The One Crime the Media Won't Blame on Black Men
October 7, 2014 5:20 PM   Subscribe

Among other common myths and misconceptions regarding serial murder in America, one curious myth bears closer examination: the idea, propagated heavily in the media, that serial killers are almost always white men. This fascinating (though weirdly formatted) essay discusses this phenomenon, and suggests possible reasons for the anonymity of African-American serial killers, including historical racial bias, stereotypical media portrayals of African-Americans, and the FBI’s promotion of static ethnocentric criminal profiling.

If you have access to a library, this academic article covers similar topics.
posted by showbiz_liz (32 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Focal characters are disproportionately white males, but in my experience when you see criminals en masse (e.g., in a prison or in a gang) they're disproportionately black or PoC. In fact, visualise the stereotypical "in the wrong neighbourhood" scene, where the focal character gets out of the car and finds people staring at him in an unfriendly way. It's a white guy in a black neighbourhood, almost always, and the assumption is that the people around him are likely to be criminals. It's sometimes subverted for laughs, but that just shows how strong the stereotype is.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:03 PM on October 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


It's a white guy in a black neighbourhood, almost always

I don't really disagree, but the other common trope is "backwards-ass idiot hicks."
posted by Dark Messiah at 6:20 PM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


Followed by Latinos with mustaches 'n shit, vato. They often are portrayed as ironically friendly despite looking scary
posted by aydeejones at 6:33 PM on October 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


The scales did fall from my eyes reading this though because it is a vestige of racism that goes unrecognized. Hey its a compliment guys! I know profiling has a lot of woo bullshit baggage in general but there's a paternalistic damning with faint praise that goes along with the oft stated assumption that serial killers are overwhelmingly white (because us white folks are so crazy ya'll, weren't not saying ya'll can't coordinate a spree, you're just too busy being worried about more pressing issues), which to any thinking person should account for relative population representation of a given demographic. The assumption that serial killers only target their own race is so naive and heuristic, such a silly guess wrapped up in an assertion.
posted by aydeejones at 6:38 PM on October 7, 2014


Like those statistics are great for studying the phenomena over history if they bear any accuracy, but even if was accurate that 95% of killers only targeted their own race, you're not immunizing people against murder. You're trying to catch someone right fucking now and those assumptions are shortcuts but not safe to use hard facts for discounting potential suspects. Those are handy for the person trying to understand the nature of crime, not the person apprehending a criminal.
posted by aydeejones at 6:42 PM on October 7, 2014


The Wire played with this in season 5, where a legitimate serial killer (Marlo, even if he wasn't doing the killing himself) was ignored despite murdering over 20 people, but a fake one preying on homeless people fueled a media uproar.
posted by LionIndex at 7:38 PM on October 7, 2014 [17 favorites]


It's weird that the article holds up The Wire, a show with a black serial killing duo (with a woman no less) as an example of the media perpetuating the usual blacks as dumb street level criminals... Also Stringer Bell and Marlo reach Corleone levels of rich 'white people' crime. You could literally name any other cop show and their depiction of black Americans is terrible, so why pick the one show that got it right?
posted by boubelium at 7:39 PM on October 7, 2014 [12 favorites]


Or on submitting, what LionIndex said.
posted by boubelium at 7:41 PM on October 7, 2014


So true! I'm a cat, and I only stalk people who post comments on web sites.

It eats the plate of beans, or it gets the hose again.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:51 PM on October 7, 2014 [6 favorites]


The difficulty of imagining a black serial killer is a major theme in James Baldwin's Evidence Of Things Not Seen, about Wayne Williams, the Atlanta child murderer.
posted by klangklangston at 7:51 PM on October 7, 2014 [6 favorites]


I immediately thought of two non-white serial killers just in the Los Angeles area: the Grim Sleeper (African-American) and the Night Stalker (Hispanic/Latino).
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:32 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Cleveland has you all beat! We've got Anthony Sowell AND his copycat!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:54 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Grim Sleeper was ignored while he was active. His victims were marginalized women of color and Los Angeles was a pretty violent place back then so nobody noticed another body or two dumped in an alley. It was only after people put pressure on the police that they put together a pattern of murders.
posted by rdr at 9:01 PM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Chicago's South Side Englewood neighborhood was plagued for several years in the 1990s by not one, but two black serial murderers -- Andre Crawford and Hubert Geralds, Jr. Both men preyed on women who were involved in drugs or prostitution, and the depredations of the impoverished neighborhood allowed them to abandon their victims' corpses and, apparently, the police to investigate desultorily. Gerald even has diminished mental capacity, the opposite of the serial killer profile. There was never much doubt that the killer would be found and he would be male, black, and local, but the murders kept adding up and the task forces never seemed to make much progress.
posted by dhartung at 11:23 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]



It's weird that the article holds up The Wire ... You could literally name any other cop show and their depiction of black Americans is terrible, so why pick the one show that got it right?


