Sorry, Conservative Media: The "Knockout Game" Trend Is a Myth

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 25 2013 12:50 PM

Sorry, Right-Wing Media: The "Knockout Game" Trend Is a Myth.

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Sean Hannity, "knockout game" truther.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

I remember the summer of 2011, a story about a crowd of teenagers at the Wisconsin State Fair randomly attacking fairgoers went viral as a sign of a burgeoning race war. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel fanned the flames, calling the teenagers "rampaging youths" who caused "mob-like disturbances":

"Then around the closing time of 11 p.m., witnesses told the Journal Sentinel, dozens to hundreds of black youths attacked white people as they left the fair, punching and kicking people and shaking and pounding on their vehicles."

"Dozens to hundreds"? When witnesses can't differentiate between 24 and 100, should we really rely on them to speculate whether a crime was racially motivated? One of the reasons the story gained so much traction could have stemmed from the fact that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country, and it validated white residents' fear that their black neighbors are dangerous.

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Now, the false trend story of black mob violence has cropped up again, as it seems to do annually, in conservative media outlets. (McKay Coppins wrote about this phenomenon in BuzzFeed last year.) The new scare is the "knockout game," in which black youths supposedly attack innocent people just for fun. Conservative pundits decry the MSM for suffering from political correctness and whitewashing crimes perpetrated by black people, but a more reasonable explanation for why most media outlets aren't devoting round-the-clock coverage to the knockout game is that—sorry, Sean Hannity—there is no hard data showing that it's a trend.

An important clarification: the game definitely exists, and has been around for at least a couple of years. I'm not claiming the game doesn't exist. But the idea that it's reached epidemic levels, or that it's only being played by young black people, is a fallacy. As Alan Noble convincingly writes, "Analyzing data is not as simple as watching some YouTube videos and Googling 'knockout game.'" And when it comes to the knockout game's supposed popularity, the data is almost entirely anecdotal:

Here’s the fascinating thing about this “spreading” trend: nobody seems to have any evidence that it’s spreading, or that it’s new, or that it’s racially motivated, or that black youths are the ones typically responsible, or that whites are typically targeted. This hasn’t stopped Mark SteynThomas Sowell, and Matt Walsh from describing this specifically as a crime committed by blacks against whites, CNN from claiming that it is “spreading,” or Alec Torres at NRO from say it is “evidently increasing [in] popularity.”

This is precisely the type of story meant to animate the deepest recesses of our lizard brains—"Danger lurks around every corner! Identify your enemy!" At the epicenter of this narrative is Colin Flaherty, a writer for WorldNetDaily who probably has a Google alert set up for "black suspect." He's made it his life's work to report any single crime perpetrated by a black person in the U.S. against a white person. In a recent blog post, he lists as evidence six separate crimes in Philadelphia over the course of two years, which share nothing in similarity except for the fact that they involved black people.

Imagine if another national "journalist" started doing the same for, say, any crime committed in Alabama, or any arson charge in the country. People would start to think Alabama was going through a crime epidemic, or that arson was becoming all the rage with criminals. That would be ridiculous, because it's ridiculous to assume that a few unrelated counts of arson make arson an epidemic. But when you inject race into the equation, it conveniently aligns with the assumptions of people who happen to be racist. That's the sort of twisted logic that justifies why more than half of the U.S. prison population is made up by black and Hispanic people, even though they comprise a quarter of the total population.

Crime happens to every type of person, and is perpetrated by every type of person. What makes the false narrative of the knockout game—or any "black mob violence" story—crop up every year is the fact that some people will always believe the color of someone's skin predisposes him to commit a crime. When a few YouTube videos are able to convince terrified white folks that young black people are dangerous, they may as well assume that all cats can play the keyboard.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.

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