the “Carnival of Crime” in the city at the hands of a “gang of ruffians” that “embraced every crime known to the criminal laws.” Assaults and murder were daily occurrences in 19th century Philadelphia. In September 1864, a “gang of boys” dragged an elderly woman along the ground and broke her leg. In March 1865, a pedestrian was “badly beaten” by a “gang of rowdies” without cause. In August 1869, a night watchman was “brutally beaten” by a “band of assassins” to the point that his recovery was “doubtful.”* I could go on, but suffice to say that cities like Philly were filled with violent criminals, and those criminals were usually white.

Things got so bad in Philadelphia that a February 1870 editorial lamented the loss of the city to “hordes of ruffians” that rampaged with impunity. “Crime of every sort has grown frightfully familiar,” the editorial fretted, “murders are done in our most public thoroughfares and the assassins are let go free. Hanging for murder is as much a thing of the past in Philadelphia as in New York.” In most of these reports, the criminals were listed as white, suggesting that violent crime wasn’t racially exclusive.

New York, like Philly, also had its share of violent crime. In his 1872 book The Nether Side of New York, the journalist Edward Crapsey described a rotten-to-the-core Big Apple that became “the prey of thievery and debauchery.”* Similarly, in 1886, journalists William Howe and A.H. Hummel warned that in New York, “the germs of evil in human life are developed into the rankest maturity.” They described a city infested with gangs of “toughs” and “rowdies” that wrecked havoc in areas like the notorious “Five Points,” a neighborhood depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York. Those gangs, by the way, were white. Talk about your angry “white thugs,” right?!*

Since the early 19th century, urbanizing trends in the U.S. have unleashed widespread fears that cities were havens of crime where traditional morals went to die. On one level, such fears were justified: as the above sources note, cities did have lots of crime. But the larger populations of cities lent credence to the idea that they were inherently crime-prone. In fact, urban crime stemmed from the same dark side of human nature that affected every American, whether they were country bumpkins or metropolitan street rats.

Moreover, despite a cultural tendency to associate urban criminality with blackness that has resurfaced with the knockout game, crime is an equal opportunity activity. The idea that urban black criminals speak for the general “black community” is a ridiculous notion; as ridiculous as saying that rural white meth dealers in “America’s Heartland” represent the “white community” or that Michael Corleone represents all Italian-Americans.

Those commentators who use the knockout game to decry the supposed degeneracy of “black thugs” should step back and consider whether crime actually has a color. Historically, urban crime has been as multi-cultural as American cities themselves. Recognizing the human propensity for violence will help reduce crime throughout the U.S., whether that crime be urban, rural, or everything in between.

Sources

* See Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 4-5.*

* See Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 4.

* See the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The Carnival of Crime,” December 1, 1864. “Youthful Depravity,” September 30, 1864. “Attacked,” March 6, 1865. “Another Midnight Assault Near Chestnut Street,” August 2, 1869. “The Contest Between Order and Disorder,” February 3, 1870.

* See Edward Crapsey, The Nether Side of New York (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1872), 9.

* See William Howe and A.H. Hummel, Danger! A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations (Buffalo: The Courier Co., 1886), iv, 6-11.

 

About Jarret Ruminski

Jarret Ruminski
Jarret Ruminski is an independent scholar who holds a PhD in American history from the University of Calgary. He specializes in the 19th century U.S. with emphasis on the Civil War and the American South. You can read more of his writing at his blog, That Devil History, where he discusses the intersection of American history and contemporary politics and popular culture. Connect with him on [email protected]

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