The author of the main article is both African American and a Lieutenant in the Philadelphia PD, so he may well be in a better position to judge how much this show got "right" than your average fan.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:00 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sonny Jim, that's assuming that he even watched it, which seems unlikely, since (as other commenters have already noted) the show is a counter-example of the sort of thing that he's talking about. It would hardly be the first time that an academic or commenter held up pop-culture-thing X as an example of Y without really being familiar with X.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:14 AM on October 8, 2014


I always find it funny when fans of The Wire rave about how realisitic it is. That said, it is simply not the case that the show gave any indication that black people could not be "intelligent predators." Management-level criminals were portrayed as being very intelligent, certainly smarter than the management-level cops in charge of putting them away (or if not smarter, at least much less distracted by bullshit politics).
posted by leopard at 5:20 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


News at 11: xxxxx people are just like us. They're serial killers too!
posted by arcticseal at 5:22 AM on October 8, 2014


Sonny Jim, boubelium's point wasn't about show's verisimilitude regarding crime within the African American community, which the author may have some insight into. The point was about what was literally on screen, which the author has no special vantage point on. It's quite simply wrong to say The Wire perpetuated the stereotype blacks as dumb street level criminals; even if it didn't do so in a realistic way.

The criminal enterprises run by African Americans in The Wire are sophisticated, evolving and smart. The Barksdale and Stansfield organizations are organized criminal empires with connections to community notables, politicians and developers. The Prop Joe's Co-Op is every bit as business oriented as The Godfather's commissions. Stringer Bell uses Robert's Rules of order.

More to the point, Chris and Snoop are professionals; the show goes into length to show this; who truly work to hone their murderous craft. But they are also serial killers, working at the behest of Marlo. McNulty calls Stansfield a serial killer directly; the whole point of this plotline in the 4th and 5th seasons are that these criminal organizations are serial killers that we all just sort of expect in inner cities, but the far less common "crazed" serial killer is what gets attention. The Wire basically makes the author's point, and he apparently don't realize it.
posted by spaltavian at 6:03 AM on October 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


leopard: I always find it funny when fans of The Wire rave about how realisitic it is.

It's largely based on Simon's own reporting and real events in Baltimore. (They famously reduced Omar's leap to 5 stories, because the 7 stories that happened in real life was deemed "unbelievable".) The stories tend to be a bit anachronistic, because they are typically inspired by events of the 1970s and 1980s, while taking place in the first decade of the 21st century, but I don't see why fans shouldn't appreciate the "realism". I'm hard-pressed to think of a fictional drama that's more realistic.
posted by spaltavian at 6:07 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


I would have assumed the key component to completing serial murders is access to a vulnerable population, since this kind of death pattern seems to combine best with victims who, individually, the cops won't look too hard at if they died. Eg Pickton preyed on sex workers and his activities were symptomatic of the general failure of Canadian society to give said women adequate protection.

Other serial killers pick of indigents, people in vulnerable groups such as LBGT persons, and so on. I am actually surprised at the idea this is a "white" phenomenon by reputation, because I would have guessed proximity would have helped- much as it does in every other kind of assault or murder.
posted by Phalene at 6:14 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


I would have assumed the key component to completing serial murders is access to a vulnerable population, since this kind of death pattern seems to combine best with victims who, individually, the cops won't look too hard at if they died.

It's also possible that the serial killers that we've been catching are just the ones who aren't very good at being serial killers.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:30 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Wire is amazingly rich and nuanced and obviously rooted in Simon's extensive real world experience. Best TV show of all time in my opinion, by far. That doesn't change the fact that (a) most of its fans don't actually know jack shit about what it's portraying (I'll certainly put myself in that category) (b) there's plenty of stuff like the Omar/Brother Mouzone showdown that isn't realistic at all, just great TV drama.

This isn't a criticism of the show at all BTW -- I think it's utterly amazing how an entertaining show can offer such a complex representation of social dynamics that viewers with minimal real-world experience with the subject matter walk away feeling like they've lived through it. I just find it a little funny too.
posted by leopard at 7:33 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


I wonder if it has something to do with how serial killers are heavily, heavily fictionalized. They are perceived as being almost literally monstrous. Their behavior is not simply bad, but inhuman. In many ways, they're presented more like vampires and werewolves than they are like people, even sick dangerous people. It makes sense that the standard media image would be of a white man: in the popular imagination, a serial killer is a monster which wears the mask of a "default" human. Note as well that the media often depicts serial killers as being far more common than they are, and as being far more baroque than they usually are with regard to their killing methods.

The discrepancy between real and fictional serial killers seems much, much wider than it is for almost any other category of "things that actually exist".
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:39 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


The discrepancy between real and fictional serial killers seems much, much wider than it is for almost any other category of "things that actually exist".

