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 FBI also lists anti-white crimes as hate crimes, but the fact that he was charged for playing the "knockout game" and assaulting a black man has sparked controversy.
The knockout game, in which an assailant tries to knock out a random bystander with a single punch, has garnered national attention in recent months.
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 knockout game incidents, however, have involved black men targeting white victims and none triggered federal involvement.
The fact that the Justice Department elected to step in now, when a black man was the victim, has critics saying the government is using the hate-crime statute unevenly.
Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York, says:
“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."
“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."
That last part could be the key here. According to the federal affidavit, the government appears to be preparing a case along those lines in Texas.
Federal prosecutors say Barrett planned the November 24 attack, which he filmed with his cellphone. He approached “G.C.”, an elderly black man.
“How’s it going, man?” Barrett said, then punched the stunned victim so brutally 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.
Police found videos in which 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 uncovered in the investigation, 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. Still, some conservative bloggers see racial hypocrisy at work.
“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.”
Hate crime charges have been brought by New York State this year against one black suspect accused of playing the knockout game (a Jewish man was hurt).
For his part, Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, is not convinced that knockout game attacks are growing. Or that it's even a game.
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.
Therefore, they're more notable than in the 1990s, when far more reports of so-called “thrill hate crimes” - think white teenagers beating up homeless men - were reported.
“These knockout attacks are usually interracial, but not every interracial crime is a hate crime," Levin says, drawing what he feels is an important distinction.
“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."
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.
The Justice Department insisted on Thursday in response to the controversy that it does not discriminate in how it makes decisions on hate crime charges.