As my colleague Emma Roller reported previously on Slate, the "knockout game," in which young black men randomly hit white people in an effort to knock them out, is not a real epidemic. That didn't stop an explosion of media stories, often based on the thinnest of evidence, chronicling this supposed trend in November. Now one of the alleged victims, a St. Louis woman named Ashley DePew, who claimed she was attacked in a "knockout game," has been exposed for lying. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other local outlets, police say that what really happened is that her boyfriend hit her, and she borrowed the popular urban legend in order to cover for his crime.
You couldn't come up with a better encapsulation of how American perceptions of crime are skewed. Domestic violence has gotten more media attention the past couple of decades, but it's still a chronically underreported crime, and most people remain unaware of how widespread the problem is. Victims like DePew routinely conceal what's really going on. In contrast, of course, you have the outrage and hysteria over an imaginary crime that seems dreamed up for no other purpose than stoking racist anxieties. And the fact that the media and its audience buy into it allows real criminals to borrow these myths about black violence to get away with their very real crimes.
This is hardly the first time that a racial hoax has been used by someone trying to conceal their own violence. In 1989, Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife and blamed it on anonymous black men, stoking racial tension in the Boston area just as the "knockout game" is doing now. In 1994, Susan Smith murdered her sons and trotted out the same lie to the police and the media. In other cases, people make up imaginary attacks by black men for money, attention, or, as University of Florida law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown told NPR, even just to get time off of work. (Russell-Brown classifies the Duke lacrosse hoax, an unusual one because the accuser was black and the accused were white, as a racial hoax as well.) In one particularly surreal case in 2008, a young female John McCain supporter claimed a black man randomly carved the letter "B" into her face as a kind of Obama campaign sign. Turns out she did it to herself, which helped explain why the letter was backwards. And while not a hoax, it was the late-'80s hysteria over "wilding" that created an atmosphere in which five young men were wrongly convicted in the Central Park jogger rape case.
Racial hoaxes create vicious little cycles. The person who perpetrates one borrows from pre-existing narratives about out-of-control black men committing violence, and by doing so, grows and feeds the illusion that young black men are dangerous. When the truth comes out, it's often too little too late. The hysteria has set in and the damage is done. Most people, months and years from now, will remember the "knockout game" but forget the hoax. Which means that the next time some guy beats up his girlfriend, they can just blame it on a black kid again.