Yeah, serial killers in fiction seem to be not just smart, but super-humanly intelligent, chess masters playing 20 games at once while the cops struggle to keep up. Did this start with Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter?
posted by Sangermaine at 7:55 AM on October 8, 2014


Not sure when it started in fiction, though there are real life inspirations. Jack the Ripper sent letters taunting the police (assuming they weren't hoxes), though taken at face value, they suggest he wasn't all that bright. The Zodiac Killer also did similar things, though once you actually read the letters, you feel like you are dealing with a lesser mind, not a greater one. Still, the cat-and-mouse aspect in fiction had real antecedents, and it's easy to see how that would be appealing to story tellers. It's one of the few times in real life a villian seems to agree that they are the villian.
posted by spaltavian at 8:23 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


Did this start with Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter?

I think the trope has been around forever, but with Silence of the Lambs it burst into the mainstream and influenced basically every crime procedural on the air right now, plus countless movies.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:25 AM on October 8, 2014


I know profiling has a lot of woo bullshit baggage in general

Maybe the way it's presented in media (it's ridiculous, but I do love me some Criminal Minds; it's comfortingly predictable in the same way L&O was, though obviously not nearly as well written or acted), but if you go back to the beginning, there's not really much woo at all. Robert Ressler was the FBI agent who more or less codified the discipline, and in his books he was pretty honest about how it came to be, where they get stuff wrong, and how difficult it is. From my memories of reading his books, he more or less lays profiling out as playing probabilities, not absolutes. Media portrayals of the BAU suggest absolutes.

The Zodiac Killer also did similar things, though once you actually read the letters, you feel like you are dealing with a lesser mind, not a greater one

To be fair, a lesser mind that was never, ever caught for the murders. (Though very likely nabbed for something else, or died unexpectedly.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:04 AM on October 8, 2014


Even if that wasn't the case, you don't have to be brilliant to not get caught when you have no motive, no connection to the victims and no witnesses. Especially in pre-DNA days.
posted by spaltavian at 9:40 AM on October 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


As for criminal mind / criminal psychopathy and the public imagination, I would also say that R.L. Stevenson's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde story, published a couple of years before the real life Ripper murders, was a big deal. Though it's not specific in the tale that Hyde was a serial killer, it seems a natural fit for his unspecified crimes, and offered, maybe for the first time, popularly, the now very cliche fictional profile of the educated, intelligent and refined (though, critically, seemingly ordinary), certainly caucasian, man of means and reputation with a horrifically savage and murderous dark side.

What similar famous stories or true histories preceded this? (not counting situations in which the murderer is situationally extraordinary in some way or nearly untouchable because of political power, war situations, and similar, ie Vlad the Impaler, etc.)

Interestingly (to me only), I was just wondering about African American serial killers a couple of days ago, and nearly posted an Ask Metafilter question, so this pretty much answers my curiosity, and basically affirms my thoughts on the matter. Also by coincidence (I actually wasn't even researching that question), I came across some details of a cold case serial murderer, the Texarkana "Phantom Killer," in which the (presumed) first two victims, who survived the attack, disagreed on the race of their hooded assailant, the woman saying he was a light skinned black man, and the man saying he was a dark skinned white man... and the idea that he was a black man was dismissed by LE:
Dr. Anthony Lapalla, a psychologist at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana ... said that the murderer is probably not a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and that he could be leading a normal life, appearing to be a good citizen. He also said that he probably is not a veteran because if the man had served in the armed forces for even a year, the maniacal tendencies would be apparent. He said that the murderer was not necessarily a resident of the area, despite his knowledge of the area. He said that all of the attacks show evidence of cool and cunning planning and that the killer could be from another community and had acquainted himself with the area. He said that the strengthening of the police force would not scare him away but that he would willingly leave due to the difficulty of committing a crime. "This man is extremely dangerous. He works alone and no one knows what he is doing because he tells no one," Lapalla said, adding that the killer may have reasoned in past crimes that the only way to remain unidentified is to kill all persons at the scene. Lapalla did not believe the killer was a black man because "in general, negro criminals are not that clever."
This was in the late 1940s, and it sounds like profiling hasn't become much more "equal opportunity" in the ensuing 60+ years.
posted by taz at 11:52 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


I remember all the "experts" who were certain that the Washington DC sniper was "a disgruntled white middle aged man" when in reality it was two black males.
posted by Renoroc at 1:25 PM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


...the DC Snipers were a rare category among serial killers — team killers who also murdered outside their race.

Serial killer arcana is a sorry subject, but this occasions a pair of footnotes: the San Francisco "Death Angels," who not only fit the Muhammad/Malvo pattern of cooperative killing but emerged from the same cultic backdrop of the NoI, and Yahweh ben Yahweh, who outshone Manson both in charisma and kill count. These, along with Aryan murder-rackets like Brueder Schweigen and its offshoots read as exhibits A-Z in why "but Black/Aryan/X people are secretly the real Jews!" is not just madness salad but the stuff that moves the needle on my Scientology e-meter.
posted by kid ichorous at 3:37 PM on October 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


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