The Enduring, Pernicious Whiteness Of True Crime

White voices and victims dominate the genre, which can skew the perception of what constitutes a crime.

Illustration by Daniel Zender.

The Enduring, Pernicious Whiteness Of True Crime

White voices and victims dominate the genre, which can skew the perception of what constitutes a crime.

Even beyond the subject matter—a long-unsolved lynching of a Black man in Georgia—Wesley Lowery’s recent story in GQ was jarring. The July feature has the hallmarks of classic true crime: the ambitious investigator, the zealous prosecutor, the family that would not let the case be forgotten. It’s a great story, squarely in the vein of other cold case classics, including Pamela Colloff’s “Unholy Act,” Matthew McGough’s “The Lazarus File,” and Robert Kolker’s “A Serial Killer in Common.” And yet it is, in one profound way, extremely unusual. Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is Black. And the true crime genre is very, very white.

True crime is, relatively speaking, small. None of the Big Five book publishers bothers with a dedicated imprint. But the genre wields outsize cultural sway far beyond publishing, especially since the success of 2014’s “Serial” podcast—about the highly contested homicide conviction of Adnan Syed in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore County, Maryland—and HBO’s “The Jinx,” the 2015 docuseries about real estate heir Robert Durst and several homicides he is suspected of having committed. (Durst will stand trial for the December 2000 homicide of Susan Berman next year.) So it matters a great deal that most true crime focuses on white police officers and detectives, white victims, and white prosecutors working to avenge themaimed, said Lowery, “at a presumed white audience.” He believes, rightly, that this is effectively a judgment about what constitutes a sympathetic victim.

I called Lowery not long ago to talk about that whiteness, which swamps the genre across books, magazines, newspapers, and podcasts—and how the color barrier has influenced Americans’ impression of crime itself.

Lowery noted that Samuel Little, perhaps one of the most prolific murderers in American history—he credits himself with 93 victims —remains relatively unknown. Serial killer-related content is extraordinarily popular among Americans; is it not unreasonable, Lowery wonders, to credit this ignorance to Little’s alleged victimsdisproportionately Black women? Little’s confessions have been met with skepticism from some in law enforcement and journalism. Lowery said Little remaining under the cultural radar “speaks to the extent to which the subjective decisions that are made about what to portray in true crime is a financial decision, made based on what is presumed a white audience will care about.”

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and has been for many years. The racial disparity is hard to quantify, but it’s surely been evident for the last two decades, before which true crime was regarded as trash. During each of those years, Mystery Writers of America bestowed its Edgar Awards. Among the categories: Best Fact Crime. Five or six books are nominated each year.

In the last 20 years, few nonwhite writers have been nominated in the category, and none have won. (In 2018, the organization rescinded an achievement award to disgraced Central Park Five prosecutor Linda Fairstein.)

Journalist Sarah Weinman’s latest anthology, “Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession”in which I have storyfeatures only one nonwhite writer and no Black writers. Weinman is aware that this absence reflects the genre itself. “When pain and trauma is grist for the entertainment mill, certain stories are, still, valued over others,” she wrote in a July essay for BuzzFeed News.

The implications of that value judgment are staggering. Think about what it means to have white writers tell the world about crime that, most often, affects Black peopleor that white editors get to choose what crime is worth a book, a feature, a podcast. Think about how this skews some people’s perception of what even constitutes a crime.

It’s hard to overstate how inaccurate and damaging the results and perceptions created by so much whiteness has been. Generations of readers have been led to believe that murder victims most often are women killed by men and that Black serial murderers are rare. Neither assertion is true. According to the FBI, the majority of homicide victims are men killed by other men, and the race of serial murderers is commensurate with the racial makeup of the U.S. as a whole.

The fallout extends beyond misperception into policy, and it has for decades. For example, as Rachel Monroe detailed in her 2019 book “Savage Appetites,” the rise of the victims’ rights movement, led by the mother of Sharon Tate—a white actress whose murder at the hands of Manson Family members has been documented ad nauseam—led directly to the rights of defendants being restricted. The severity of punishment is rarely even questioned. “[True crime] frames the justice system as inherently just, and it frames long prison sentences as something to aspire toward,” says journalist Rachelle Hampton. “It very much sets up a neat line between us—people who are not incarcerated—and them, people who are incarcerated.”

