'Flash robs': Are they the race riots of the Internet age?

Black youths have been primary participants in many 'flash robs' – thefts organized on Twitter and Facebook. Some bloggers see a racial element, but many experts disagree.

Angry and out of work, some black American youth are finding a new outlet for their frustration: “flash robs.”

Flash robs are a criminal twist on “flash mobs” – the spontaneous gatherings that use messages on Twitter and Facebook to organize. Instead of congregating to sing Christmas carols or hold political protests, however, flash robs are organized to rob a store in a quick and sometimes large lightning raid.

They have occurred in Washington, Las Vegas, Chicago, and elsewhere. And in many cases, they have been dominated by African-American youths.

In some conservative circles of the blogosphere, flash robs have become a symbol of a nascent race war in America – Internet-era replays of the race riots of the 1960s and ‘70s. In one case, a flash rob participant reportedly yelled: "We need to kill all the white people around here!"

But experts suggest African-American participation in flash robs is merely the latest manifestation of decades-old discontent within the community, brought to a boil by the current economy.

"If there is some racial tension there, that fits ... into a pattern of very similar kinds of public disturbances, from peaceful to riots that we've seen occur in the Middle East and in Paris,” says Christopher Ferguson, who studies violent behavior in youths at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. “You take a group of young men, you don't give them jobs or much to do, you cut them off from the traditional avenues of advancement in society, and they get" upset.

But the incidents are playing upon latent fears among parts of white America. They come amid police reports in at least four states of a game called "Knockout King," played primarily by black teenagers, where the point is to approach and quickly strike a stranger, often whites or immigrants, in an attempt to knock them unconscious with the first punch.

Such reports have stoked fears among some in the white community, charging that liberal media outlets are not holding black Americans to the same standard that they would hold whites.

"The liberal media policy of resolute silence about race and crime may strike a reasonable observer as troubling, given the violence and obvious racial aspect of the knockout game and flash mob attacks," writes John Bennett on the American Thinker website. "The net effect of this Orwellian reporting is to place minority feelings above the public interest in safety."

In some instances, the fear could be a product of the visuals – security-camera images showing throngs of black youths pillaging stores, says Linda Holtzman, an expert on racial stereotypes in the media at Webster University in St. Louis.

“There's a strong possibility with those powerful visuals that it incites fears, especially among people who are not used to being around black teenagers," she says.

To be sure, the behavior points to serious problems besetting the black community. Census figures show that the median net worth of white households was $113,149 in 2009, compared with $5,677 for blacks. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate among blacks is 16.2 percent, versus 8.1 percent for whites.

But Professor Holtzman and others reject the notion that flash robs or Knockout King are widespread or fueled by race. US youth crime is at a 40-year low, and for the most part today's disaffected youth mobs are tame compared with the urban race riots of the past.

"I actually believe that these young people in 2011 are more aracial than the kids were back in the 1960s," says Phillip Jackson, the founder of the Million Father March, in Chicago. "They don't care about race. It's more about economics, it's about politics, it's actually more about poverty."

Seen another way, he adds, flash mobs and Knockout King may not be born of overt racism, but they are inherently racial in terms of how they form and the response they require.

"This is not a white community problem, where they're going to address it the same way they've always addressed these problems: Lock 'em up and throw away the key,” Mr. Jackson says. “The only way we can get a different outcome is for the black community to take ownership of the flash mob problem. These are our children who are doing this, and we are the ones who have to work to correct their behavior. We have to cultivate our young black men as national resources, and we're not doing it."

Adds Holtzman: "I think part of what we're seeing is the boiling that happens if government, the private sector, the schools don't do something – not to pacify the anger, but address the serious, legitimate, deep issues that trigger it."

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