Monday, November 25, 2013

History and Context Beyond the White Right's Obsession With the "Knockout Game": What is Your Favorite Moral Panic?

The knockout game meme is gaining more traction. How can a few thugs not attract the attention of the national media when the story involves black men and boys behaving badly?

To the degree that the truism "if it bleeds it leads" accurately describes how the news media frames issues, "if it bleeds its leads even more" if the victims of a crime are white and the accused perpetrators are black.

[I will also make a prediction. The knockout game will be expanded to include reports of black women and girls participating in this street hooliganism. Such a script fits the white racial frame by furthering the logic that black women are not really "feminine" in the same way as white women, and thus even less valuable both because of race and the "unique" and "negative" qualities that white racism associates with black female identity.]

Here, I described the knockout game foolishness as a "moral panic". This phrase is being used quite frequently in discussions about the topic by the media. However, and I am guilty of this as well, few commentators have actually defined the concept.

Precision is important in these matters. Moral panics are not necessarily the same thing as urban legends or general concerns about crime and social disorder--although there are many overlaps between the categories.

There is a large literature on the concept of moral panics which attempts to locate them in a specific historical, political, and social context. The most simple definition is that a moral panic consists of a hysteria or upsetness focused by the public(s) on an episode or series of "troubling" events which is amplified and circulated by the media as a sign of some deeper fissure or break in standing social norms and values.

These moral panics often focus on some type of Other which can be marked as being "abnormal", "dangerous", "immoral", or "deviant". Predictably, these panics overlay neatly with existing social hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class, and age.

The knockout game hysteria fits these criteria: it features long-standing white supremacist fixations on "black criminality", is focused on young people of color, resonates with fears by white people regarding America's changing demographics while reinforcing the White Right's vacuous lie that white people are "victims" of "reverse racism" in the post civil rights era, and is disseminated by the Right-wing media apparatus.

Moreover, the way that the knockout game moral panic has been circulated by the news media is a very chilling echo of how race and rumor were historically used to incite white racial pogroms, spectacular lynchings, and other types of terrorism against African-Americans. Of course, there is an important distinction: the knockout game is an example of wanton street thuggery by criminals; the lynching tree and racial terrorism were rituals of mass white violence against innocent black Americans.

However, the apparatus and narrative structure of these two different racial moral panics are very similar. The suggestion that all black people share some responsibility for the knockout game (thus, our "leaders" should condemn it), white society should be especially fearful of this menace, and young black people should be subjected to group punishment, is not too far afield from rumors of black men raping white women, engaging in rebellions against white authority, or otherwise being "uppity" and provoking white on black violence.

America and Europe have a long history of moral panics. Some of my "favorites" include the following:

1. Witch trials during the Middle Ages
2. Fears about role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and their purported link to Satanism
3. White slavery and how white women were being made into opium addicts and sex slaves by Asian men
4. Refer madness and cocaine addicted black men praying on young white girls
5. The Roma kidnapping "white" babies
6. Comic books and the corruption of American youth

What are some of your favorite moral panics? And how do they relate (if at all) to the White Right's dream and obsession about the knockout game?


Wavenstein said...

I never see this level of panic (if any) when white teenagers go around beating the shit out of homeless people for the fun of it. Remember "Bum Fights" and similarly themed videos like that?

chauncey devega said...

Shhh keep your talk about white crime to yourself! Remember those negroes have superpowers denied to white people.

Bryan Ortez said...

Single motherhood...

Cyclical cause pf poverty, crime and vice. Cyclical cause of government dependence.

I think Ann Coulter says some 70% of felons come from homes with single mothers.

The moral fabric of America decayed because of feminism and the sexual revolution.

Women need to stop having sex out of wedlock. Don't get an abortion if you got pregnant before you can really afford to raise a child.

Nevermind that men are under a lot of peer pressure to define themselves sexually. They have to have someone to have sex with.. women are supposed to be the stronger, more moral person?

I'm not sure if this is an example, but it sure seems like it. every time there's some news about criminality or government dependence it's always, where's the dad?