To this day, reporters enable law enforcement to spread misleading statistics—to suggest, with scant evidence, that major cities, including New York, are suffering through an unprecedented rise in crime. That, too, is false.

“We end up misrepresenting what the world actually looks like,” says Lowery.

Or as Jean Murley, author of “The Rise of True Crime,” puts it: “Modern true crime is almost a fantasy genre.”

How did this happen? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

Writers of color were excluded from the beginning.

American true crime began at the National Police Gazette, founded in 1845. Alongside stories about horse races, boxing matches, and community goings-on, were accounts of murder. The magazine was exceedingly popular, and was quickly consumed by 150,000 subscribers. Its success led eventually to True Detective Mysteries, a magazine founded in 1924, and Official Detective Stories, a decade later.

These magazines often contained messages from law enforcement, including the ruthless FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—whose stewardship of the agency included sending a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. urging him to kill himself—and even accounts written by the police themselves. Although the origins of the crime stories are murky, most were handed to editors by the police. “The magazines had the imprimatur of officialdom and law enforcement,” says Murley. “The motivation of the police was not just to get people to understand murder within their communities, but more importantly, to side with them.”

These police were almost certainly white—in 1943, for instance, Black officers represented less than 1 percent of the NYPD. The reporters to whom they were leaking? Also white.

The lack of Black reporters in mainstream newspapers was so stark, it was noted by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission. “The news media must publish newspapers and produce programs that recognize the existence and activities of Negroes as a group within the community and as a part of the larger community,” the commission recommended in its 1968 report. “Recruit more Negroes into journalism and broadcasting and promote those who are qualified to positions of significant responsibility.”

For the most part, well into the 1960s, Black journalists wrote for the major Black newspapers: the Chicago Daily Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Amsterdam News. They covered hundreds of lurid and ghastly crimes, particularly in the South. But those were, in essence, crimes with Black victims for a Black audience—deemed by white editors unworthy of mainstream papers or detective rags like Confidential or True Crime.

“The frequency with which Black men in particular were hung, and sometimes castrated and hung, in the South without any prosecutionand, if there was the rare prosecution, almost inevitable acquittalindicated that crimes against people of color were not considered crimes by the larger society,” Walter Lowe Jr. told me recently.

Lowe was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1971. There were four major newspapers in the city: the Sun-Times, the Daily News, the American, and the Tribune, with a combined reporting staff, according to Lowe, of nearly three-hundred. Lowe was the paper’s sole Black reporter.

“We were expected to cover the Black issues. We were not assigned, ever, to cover a lurid, sensationalist crime, or even a minor crime involving white people,” he recalls. Shut out of the white-cop-to-white-reporter-pipeline, Lowe would not write about the mysterious disappearance of Helen Brach or the Chicago mob. But Representative Ralph Metcalfe fighting the Mayor Richard Daley machine? Sure.

Even Black detectives, Lowe said, weren’t assigned crimes with flashy white victims. They were expected to solve crimes in their own community. “There was no Alex Cross,” he observed, referencing novelist James Patterson’s detective protagonist.

Professional segregation was in place, informally, at the New York Times as well. Mel Watkins, hired as a copy boy, became the first Black editor at the Times’s Sunday Book Review in 1966. When Watkins got to the paper, the only other Black employees he saw operated the elevator or worked in the cafeteria. An insidious edict was in place:  White writers frequently reviewed the work of Black authors, but the reverse was not permitted. This was, he says, “thought to be the natural order.” Even so, Watkins once suggested that James Baldwin review a book by Norman Mailer; the proposal was rejected. Mailer reviewing Baldwin, however, “would’ve been greeted with much less resistance.”

