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

A standard cultural depiction of the type of riotous crime that erupted in 19th century American cities.

A ¬†lineup of scary, urban, 19th century criminals, from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002).

Crime and cities have always been close bedfellows in America. The sense that cities, in contrast to the countryside, are havens of delinquency and debauchery populated by the worst kinds of morally deprived low-lifes is a longstanding notion in American culture that remains potent in the twenty-first century, even when urban crime rates are at their lowest point in some 40 years. But whatever the current level of crime in American cities, the denser populations of urban areas, when combined with the natural human proclivity towards delinquent behavior, has ensured that the cultural meme of “cities as havens of vice” has remained perennially popular.

The latest manifestation of urban crime fears is the viral panic over the supposed “knockout” trend that is currently sweeping the internet. Reports have emerged from cities such as Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia and others of the growing popularity of a depraved new game called “knockout” among groups of urban teenagers. As the New York Times reported, this game allegedly involves “young assailants…randomly picking unlucky targets and trying to knock them out with just one punch.” Essentially, the knockout game amounts to little more than a random, dangerous assault, since no reports of actual theft have emerged from these attacks.

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American Guns, American Tradition

The Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's last stand, epitomizes the role of guns in shaping an expantionist American identity.

The Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, epitomizes the role of guns in shaping an expansionist American identity.

Amidst news of yet another mass shooting on American soil, this time at a naval yard in Washington D.C., the calls for more examinations of the prevalence of gun violence in American culture are being made once again. These calls will float around the cultural atmosphere long enough to gain a few approving nods, mostly from the suffering victims of gun violence, before they are quietly plugged back into the mysterious black hole of moral ambiguity dug by the NRA and its supporters in government. Indeed, following a stunningly successful recall in Colorado of Democratic state senators who supported additional gun control, and only a few days after the Atlantic announced the sad Death of Gun Control, the idea that we could have any rational debate about guns in American culture seems ludicrous on its face.

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(Still) Fear of a Black Planet

Racial Propaganda Cartoon, Demonstrating White Fear of "Negro Rule," North Carolina, 1900.

Racial Propaganda Cartoon, Demonstrating White Fear of “Negro Rule,” North Carolina, 1900.

In American history, everything is about race. Even when an issue has nothing to do with race, Americans of certain stripes will find a way to make it about race. A case in point is the August 16, 2013 murder of Australian national Christopher Lane by three teenagers in Duncan, Oklahoma. An outraged Australian press seized on the incident to criticize the widespread availability of guns in the United States, which allegedly resulted in a cold-blooded slaying by three kids who were “bored and didn’t have anything to do.” Meanwhile, as Adam Serwer observes, the various American right-wing media propaganda outlets, who specialize in stoking a completely fabricated persecution complex among the country’s privileged, white, Ralph Kramden clones seized on Australian reports that erroneously identified the three suspects as black to claim that Lane was gunned down by blacks specifically because he was white.

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