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.
Knocking someone out cold can actually be done with little excessive strength provided that the attacker clubs their unsuspecting victim in just the right spot on the head, and some of these attacks have been fatal. A homeless man in New Jersey named Ralph Santiago died after being struck from behind by a group of teens, and other victims have been seriously injured. Disparate reports of similar attacks in different U.S. cities have spread through the media, igniting a heated debate over whether these attacks are an organized criminal trend spread through social media or simply unrelated incidents of random urban assault. The New York Times, for example, questions if the viral spread of these attacks has created a modern-day urban myth, while other publications such as Slate, the Daily Beast, and USA Today have variously brushed off the knockout game as a “phony panic” lacking in sufficient data to identify a trend.
So what’s the deal here? Is the knockout game a real, disturbing national urban crime epidemic? Or is it little more than overhyped fear in which pattern-seeking humans have pieced together similar news items detailing outbreaks of the kind of spontaneous assaults that sometimes happen in big cities? In all likelihood, the answer is a potent mix of both. The knockout game does exist, but the idea that it’s a widespread, coordinated trend has all of the hallmarks of the type of urban crime myth that has long been popular in American culture.
Further, as Emma Roller of Slate notes, the fact that most of the knockout incident appear to have perpetrated by black teenagers against white victims has lent a decidedly racist tone to the whole story. Indeed, the cultural idea of the dangerous, urban black criminal is a longstanding American trope that goes all the way back to the Civil War. Of course, the usual right-wing race-baiters have used the knockout attacks as an excuse to promulgate fears of race war. They know they’re stoking old race fires, and they get paid to shovel in the coal.
Since the dawn of the Jacksonian era in the early nineteenth century, which saw the beginning of America’s long transformation from a primarily rural to a predominantly urban society, the city and its vices have been a source of potent social worry. As urban historian Paul Boyer observes, early American social reformers feared the specter of “urban decay” that sprung from cities’ dynamic demographic structure. “From the early 1800s on,” Boyer writes, “observers commented on the impersonality and bustle of urban existence, the lack of human warmth, the heedless jostlings of the free-floating human atoms that endlessly surged through the streets.”* The city’s dynamic structure led concerned reformers to conclude that urban life was a “volitile…deviation from a familiar norm” of the close-knit, morally upright, church-going, neighborly setting of the traditional American small rural town.
In response to concerns about drunkenness, crime, and general depravity in American cities, a collection of various reform organizations — including Bible and Tract societies, charity groups, the Anti-Saloon League, settlement houses, and the YMCA — sought to remake the social structure of urban spaces in the image of the morally righteous small town. These reform organizations, Boyer notes, promulgated an idea, still prevalent in contemporary American society, that cities were “seething cauldrons of licentious, brutalized creatures, contemptuous of morality, responsible to no one, owning no master but the lustful dictates of their own wicked flesh.”*
Americans today continue to view cities as havens of crime inhabited by “brutalized creatures” that are in need of a serious moral compass. Moreover, race continues to play a large role in shaping perceptions of urban social decay and violence. As the Village Voice reported in 2011, the more uncouth elements of the right-wing media complex — including websites like Urban Grounds and the ever loathsome Drudge Report — have made a cottage industry out of blaming African-American populations for crime in cities while extolling small-town (white) values as antidotes to urban (black) ills. The right-wing fringe repeats a common theme that there is something inherent in “black culture” or the “black race” that predisposes African-American urban youths towards criminal behavior like the knockout game.
Such a charge amounts to little more than pseudoscientific racial reductionism — an idea best left in the heap of past discarded social theories. Now, dismissing right-wing race-baiting does not mean that African-Americans can’t be criminals, of course. 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 black Americans are predisposed towards crime is historically woven into the fabric of American culture.
In his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad traces the linkage of blackness with crime back to the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In a nation where slavery was dead but white supremacy remained potent, “African American freedom fueled far-ranging anxieties among many white Americans” that, in turn, materialized in the idea of black criminality. The notion of black criminality spread via “national debates about the fundamental racial and cultural differences between African Americans and native-born whites and European immigrants.”* The idea that crimes committed by individual blacks are somehow representative of an urban “black community” stems from this period.