Back then, true crime, to the degree it existed, wasn’t taken seriously. Despite the serialization of “In Cold Blood” in 1965, and its publication in book form the next year, the Times Book Review treated this not as a burgeoning genre but a one-off. Even crime fiction, says Watkins, was considered “second level,” and was relegated to Anthony Boucher’s “Criminals at Large” column, which ran for nearly two decades.

Black writers were publishing nonfiction, however, in which, Watkins believed, criminals were often treated as heroes. “Being lawless was to be, in fact, defying the repressive societal laws,” he says, a point of view exemplified by the writing on Stack O’Lee, Shine, and the larger-than-life Jack Johnson. When the Times did review the nonfiction of Black writers, the subject matter tended to be the civil rights movement: Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton. The focus of such work was indeed crime, Watkins felt, even if white readers did not recognize it as such. “Crime, from the Black perspective, is societal crime,” says Watkins. “You have this situation where society becomes the adversary.” The criminality to which Black Americans were routinely subjected was not lost on Watkins, whose father never put money in a bank because he’d seen Mississippi bankers claim it had vanished.

In his professional capacity, Watkins often dealt with book editors, and the lack of diversity was just as pronounced at the publishing houses. Decades later, he can name the three Black editors with whom he interacted: Erroll McDonald of Knopf, Charles Harris of Amistad Press, and Toni Morrison at Random House. (McDonald, who edited “In the Belly of the Beast” by Jack Henry Abbott, who was twice convicted of manslaughter, said in a brief conversation that he knows very little about true crime. Other book editors I contacted either declined to comment or didn’t reply.)

Before we got off the phone, Watkins imparted a final thought: Black writers had published true crime, but it was sub rosa. Look, he said, at Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son,” about a 20-year-old Black man from the South Side of Chicago who killed a white woman and burned her body in a furnace. Watkins viewed this as “almost true crime.” He suspected the book was a fictionalized depiction of an actual crime. Which it was; Wright himself said it was based on murders committed by “The Brick Moron,” Robert Nixon, who was electrocuted in 1939 after allegedly killing several white women. Wright, said Watkins, “changed it into a novel in order to make his point.” This was out of necessity. “There was a reluctance to let Blacks write in an authoritative manner about realistic injustices.”

This reluctance endured for decades.

David Krajicek was police bureau chief at the New York Daily News from 1987 to 1992. It was a period of sky-high homicide rates in New York City, with 2,245 murders in 1990 alone. The NYPD public information office, he says, was the gatekeeper, and determined the extent to which journalists were notified about any of them. A cop in Queens would report a homicide to his sergeant, who in turn would tell a lieutenant, who talked to the precinct commander. The precinct commander contacted the Queens central command, who then passed the information up the chain. There were numerous filters before news of a crime would reach police headquarters and then, finally, the deputy commissioner for public information, who decided what was worth sharing with reporters.

Around the Daily News, reporters joked that, in order to be written about, a murder must contain all the elements—“a white, attractive female killed in a horrible way, in an interesting place,” as Krajicek put it. Murders that didn’t fit the bill (say, a quadruple homicide in the Bronx) simply didn’t get covered.

Daily News reporters did 18-month rotations on his crime desk. Success on the beat was largely contingent on maintaining a roster of cop sources, and not being perceived as adversarial. “Based on one story, you can lose all of your sources at the NYPD. If they decide that you’re a dick and you’ve done them wrongdone an individual cop wrongthe reputation spreads immediately,” Krajicek recalled. “If you show up with Black skin, their presumption’s already made about what your reputation is.” Natalie Byfield, a Black reporter who covered the Central Park Five case, had a particularly difficult time. She later wrote: “As a young African American female journalist watching and participating in the unfolding jogger coverage, I felt the sting and the heat of racism as I plotted my own course through the newsroom and the city.”

Socializing with the police wasn’t required, but it was useful. It was the favored practice of cop-friendly columnists, including Jimmy Breslin, who lamented, said a former Newsday editor, that “reporters don’t go out anymore to drink with police.”

