Since the Salem witch trials, moral panics have been a staple of American society. We love a good morality tale and we love a good scapegoat. It’s only fitting this unique puritanical impulse would combine with America’s other favorite pastime: mindless racism.
The Oxford dictionary of sociology defines moral panic as, “the process of arousing social concern over an issue — usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media.” Left out of this definition is the factor of race, which informs, amplifies and often is the sole reason for moral panics. Since moral panics are marked by the unchecked spread of a moral meme by the media, and because the media is largely white and caters often to white fear, the addition of a racial element significantly increases the likelihood a particular meme will catch fire and spread rapidly throughout the public consciousness.
This phenomenon has reared its ugly head again with the Ferguson Effect, a panic that that Blacks Lives Matter movement and its “heightened rhetoric” are somehow leading to an increase in police murder and crime. This latest wave of baseless innuendo has all the elements of a classic racist moral panic: an uncritical media, old stereotypes and dubious “trends” backed up by little or no evidence. It’s presently being floated by everyone from the Daily Beast to the New York Times to the Telegraph, but has thus far proved to be a total myth. No one, including the Harris County sheriff who recently suggested a link, has shown any proof of a connection between any killings and the Black Lives Matter protests. Executive director Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit, recently told Think Progress that the Ferguson Effect is a “dangerous concept” that “gets us back to the era of the 1980s when police had crime policy developed by soundbites and anecdotes.”
But we’ve been here before. Racist moral panics and the media’s dissemination of them are as predictable as they are pernicious. Let’s take some time to examine previous racist moral panics over the past three decades and see if any patterns emerge. In no particular order, here is the definitive list of racist moral panics since 1985:
1. Teen flash mobs.
What is it? A gathering of teens, typically seen as African American, descend on a public place where they unleash some type of criminality. Not to be confused with the less violent, though much more obnoxious variety, involving impromptu dancing and orchestras.
How bullshit was it? While there have been a few instances of teenagers gathering and wreaking havoc, it’s exceedingly rare and for each instance of an apparent real flash mob, there are lots of false alarms. The media’s obsession with the “phenomenon” was entirely disproportionate to the actual threat posed and eventually led to a bizarre “flash mob” bill in Illinois that created harsh penalties for anyone “convicted of using electronic communications to stir mob violence.” One of the law’s sponsors, Rep. Christian Mitchell, even cited the tragic murder of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton when pushing the bill even though her death had nothing to do flash mobs, but rather a stray bullet from incidental gang violence.
2. Anchor babies.
What is it? An anchor baby is a pejorative term for the alleged trend of undocumented immigrants having children as a means to gain citizenship.
How bullshit was it? Almost entirely. According to the Washington Post, “For illegal immigrant parents, being the parent of a U.S. citizen child almost never forms the core of a successful defense in an immigration court. In short, if the undocumented parent of a U.S.-born child is caught in the United States, he or she legally faces the very same risk of deportation as any other immigrant.” Put simply, it’s a terribly ineffective way to game the immigration system and like welfare queens, it ignores the fact that people usually have children based on a myriad of other considerations (like human biology) rather than calculated personal gain.
3. Sharia law/no-go zones.
How popular was it? Very popular, even more so over the past few years with the rise of more mainstream Islamophobia. Fox News runs entire segments on it and it’s led to countless laws across the country preventing the so-called “spread of Sharia” in public courtrooms.
How bullshit was it? Quite. According to the ACLU:
There is no evidence that Islamic law is encroaching on our courts. On the contrary, the court cases cited by anti-Muslim groups as purportedly illustrative of this problem actually show the opposite: Courts treat lawsuits that are brought by Muslims or that address the Islamic faith in the same way that they deal with similar claims brought by people of other faiths or that involve no religion at all.
Put another way: Certain disputes that involve religious considerations are allowed to include those considerations when both parties agree, but this is the case across the board. As with much Islamophobia, the problem isn’t with the “creeping” of religion into the public space, but the creeping of a specific religion the Christian majority doesn’t care for.