Americans have been primed to view images like this as the face of urban crime, but believe me, the gangs of white boys in 19th Philadelphia and New York would take offence at the idea that only black kids can be scary.
During the late nineteenth century, white Northerners and Southerners reconciled their post-war differences by emphasizing their shared whiteness in contrast to a newly freed black population that whites believed was prone to criminal behavior. In this sense, the idea of black urban criminality became a circular, self-fulfilling belief that “became one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or acceptance of racial violence as an instrument of public safety.”* Indeed, because whites believed that black were natural criminals, blacks became criminals in whites’ minds, and the belief that blacks were criminals justified racially discriminatory laws and social customs.
The nineteenth century association of blackness with crime, Gibran Muhammad writes, remains a powerful idea in twenty-first century American culture, hence the fear of the “black thug” driven knockout game. This process of “racial criminalization” resulted in the “stigmatization of crime as ‘black’ and the masking of crime among whites as individual failure.”* To understand how this type of thinking works, put on your prejudiced cap just for a moment and 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” could somehow represent some hypothetical community of white people is absurd, but “racial criminalization” has resulted in violence committed by “black thugs” being taken 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.”
Of course, the idea that cities are more dangerous now, populated as they are with African-Americans, is historical wishful thinking. Heck, nineteenth-century American cities were infinitely more dangerous — or at least were perceived as such by contemporary observers — because they were rife with criminality, and the face of this criminality was usually white. Consider a few reports from nineteenth century Philadelphia.
Following 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 he City of Brotherly Love. In September 1864, a “gang of boys” attacked an elderly woman, dragged her 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, more often than not, white.
Things got so bad in Philadelphia that a February 1870 editorial lamented the loss of the city to “hordes of ruffians” who committed acts of violence day and night 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 nearly all of these reports, the criminals were listed as white, suggesting that cities like Philadelphia were always dangerous, and that African-Americans, shockingly, were not the only ethnic group involved in violent crime.
A standard depiction of the type of riotous crime that erupted in 19th century American cities. Yep, those are white guys in that picture.
New York, like Philly, also had is share of violent crime issues. In his 1872 book The Nether Side of New York, the journalist Edward Crapsey described a Big Apple overwhelmed by immigration, poverty, and corruption that became “the prey of thievery and debauchery.”* Similarly, in 1886, William Howe and A.H. Hummel, the authors of Danger! A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations, warned that “in a great city like New York, the germs of evil in human life are developed into the rankest maturity.” Howe and Hummel described a New York infested since the early nineteenth century with murderous gangs of “toughs” and “rowdies” that wrecked havoc in areas like the notorious “Five Points,” a depraved 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?!*
Historically, Americans have long feared cities as being havens of violent criminal debauchery. The fear of urban crime goes back to the antebellum era, when the transition from a primarily rural to a primarily urban country unleashed widespread concerns that the cities were places where traditional moral values go to die. On one level, such a fear was justified: as the above sources note, cities did have lots of violent crime. But the greater population density of urban areas when compared to small towns lent credence to the idea that cities were inherently crime-prone. In fact, urban crime stemmed from the same dark side of human nature that effected every American, whether they were country bumpkins or metropolitan street rats.
Moreover, despite an American cultural tendency to associate urban criminality with blackness that has resurfaced in light of the alleged knockout trend, both whites and blacks have long contributed to urban crime. 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 general “white community” or that Michael Corleone represents all Italian-Americans.
So if you find yourself viewing videos of the knockout game and wanting to decry the supposed degeneracy of “black thugs,” step back for a moment and consider whether crime actually has a color. Historically, urban crime has been as multi-cultural and multi-colored as American cities themselves. Recognizing that the propensity for violence lies in all humans will go a long way towards reducing crime throughout the U.S., whether that crime be urban, rural, or everything in between.
* 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.