Crime, much like sex, sells. Take any given crime and you’ll find a movie, TV show, or novel in which the activity is dissected, analysed, and repackaged for Western media. Unfortunately, a major step in this packaging process almost unanimously involves the glorification of white criminals.
Some of the most popular shows of the decade, from Dexter to Sons of Anarchy, provide a juicy view into the underbelly of the crime world and add a thrill to the lives of us who live in a comparatively vanilla existence. By presenting each character’s motives and means to end, we see the full dimensional character of a criminal – albeit a romanticised version – and can form a level of sympathy for their dark path. As Zeba Blay of Huffington Post noted, we are still able to root for them, because we see them as a nuanced and complex human being first, and a lawbreaker second. What is the common thread in all of these representations, however? White male protagonists.
This portrayal of criminals is not always a negative thing, some might say that shows such as Breaking Bad creates valuable discourse regarding social issues; in this case the devastatingly unsatisfactory nature of the American health system. However, when the portrayal is not equal for people of colour, it is indubitably reflective of bigger racial issues.
The three-dimensional portrait of a character who is a victim of a corrupt system, who is just trying to provide for their family, or who is battling against untreated mental health issues is not afforded to non-Caucasian criminals in the media. Instead, we see thugs in black hoodies who are, by nature, troubled and irredeemable. White crime is deracialised, and coloured crime is seen as a direct result of ethnic composition.
A 2004 content analysis of Law and Order and NYPD Blue found that African Americans are shown as suspects 40-50% more frequently than Caucasians, who are also twice as likely to be shown as victims.
Furthermore, if we were to suddenly start representing all fictional criminals the way white people are, networks would be accused of romanticising criminal activity. It’s all well and good for a white guy to systematically murder multiple people per episode and still have a fan base, but add some melanin into the mix and you’re setting a bad example. You’re reinforcing the stereotypes of violence amongst minorities. You’re making crime look attractive.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule; shows such as The Wire for example, which is making some moves to counter this cultural trend by presenting criminals motivated by something other than inherent evil. But the effects of the dominant and villainous portrayal of non-Caucasian criminals extend far beyond scripted drama.
It’s a double standard that unsurprisingly filters into the reports of real crime in the media. Too often traditional news sources will sympathise with a white criminal; words like “troubled kid”, “loner”, and “soft-spoken” will be mixed with the individual’s athletic abilities, academic endeavours, and religious beliefs to create a headline which will make a culture watch on with pity. You could easily use this formula to create a generator for each source to use, to save them the trouble, spouting out lines such as “Shooter described as a quiet kid who was haunted by the death of his parents”, and “Outstanding student accused of having racial motivations as he kills three peers”.
If a similar generator was to be designed for anyone not obviously Caucasian, we would see a stark difference. Instead of humanising qualities, we would be told of their previous run-ins with law enforcement, their reputation amongst cookie-cutter neighbours, and their lack of focus in school. It would reference teen criminals as adults, despite white people being labelled as a kid when nearing thirty. The headlines would accompany mugshots, rather than carefully picked yearbook photos.
Even more startling is the fact that coloured victims face this same headline manipulation. An actual headline from Alabama in 2014 reads ‘Montgomery’s latest homicide victim had history of narcotics abuse, tangles with the law’, not only slandering the victim, but excusing the person who did it.
Fictional media is an incredibly powerful force, and the stereotypes appropriated within TV shows, movies, and plays have devastating real life consequences. While critics can claim that glorified violence is the issue, until they let the censorship extend to the Walter Whites and Dexter Morgans, they have no excuse to stand on.
Although indescribably extensive work must be done to eradicate the racial prejudice polluting our world, and the deep-rooted issues cannot be unjustly simplified into a silver-screen-fuelled stereotype, it is a starting point. Perhaps if fictional black men in hoodies were granted more than ethnicity as a backstory, and were humanised the way a white man in a polo is, unarmed teenagers on the street would not be immediately assumed harmful. Perhaps if coloured victims of true crime were not quickly dismissed in the news, racially charged police brutality wouldn’t be seen as an unavoidable concept. Perhaps if mass media stopped vilifying those above a certain melanin level, attitudes could begin to shift.