4. Crack babies.
What is it? Crack babies was a media panic in the mid-’80s involving waves of poor, largely African American women giving birth to babies born addicted to cocaine.
How popular was it? Extremely popular. It was widespread throughout the mainstream media and public policy circles and eventually led to legislation designed tocriminalize drug-addicted mothers by prosecuting them as child abusers.
How bullshit was it? Almost entirely. The idea that prenatal cocaine exposure (the actual term for the alleged phenomenon) caused harm in infants (as opposed to malnutrition and social ills) was always dubious and was quickly debunked outright. But due to the popularity of the meme, the idea persisted for years, often serving as racist shorthand for African Americans considered slow or criminal. It also had the effect of convincing whites that a whole generation of blacks were going to grow up and become drug-addicted criminals, which helped fuel the broader trend toward harsh sentencing laws throughout the United States. The pediatrician who popularized the concept, Ira Chasnoff, would later distance himself from the crack baby meme but only after scores of women were sent to prison for child abuse due to his “research” and non-stop media testimony.
The New York Times did an excellent mini-doc on its bogus history in 2013:
5. Mexican immigrants with diseases.
What is it? A meme popularized in the mid-aughts by right-wing TV personality Lou Dobbs, who claimed immigrants were carrying diseases into America, namely leprosy.
How popular was it? Somewhat. Dobbs was one of the highest-rated media personalities at the time and it was repeated in other right-wing outlets.
6. Welfare queens.
What is it? The general idea is that unwed black mothers sit around having kids so they can collect an increasing amount of government hand-outs. Though it’s a term that technically predates our timeframe, its popularity in right-wing circles persisted well into the late ’80s and ’90s and even rears its ugly head today.
How popular was it? Very. It’s one of the most enduring racist memes in all of American political discourse, helping create the anti-poor people atmosphere that led to even nominally liberal Bill Clinton pushing for disastrous welfare reform legislation in 1996.
How bullshit was it? Totally. The myth of a welfare queen was never backed up by any studies. It was based almost entirely on one anecdote told by then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1976 about one woman in Chicago. That woman, Linda Taylor, was a career con artist who was also suspected of crimes ranging from kidnapping to murder. Nonetheless, the myth lived on even though at the time of Clinton’s “welfare to work” bill African-American women made up only 10% of welfare recipients.
7. Ground Zero mosque.
What is it? In 2011, a little-known Muslim organization wanted to open an Islamic recreation center a few blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan. This somehow became known as the “ground zero mosque.”
How popular was it? At the time, very. It stirred up Islamophobic outrage and captured the news cycle for weeks, if not months. Led mainly by Tea Party celebrities like Sarah Palin, opposition was fierce and came, seemingly, out of nowhere. For its opponents, it was seen as undeniable evidence of Islamification run amok.
How bullshit was it? Very much. But the bullshit layers here are two-fold. The story on its face was manifestly bogus — namely that what was being built was a mosque or that it was anywhere near Ground Zero (it wasn’t and it wasn’t). A corollary theory, advanced by Mark Ames of Pando Daily and later Matthew Phelan of Gawker, is that the entire project was a shady, possibly bogus attempt to stir up right-wing outrage during the 2010 midterms. In his 2014 piece, “The Ground Zero Mosque Was an Inside Job,” Phelan builds on Ames’ 2010 work to make the case that the mosque’s primary funders are ex-CIA contractors with a web of ties to right-wing groups and defense industry organizations. This, and the fact that the center never even began construction, renders this theory somewhat plausible. In any event, there’s little evidence there was ever any attempt to build a mosque in lower Manhattan, much less on Ground Zero.
8. Hurricane Katrina roaming gangs.
What is it? In the chaotic aftermath of Katrina, stories of roaming (mostly black) gangs looting, raping and picking off innocent people with gunfire were rampant.