KissedByTheSun said...

Wilding. I think that was the first time I saw white people take a slang term so horribly out of context. In the white imagination the word came to mean "black men going out to perform rape and mischief". When in reality to be wilding (Pronounced wahlin) simply meant you were bugging, being stupid, acting crazy. Anybody could be "wahlin out" just by cracking a funny joke, or doing a silly dance, or talking to a girl way out of your league. So when the central park 5 said they were "wilding" everybody in the hood understood that meant they indeed were acting crazy, but the word did not specifically mean "rape and beat up white people". It was so bad my white teachers wouldn't allow the black kids to use that word anymore. So if crazy Dennis took a dare to mix his mystery meat in his milk carton and drink it, I would get in trouble if I told him "yo you wilding right now!" Them teachers was "wilding."

DanF said...

The eighteenth amendment was a pretty big moral panic.

Late 70's/early 80's: Angel Dust gives users, nearly always Latinos or biker gangs (at least in the LA area press where I grew up), super human strength and makes you a cannibal!

kscoyote said...

Noooooo=one expects the Spanish Inquisition!!!!

Miles_Ellison said...

Once white people discovered that rock 'n roll was profitable, they pushed all of the black people out of it. Then they constructed the untrue narrative that black people had nothing to do with it in the first place. The same thing happened in the early years of Jazz. Someday, we'll be reading about how the Beastie Boys and Vanilla Ice "invented" rap. Much like we've been reading about how Elvis "invented" rock' n roll, something that is an obviously silly statement to anyone with a passing knowledge of American musical history, but we live in country full of people who have no idea about anything that happened more than 15 minutes ago.

KissedByTheSun said...

Uh oh, was somebody wearing a wire at the last All Black People in the World meeting? How did they find out about operation Nat Turner 2.0?

Seriously though, the white genocide race war meme is getting old.

Miles_Ellison said...

In the early '80s, there was a moral panic about evil and suggestive messages hidden in rock 'n roll records (that were only revealed when they were played backwards) that were supposedly causing teenagers to commit suicide. There were also moral panics about the "satanic" leanings of prominent Heavy Metal bands.

In the mid-'80s, there was a moral panic about "obscene" song lyrics. There were even Congressional hearings, where the late, lamented Frank Zappa eviscerated all of the chattering Washington gasbags.

About a decade later, there was a moral panic about Ice-T's song "Cop Killer." Another decade (or so) later, there was a moral panic about Heavy Metal's influence on the school shootings at Columbine.

It makes me wonder how anyone got murdered or worshiped Satan before the invention of Heavy Metal. People have been killing each other since man learned to walk upright and use clubs. People have been worshiping Satan for at least thousands of years. Heavy Metal was invented in 1968 (or thereabouts).

As far as the knockout game is concerned, America's history should have taught anyone who was paying attention that random violence against specific races of people is the exclusive purview of white law enforcement.

chauncey devega said...

Remember, those are form letters cooked up by Right-wing PR firms and white supremacist groups and then sent out by fake people submitting under the guise of sending a letter to the editor.

Miles_Ellison said...

And you never will. That's strictly material for daytime talk show porn.

Bryan Ortez said...

this spawned me to check my local paper's letters to the editor...

This is hilarious.

"Narcissistic/compulsive lying/America-hating Obama is swiftly/successfully destroying this country - fulfillment of Bible prophecy. His zeal for total destruction of capitalism/families/Christians/military rivalst hat of Hitler/Stalin. He doesn't give a merry damn about health coverage/kids/freedoms/jobs - he wants total power/control at any/all costs."

"End times/Tribulation are here ... the rapture of the church is upon us. Please ensure your salvation."

Daniel Goldberg said...

Because I work on health stigma, I encounter moral panics all of the time. The two most common I see are moral panics over the use of opioid analgesics in the Tx of pain, and, of course, fatness.

I am sure, Chauncey, you are shocked just shocked I say shocked that both of these moral panics are deeply racialized.

Jake Hamby said...

