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Stereotype shot down


I just knew the sniper was white. After all, black folks don’t make good serial killers. We’re not wired that way.

At least that’s what I used to think.

Oh, sure, we’re liable to go off the handle once in a while. That’s nothing new. The local news is full of violent black-on-black crime.

But that’s just standard stuff, right? The reason no one is shocked by those stories anymore is because they’ve become too routine and, truth be told, almost boring. We’re numb to it all. Besides, it always seemed to be the white folks who were committing the really bizarre murders that make for great TV and great big headlines. Charles Manson. Son of Sam. John Wayne Gacy. Jeffrey Dahmer. Even Hannibal Lecter.

Quick, name one African-American murderer whose crimes were bizarre and twisted enough to have attracted the same amount of nationwide media frenzy as those white celebrity murderers listed above. No, O.J. Simpson — acquittal aside does not count. The only reason that story made the headlines is because O.J. is a celebrity and former star athlete. If O.J. had been just an average black guy living on the east side of Detroit, he never would have made national news.

So when the sniper story broke, it seemed a sure bet this was some mentally unbalanced white guy with a grudge. As sickened as I was by the steady stream of shooting reports, I felt slightly relieved on the inside because I just knew the shooter wasn’t black. I felt relieved, as I’m sure many black people did, because so often we feel blamed for so many ugly things in America.

Whenever someone says “gangs” most folks think “blacks.” Whenever someone says “welfare cheats” most folks think “blacks.” There’s hardly a black man in America who hasn’t entered an elevator only to see a white person clutch a briefcase or purse a little closer. Why? Because the phrase “crime problem,” particularly in large urban areas, has become synonymous with “black problem.” So believe me when I say that we frequently derive a perverse pleasure when we can point the finger of blame at someone else, anyone else. I hate to say it, but in the aftermath of Sept. 11, I remember hearing a number of black folks say, in essence, that it was so nice for once not to be identified as the “problem” race. This time it was those Arabs.

But now, suddenly, the world is different. John Allen Muhammad is most definitely a black man, and so is his traveling companion John Lee Malvo. Already the stories are coming out about how shocked black people — and even white people — are at that. But should black people really be shocked that the sniper was black, or should we be angry that the sniper shot down the protective bubble that let us believe a black person could never do something so terrible?

Before attempting to tackle these questions, it might be helpful to tackle a few facts. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks were six times more likely than whites to be murdered in 1999, and were seven times more likely than whites to commit homicide during that same year. Also, from 1976 to 1999, 86 percent of white victims were killed by whites, whereas 94 percent of black victims were killed by blacks.

That should clear the air on whether or not we as a people are capable of performing horrific acts. But here’s something I’m betting you didn’t expect. According to experts such as Dr. Scott Thornsley, an assistant professor of criminal justice administration at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, at least two studies show that the percentage of America’s serial killers that are African-American is between 13 and 16 percent, compared to our 12 percent black population. Nothing consoling there.

“Blacks have been ignored as serial killers in the past,” said Thornsley when I spoke to him by phone on Monday.

So, yes, it’s technically true that the overwhelming majority of serial killers and mass murderers in the United States are white males. However, Muhammad is hardly a rare duck. We are not immune to the serial killer gene, or whatever you want to call it.

So how did we come to believe that black folks “just don’t have it in them” to commit these kind of crimes, whereas whites are more prone to be serial killers and mass murderers? Why haven’t we heard more about the black serial killers? Is it because black serial killers are more likely to kill primarily blacks, therefore their crimes don’t merit the attention?

“Actually it’s a matter of perceived political correctness,” said Thornsley.

In other words, because blacks have felt so under fire for so many things, this is one burden we apparently just refuse to handle — and no one wants to pursue the matter.

Blacks “can deal with the murder of individuals, but not this,” Thornsley said.

“And then you have to look at the entertainment medium. The general public is a white audience, and blacks are less likely to appeal to a mass audience. Whites are simply not interested in black victims or black murderers,” he said, pointing out that if Hannibal Lecter had been portrayed as a black man, hardly anyone would have bothered to see the movie.

So the phenomenon of black serial killers is being ignored because we don’t make good flicks, I asked him?

“That’s exactly right.”

But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Muhammad had turned out to be a white guy, which means most of us would still be resting easy in the myth that whites make better serial killers. Would it really have made sense for black America to have heaved a sigh of relief that the sniper was a white guy when the statistics show how much more likely we are than whites to be murdered (and most likely by a member of our own race) and to murder (most likely a member of our own race)? Would a white sniper have made it better that we were — and still are — more likely to do these things to ourselves than to others?

Given those statistics, said Thornsley, we shouldn’t be surprised that blacks are serial killers as well.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail

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