NEW PALTZ, New York — They are all famous: Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, Madeleine McCann, Caylee Anthony…. In addition to being victims, they all have something else in common.
They are all white.
Though we now have a black president and many more minorities in powerful positions than we did when these infamous crimes took place, we still shine a much brighter spotlight on white victims of violence.
The crimes that are believed to hold the interest of the broadest audience — and that get made into Lifetime movies — still all have white victims.
Most people would be hard-pressed to rattle off a list of black victims, except for the great black martyrs like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Emmett Till — and the latest addition to that short list, Trayvon Martin.
The mainstream press’s lackadaisical attitude toward covering crimes with black victims mirrors the police response.
After Florida teen Martin was shot dead by George Zimmerman in February 2012, he was questioned by police and released. It's hard to imagine that happening if the shooter were black and the victim white. As the social media backlash mounted, Florida’s governor appointed a special prosecutor. Almost two months after the crime, Zimmerman was finally charged with murder. Now, many outraged observers — myself included — believe race also played a key role in his acquittal.
“My sense is that things haven’t changed much,” said Sarah Burns, director with her father, the renowned documentarian Ken Burns, of the recent film “The Central Park Five,” which recounts the arrest and wrongful conviction of five Harlem teens for the 1989 rape and beating of a white woman.
“The Trayvon Martin story is a good example of how social media and a more grassroots effort can force the police to act, but it’s also a reflection of how the dangerous assumptions about black teenagers we saw in the Central Park jogger case persist today.”
Many New Yorkers remember the 2006 rape, torture and murder of Imette St. Guillen, 24, a white grad student. But how many know the name Romona Moore, or can picture her face? In 2003, the 21-year-old black college student was raped, tortured and murdered, just like St. Guillen — yet Moore got a fraction of the coverage in the news media.
I was working as a copy editor at the Daily News when the paper put St. Guillen on its cover and even helped fund a John Jay scholarship in her name. As I copy edited a self-congratulatory story on the scholarship, I thought the headline should read: “Where Is Romona’s Scholarship?”
In 2008, her mother, Elle Carmichael, filed a federal lawsuit against the NYPD, asserting racial bias. Cops refused to search for Moore because she was of legal age — in direct contradiction of the NYPD Patrol Guide. They closed Carmichael’s missing-person report the same day she filed it, while Moore was being raped and tortured just blocks from her home.
Today, whites still command much more of the economic and social clout that ensures access to the media and the police and the ability to influence the political and legal processes.
“The Central Park Five” captures the hothouse atmosphere that led to the teens’ conviction for the attack on Trisha Meili — although their confessions differed on nearly every detail — and the media frenzy that followed. Two weeks later, a similarly brutal crime took place with a black victim, and the media barely blinked.
It was social media that led the charge for justice in the killing of Trayvon Martin — and still is, as Twitter- and Facebook-fueled protests against the verdict fill public squares across the country.
While it helps to have a black president drive home the message that the loss of a black child is as devastating as that of a white one — as President Barack Obama did after Martin was shot — bias persists, and the message that bias sends is that black victims’ lives aren’t worth as much as whites’. And that whites must get justice, no matter how flawed.
When the convictions in the Central Park jogger case were overturned in 2002, not one major paper carried the news on its front page.
I lived in Manhattan when the crime took place, and the headlines terrified me. But as a journalist, I find it even more terrifying that the overturned convictions never made Page One — and that today, victims like Trayvon Martin are still being valued and judged by the color of their skin on our streets, in our courts and in the pages of our newspapers.
Karen Angel is a freelance writer and copy editor based in New Paltz, New York.