What, no mention yet of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the 1980's? Not the satanic lyrics in heavy metal music, but the alleged child molestation cults that were abusing children in bizarre satanic rituals that were the product of "recovered memories" that were never substantiated by any actual evidence. See the wikipedia entry for details.

The McMartin preschool trial was an offshoot of this, which I remember being a big story on L.A. TV news (it was the most expensive and longest criminal trial in U.S. history when it ended in 1990). One mother made a bunch of wild accusations and the investigators pressured the children into coming up with stories of how they were abused (and wouldn't take no for an answer). Several of the children explicitly recanted their testimony as adults, and said in op-eds that they only agreed to what the investigators pressured them to say had happened so that they could go home.

chauncey devega said...

I didn't know about that regional aspect. Learned something. Have you seen Capturing the Friedmans?

chauncey devega said...

Don't give negroes and puerto ricans no opiates!

chauncey devega said...

Tell me more about the "lavender menace" if you would.

chauncey devega said...

Satan is adaptable. A trickster, no? I like Ice-T's hardcore music much more than his rap stuff. Were you a fan of Body Count?

GregWhitenerel said...

Body Count was the shiznit.

Learning is Eternal said...

Contracting aids from kissing; that's a gay or black person disease.

Other Moral Panics that really scare me are doctors/healthcare professionals who never get it wrong/are there to help you... Yeah, The Tuskegee Experiment, incarcerated black & brown guinea pigs, sterilization of denizens in the Carolina's or Puerto Rico are myth like unicorns w/gold teeth/an isolated incident, a minor hiccup in the system.

Miles_Ellison said...

I actually saw Body Count live at one of the early Lollapalooza festivals. It was just after their first album came out. Ice-T performed "Cop Killer". That was just before all the controversy.

chauncey devega said...

I remember the first one very well. Your other examples are urban legends and info about medical apartheid--the latter being all too real.

Jake Hamby said...

No, I haven't seen Capturing the Friedmans, but I used to read the newsletters from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which is basically a support group for the families who have been accused of this type of abuse by their children after therapy, and I'm pretty sure they mentioned that documentary.

Fortunately, no-one I know has accused others, or been accused of, "satanic ritual" abuse. By far the most bizarre declaration of the satanic conspiracy was a speech given by D. C. Hammond called the "Greenbaum speech", transcriptions of which are available online, in which he claims a truly bizarre conspiracy involving a Jewish doctor turned by Nazis and the CIA, and all sorts of Manchurian Candidate stuff, of which Hammond wasted countless law enforcement resources trying (and failing) to find any existence of whatsoever.

Waterwitch said...

I'm not sure if the term was used that way in the 1950s (Lavendar Menace actually was a protest against the exclusion of lesbians from the National Organization for Women in the early 1970s), but Nixon as well as Joe McCarthy and his deeply closeted aide Roy Cohn conflated Communists and the "Homintern" (an imaginary international homosexual conspiracy) as a corrupting, subversive influence on American government and [White] culture, particularly the arts. Nixon listed homosexuality, dope, and immorality in general as the weapons that Communists and left-wingers were deploying against "decent" society.

Jake Hamby said...

And I just saw this Slate story about a Texas couple who spent 21 years in prison for a "satanic ritual abuse" crime and are just now being freed.

Jake Hamby said...

One more story from Vice about a group of women in San Antonio who were *just* released from prison after spending 14 years there for an alleged lesbian satanic ritual child molestation that never happened.

skilletblonde said...

American Television Shows that profit from Moral Panic of black people. These shows are a treadmill depiction of black life as violent, immoral, ignorant and subhuman.

(1) Cops
(2) The First 48
(3) Investigations Discovery
(4) Hardcore Porn
(5) Judge Mathis
(6) Divorce Court
(7) Paternity Court
(8) Maury Povich
(9) Jerry Springer
(10) Steve Wilkos
(11) Love And Hip-Hop
(12) Basketball Wives
(13) BET

Miles_Ellison said...

You left out Tyler Perry's cavalcade of coonery.