Last week's controversy over comments by Brooklyn Councilwoman-elect Laurie Cumbo, who suggested that recent "knockout" attacks on Jewish victims could be due to black residents feeling threatened by the Jewish community's success, has added a disturbing twist to the debate about the "knockout game."
The purpose of the "game" is to knock out a random passerby with a single punch. Some commentators dismiss the trend as urban myth and blame media sensationalism. Others, mainly on the right, accuse liberal journalists of downplaying black-on-white violence (many knockout attacks involve black assailants and white victims). There is little doubt that coverage of the "knockout game" is at least part hype, and that hype can worsen the problem. But the facts are disturbing enough that they deserve attention -- and responsible reporting.
That such attacks have happened is not in question. Several have been captured on video. A few have resulted in deaths. In May in Syracuse, a man was beaten and stomped to death by a group of teenagers; a 13-year-old boy admitted that he started it by trying to knock out the victim to impress his friends. Another death linked to the "game" took place in September in Jersey City.
The senselessness of the attacks is part of what makes them terrifying. Anyone can be a victim, and one cannot protect oneself -- as in a robbery -- by cooperating. But is this kind of brutality really new? Some crimes described as part of the trend go back a few years. Of course, the phenomenon of youth violence motivated by thrill-seeking or displays of toughness is much older and crosses ethnic and cultural lines: Remember the predatory teens of Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel, "A Clockwork Orange"?
When the media focus on a specific peril, be it the "knockout game" or pit bull attacks, incidents previously too insignificant to be covered often end up in the news. Sometimes, assaults reported as part of the "knockout" trend seem to involve unrelated acts, such as a mentally ill person lashing out at a bystander. And the hype can encourage copycat crimes, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meanwhile, many blogs on the right are treating the "knockout game" as part of an epidemic of racial violence by blacks, hushed up by the mainstream media. The main chronicler of this alleged epidemic is freelance writer Colin Flaherty, author of a recent book called " 'White Girl Bleed a Lot': The Return of Racial Violence to America and How the Media Ignore It." While some right-wing rhetoric on the subject has a thinly veiled racist tone, Flaherty's book is also cited by black conservative columnist and radio talk-show host Larry Elder, who believes violence by African-American youths is an issue of family breakdown.
Flaherty is not necessarily an unbiased reporter; in one blog post, he describes an assault on a Sikh man mistaken for a Muslim (his attackers shouted "Get Osama!") as a black-on-white hate crime even though the motivation clearly seems religious, not racial. Still, his narrative raises a painful question. When African-American teens or young adults selectively assault white victims, sometimes in mob attacks -- as happened at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee two years ago -- should this be reported as racial violence? Do politically correct journalists hide the facts behind euphemisms, referring to "teenagers" and "youth violence"? How do we decide when race is a clear enough factor to be mentioned in news coverage?
Given America's terrible history of anti-black racism, the desire to avoid promoting racial stereotypes of black (especially male) youths as violent and dangerous is understandable. But when the media fail at full and honest reporting, it can only undercut their credibility and make right-wing racial paranoia more appealing.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.