The US Department of Justice on Thursday stepped into the cultural fray about the so-called “knockout game” when it brought federal hate crime charges against a white Texas man for assaulting an unsuspecting black man.
The decision shines a brighter spotlight on the knockout game, in which an assailant tries to knock out a bystander with a single punch. A spate of incidents have gathered national attention in recent months, though it is unclear whether the game has become more popular or whether the Internet has simply allowed for isolated incidents to be broadcast more widely.
The majority of the reported incidents, however, have involved black men targeting white victims – and none triggered federal involvement. The fact that the Justice Department has elected to step in now, when a black man was the victim, has led to criticism among conservative pundits that the Obama administration is applying the hate-crime statute unevenly.
“The reason why you have black perpetrators and white victims being prosecuted asymmetrically hinges on what evidence there is about why they’re doing what they’re doing,” says Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York.
Conrad Barrett was arrested Thursday and charged under federal hate crimes law, which defines a hate crime as “motivated by enmity or animus against a protected class.” (The Federal Bureau of Investigation also lists anti-white crimes as hate crimes.)
“If suspects call the victim racial names, and one of the other witnesses testifies to that effect, it would be prosecutable as a hate crime,” says Professor Green, speaking generally about knockout cases.
According to the federal affidavit, the government appears to be preparing a case along those lines in Texas. Federal prosecutors say Mr. Barrett planned the Nov. 24 attack, which he filmed with his cellphone. He approached “G.C.”, an elderly black man, and said, “How’s it going, man?” then punched him so hard that G.C.'s jaw was broken in two places and he lost three teeth. Barrett then allegedly cried “knockout!” and ran.
He was caught after he told the tale at a bar, where an off-duty cop was present. Federal prosecutors argue that the attack was motivated by racial animus because police uncovered videos where Barrett allegedly used racial epithets and at one point said that black people “haven’t fully experienced the blessing of evolution.”
In another video from the day of the assault, Barrett says, “If I were to hit a black person, would this be nationally televised?”
A single hate crime charge carries a maximum of 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
Some conservative bloggers see racial hypocrisy in the charges.
“This case shows how warped law enforcement has gotten as a result of hate crime legislation,” writes Rick Moran on the American Thinker blog. “No matter who is in charge, the law will always be selectively enforced. It makes a mockery of the notion of equal justice under the law.”
Concern about the game has percolated within the black community. This fall, several black leaders, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, spoke out about the knockout game and warned black parents, in particular, about the consequences for dangerous behavior by their kids.
Hate crime charges have been brought this year against one black suspect accused of playing the knockout game, but they were state charges brought by New York in the case of a knocked-out Jewish man.
For his part, Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, is not convinced that knockout game attacks are growing. He argues in an upcoming journal article that racially fueled knockout attacks are in the news is because they’ve actually become rarer than in the past, so they are more notable. The 1990s, he says, had far more reports of so-called “thrill hate crimes” – think white teenagers beating up homeless men.
“This is a thrill hate crime because typically young people who go out looking for someone to bash or assault, the act doesn’t necessarily require some triggering episode in wider society,” says Mr. Levin in a phone interview with the Monitor. “These knockout attacks are usually interracial, but not every interracial crime is a hate crime.”
According to FBI hate crime statistics, 22 percent of the 3,297 reported racially motivated hate crimes in 2012 were anti-white, while 66 percent were anti-black. (Others included anti-Pacific Islander and anti-Alaskan native attacks.)
The Justice Department insisted Thursday that it does not discriminate in how it makes decisions on hate crime charges.
“Suspected crimes of this nature will simply not be tolerated,” said US Attorney Kenneth Magidson of the Southern District of Texas. “Evidence of hate crimes will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted with the assistance of all our partners to the fullest extent of the law.”