Challenging Racial Bias in True Crime Stories
In cases involving Black and Brown victims, the reporting of true crime is its own kind of injustice.
October 13, 2021
“We wouldn’t be talking about this had she been a Black woman,” I pointed out to my friend Martha.
“It shouldn’t be a race issue,” she said.
We were in one of the guestrooms of her Fifth Avenue apartment; it was 1990. I usually stayed with Martha and her husband when I was visiting from Italy, where I was working and living. We were talking about the Central Park jogger case of 1989. Five young Black men had been accused of raping and beating a white jogger. Even though the case began to unravel that night when the crime scene didn’t corroborate with some of the young men’s statements, and there was no DNA match, they still served time.
Martha is white. As her only close Black friend, I spent hours talking with her about the state of race in America. It's a conversation that will never go away.
The press reported that the victim was a blonde banker who loved her daily jogs in Central Park. Even at dusk, alone, she trusted the park. I never did, except with friends on blankets listening to the Philharmonic, and we always walked out of the park in groups. Years before, I’d gone jogging there one morning with my sister. We saw a man in rustling bushes. You can likely guess what he was doing. We abruptly turned around and ran back to our nearby apartments.
“Disgusting!” I yelled. That was our last jog in Central Park.
When bad things happen to white women, the press will report on everything. We will learn the color of their hair and eyes and what kind of body they had—slight or athletic. We will learn about her good job and how impeccably educated she was. Friends will reminisce about her bubbly personality and how willing she was to always help others.
Bad things happen to Black and Brown women every day. But no one is talking about the color of their hair and eyes, their job, their education, or how much they are loved by family and community. You will never know about their build or how bubbly a personality they had. They are not remembered as lighting up rooms when they walked in, and they are never portrayed as being saintly.
In an email, I asked Audrey Edwards, an author and former executive editor at Essence magazine who often writes on issues of race and gender, for her take on the subject. She wrote back, “White women have always been portrayed as more valuable in American society—blonde hair, blue eyes; more beautiful and desired. And therefore, more in need of protection than women of color. This is nothing new. It’s just that media has become more incessant in how it covers EVERYTHING!”
As I searched for true-crime content that centers on POC, I found that there wasn’t a whole lot. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a growing gamut of podcasts that runs from deep-dive single case investigations, such as one about the glamorous Black jewel thief Doris Payne, to compilations focusing on missing and murdered Black women, and Black serial killers—yes, they exist. Want some true crime on a lighter note? Redhanded, a British podcast, takes on the macabre in a chatty, entertaining manner with two hosts, one of South Asian descent.