How popular was it? Pretty popular. In the moment of chaos, the roaming gang narrative was echoed by NBC, the AP and other outlets.
How bullshit was it? Very much. There was no doubt some criminality in the wake of Katrina, but a review of roaming gangs stories by the Times-Picayune later that September concluded most of them were either way overblown or totally false. As Slate pointed out last week, the only confirmed gunfire death in the days after Katrina was at the hands of police who shot Danny Brumfield, an unarmed black man, in the back. Katrina still serves as an example of how racist moral panics — which heavily fed the paranoia of New Orleans authorities — can end up having deadly consequences.
9. Knockout game.
What is it? Supposedly, it’s a game played by roaming black teens who randomly approach whites and attack them.
How popular was it? Extremely. It’s a common trope in right-wing media.
How bullshit was it? Almost entirely. While there are definitely a handful of examples of something like the knockout game occurring, it’s nowhere near the epidemic levels that right and white supremacist media like to portray, and all the evidence, to the extent we have any, is entirely anecdotal. As Alan Noble notes in his 2013 post (via Slate):
Here’s the fascinating thing about this “spreading” trend: nobody seems to have any evidence that it’s spreading, or that it’s new, or that it’s racially motivated, or that black youths are the ones typically responsible, or that whites are typically targeted. This hasn’t stopped Mark Steyn, Thomas Sowell, and Matt Walsh from describing this specifically as a crime committed by blacks against whites, CNN from claiming that it is “spreading,” or Alec Torres at NRO from saying it is “evidently increasing [in] popularity.”
10. Teen superpredators.
What is it? In the early ’90s, a handful of sociologists cherry-picked juvenile crime data and insisted the coming decade would unleash thousands of “super-predator” criminals. Most infamously, the Weekly Standard ran a 1995 cover story by the theory’s main advocate, criminologist John DiIulio, ominously titled, “The Coming of the Superpredators.”
Eventually the notion entered the mainstream lexicon and spread to everyone from Newt Gingrich to Bob Dole. DiIulio summed up the problem with racially charged language telling CBS in 1995 that “super-predators” were a group of kids who were “fatherless, godless, and jobless.” Though he denied allegations of racism, he would go on to say over half of these “superpredators” were young black males.
How popular was it? Exceedingly. The superpredator myth spread from right-wing to mainstream media and was used by politicians and pundits alike. It was key to passing harsh juvenile crime penalties in 45 states that overwhelmingly affected communities of color.
Like the “expert” who gave us the “crack baby” meme, the man behind this myth, John DiIulio, later admitted he was “entirely wrong” and joined a friend of the court brief in 2012 advocating against mandatory minimum laws his “super-predator” panic helped spawn. In both cases, the science was ultimately corrected but the devastating impact on African-American communities would be felt by tens of thousands for generations to come — all based on racism-fueled media myths.
How bullshit was it? Very. A brilliant 2014 New York Times mini-doc detailed how bogus it actually was:
12. Obama phones
What is it? Since Obama’s entry into office in 2009, the right has framed his popularity among African Americans in thinly veiled racist terms, most notably how he’s going to give African Americans “free stuff” (presumably taken from hard-working white folk). One of the grossest examples has been the refrain of “Obama phones”— allegedly Obama’s plan to hand out phones to blacks in order to win their loyalty.
How popular was it?Popular in right-wing media but most mainstream media ignored it as obvious race-baiting nonsense.
How bullshit was it? Entirely. The program was indeed supported by Obama, but as Gawker’s Cord Jefferson points out, the FCC Lifeline Assistance program began under Ronald Reagan and has had broad bipartisanship ever since, expanding under Clinton to include mobile devices. In no way is the program about petty patronage, race-based or otherwise. It’s about giving the less-well-off an opportunity to achieve such luxuries as “jobs” and “school enrollment for their kids”.