Krajicek, early in his career, rode shotgun as cops took him on roundups of sex workers. “Ride-alongs,” as they’re known, are a long tradition on the beat. Understandably, not every reporter greets them with the same level of excitement.

In 2006, when Slate’s Joel Anderson was working for the Shreveport Times, he took over the night cops beat. His white, female predecessor was friendly with the police, who noted that Anderson wasn’t as pretty. As part of his orientation, he was pressured to do a ride-along. “I had no interest in doing any of that shit,” says Anderson. It would soon be clear to him that police have a version of events that sometimes conflicts with the victim’s and the accused’s versions. It wasn’t his job to figure out which party was most credible. Cops, Anderson was told, were “the guardians of the truth.” To approach the beat any other way was to do it wrong.

Anderson, who was soon reassigned to city government, realized incident reports were, at best, subjective post facto versions of events, and “not necessarily a reflection of what happened.” (In 2015, it should be noted, the district attorney overseeing Shreveport’s county, Caddo Parish, said Louisiana should “kill more people.”)

A way around the official version of events is to either decenter law enforcement or bypass it entirely.

The absence of that perspective is why, even 40 years later, James Baldwin’s coverage of the Atlanta child murders—now the subject of a five-part HBO docuseries—is so startling.

As Casey Cep chronicled in the New Yorker, Baldwin was lured to Atlanta by Lowewho had moved to Playboy as an editorafter dozens of the city’s Black children were murdered between 1978 and 1981. The resulting essay, titled “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” proudly defies true crime tropes. Baldwin’s focus was not the murders or the investigations, but systemic anti-Black violence. He did not see the murders as sui generis. The killings, he believed, “did not so much alter the climate of Atlanta as reveal, or, as it were, epiphanize it.

Baldwin’s insistence on writing about the larger issues at play—that societal sickness was as much to blame for the dead children as any murderer—and his refusal to treat the events as a minute-by-minute account, confounded critics. “There is far too much sermonizing here on the overall state of race relations in America and not enough digging into specific facts of the Atlanta murders,” clucked the New York Times.

Baldwin did talk to detectives, but he didn’t take them at their word and never had. “We did not feel that the cops were protecting us, for we knew too much about the reasons for the kinds of crimes committed in the ghetto,” he wrote of his childhood, “but we feared black cops even more than white cops, because the black cop had to work so much harderon your headto prove to himself and his colleagues that he was not like all the other niggers.” He was more interested, recalled Lowe, in how white Americans historically viewed Black men as killers and rapists of white women. On his two trips to Atlanta, he wrestled with the assumptions around what constitutes a criminal and what constitutes a victim. He believed that Wayne Williams, who eventually stood trial for the murder of two adults, was probably innocent. He was having difficulty, says Lowe, “with not only the idea that the murderer might be Black but that the murderer might have some sort of pedophile profile.”

Lowe, who considers Alex Haley’s “Roots” to be the greatest work of true crime, continued: “[Baldwin] was like a doctor diagnosing a complex disease. But at the time, everybody wanted him to be a much more accusatory voice.”

The genre has evolved, somewhat.

A highly regarded true crime story from recent years doesn’t have a single on-the-record quote from law enforcement. The word “detective” appears only once. These absences in Karen K. Ho’s 2015 Toronto Life feature, “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge,” are particularly striking because it is, at least superficially, an old-fashioned minute-by-minute account about the murder of a Vietnamese family.

“I did not know how to interview cops when I did my story,” says Ho, who had never before written anything investigative. During the two years of reporting and writing, she neither met with police nor talked to them by phone. The story, which lays out in great detail how the Canadian daughter of Vietnamese immigrants hired hitmen to kill her parents, was based on jailhouse interviews, sworn video statements, letters, court transcripts, and yearbooks. It is also partially a memoir, for which Ho interviewed her own family.

It didn’t occur to Ho that interviewing police would be useful, or that the story demanded their perspective. Ho had not been raised to treat them with reverence or as an unquestionable source of information, and she still felt that way. She couldn’t relate to stories, even great ones like The Marshall Project and ProPublica’s “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” in which investigators played the hero. For her, Jay Caspian Kang’s 2013 New York Times Magazine story about a middle-aged Korean man who shot and killed seven people at a university in Oakland, California, was more of a touchstone. “[Kang] showed me why having a nonwhite perspective on a crime involving people of color was an asset, and not a detriment or hindrance to my reporting of it,” says Ho.

Ho expertly wrote about the overarching failures that led to the Pan murders. Just as Baldwin told readers about the anti-Black violence that made the killing of Atlanta’s children inevitable, Ho revealed the academic pressure brought to bear on children of Asian immigrants. Referring to her father and her own upbringing, she wrote: “I felt like a hamster on a wheel, sprinting to meet some sort of expectation, solely determined by him, that was always just out of reach.”

Talking to Ho sparked a reconsideration of what true crime ought to be. The genre is so white largely because the definition of crime is so narrow. Ho cited Andrea González-Ramírez’s Type Investigations feature on domestic violence in Puerto Rico. Isn’t that crime? she asked. What about the work of Adam Serwer, who writes with cutting poetry about systemic anti-Black brutality? What about Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s story on Dylann Roof? Aren’t these works of true crime, too? 

A few days later, I called Steven Thrasher, who, while not a true crime writer by trade, had written about Michael Bloomberg’s fondness for incarcerating the city’s Black men and a series of fine stories on the “Tiger Mandingo” case. He’s also been one of the more prominent voices warning against “copaganda”—sunny, kid-gloved portrayals of law enforcement. We talked about how true crime so often prizes the perceived oddity. “Exceptionalism becomes the story,” he said. Oftentimes, true depravity is deadly repetition.

Thrasher pointed to a lecture delivered by former Guardian columnist Gary Younge in 2016, in which Younge cited the tired maxim, attributed to a New York newspaper editor: When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news. But what if, asked Younge, we’ve got it backward? What if the thousand people shot and killed by police in the last year is the real story? Or what if the dog-bites-man story is quite literal? He cited a Department of Justice report on the Ferguson protests, which found that “in every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the subject was African American.”

If a dog bites man again and again and again, that, too, is a story.

The genre of true crime should expand to the point where it is unrecognizable from what it is today. It should include the work of Wesley Lowery, Joel Anderson, and Albert Samaha, and also Aura Bogado, who writes horrifying dispatches on America’s ongoing crime against humanity: its immigration system. Bogado, doing excellent, humane work for Reveal on a beat that is often prominently populated by white men, has written about the federal government forcibly drugging children at a Texas residential treatment center. I expect Bogado would find the notion of her stories being classified with the likes of Truman Capote and Ann Rule more than a little laughable. The genre is, she told me, “a niche within the larger world of journalism, which is itself a segregated world, right?”

That must change, if it is to have continued relevance and value. Progress has been slow, but substantive; consider the peerless work of Cree reporter Connie Walker, and her CBC investigation into a vanished Native child. But it’s a notable exception. Pervasive whiteness is a decades-long problem that won’t be solved quickly, if ever.

After all, as Walter Lowe told me, you can’t sell a product for which there is no audience. To have more books, features, and podcasts by and about nonwhite people, there must be a demand for them. (There is.) In order for there to be sufficient, recognized demand, he said, nonwhite victims must be seen as people. That part, maddeningly, is not a given.

“The horse is what’s happening in the street; it’s the growing interest by white people in an accurate history of this country. The cart is whatever shifts in literary culture result from that,” continued Lowe, who cited Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 work “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” “What has not been dealt with is the miseducation of the white person in America. What is happening right now, from grammar school up through college, is a serious re-examination of the way American history has been taughta serious re-examination of the racist lens through which many white folks in America have been taughtand wanting to change the lens, to be more equitable to the points of view of people of color and Native Americans.”

Only after such a fundamental change will there be lasting demand for true crime, and a more sophisticated and inclusive sense of what “qualifies” for the genre, by and about people of color. That, Lowe concludes, “is the horse that is going to pull the cart.”

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