Carol A. Stabile (2006) White Victims, Black Villains: Gender, Race, and Crime News in US Culture.
Routledge, Abingdon. 235 pages. ISBN 10: 0-415-37492-8. £19.99 Paperback.
In this meticulously-researched and readable volume, the author brings together discussions of race, gender, class and victimisation to produce an original and thought-provoking account of the mediatisation of crime in the US in the nineteenth, twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Central to the thesis of the book is the notion that the US newspaper, television and now online media have consistently failed - throughout their modern histories - to accept black people as 'worthy' victims of crime; a category almost exclusively reserved for whites. The result, it is argued, has been an unending rehearsal and repetition of narratives pitting 'reprehensible' black criminals against 'innocent' white victims, thus perpetuating 'the most harmful ideologies of race and gender' (p.175).
The author characterises her focus on race as a 'single, simple, depressing argument' (ibid) but, although race is clearly and by far the main focus of the discussion, this characterisation betrays a far more complex interchange of issues underpinning the book. As such, the work is eminently relevant to scholars and students focusing on issues other than race per se. As the title suggests, gender issues are frequently referred to. In particular, the author discusses in depth - and from multiple perspectives - the gendered, mediatised, portrayal of black criminals as a threat to white women. In contrast, examples are given throughout the book of media reports excluding black women from the 'cult of dead womanhood' (p.29) which holds up white female crime victims as pure, innocent, and therefore worthy of public sympathy.
Those in the fields of criminology and victimology will see interesting parallels with the work of Nils Christie and his characterisation of society's 'ideal victim' (Christie, 1986). The discussion in chapter 2 highlighting the threat white female victimisation/black criminality poses to hegemonic (white) masculinity - which casts white men as protectors (Connell, 2005) - is particularly interesting. Scholars interested in conceptions of class, the family and family violence will also find important insights in this book (chapters 4 and 5). Indeed, social historians of all kinds will find the book valuable simply for its amassment of media and cultural events and its discussion of the development of American institutions like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (chapter 6).
Nevertheless it is on the author's main focus of race and crime in the media that this monograph really comes into its own. Chapter 1 provides a fascinating account of the earliest development of the 'penny press' in nineteenth century New York and how it initiated a style of media reporting which so emphasised the criminality of blacks and the victimhood of whites, all before a backdrop of abolitionist politics and conflicting public opinion. Chapter 2 develops the discussion on white female victims to explore how these early press reports used such victims (especially those women that had been killed) to stir 'moral crusades' (panics) regarding the vulnerability and subsequent loss of virginity of white women falling victim to the perceived carnal excesses of the black criminal and - by thinly-veiled implication - black men in general.
Chapter 3 moves on to examine the 1863 New York City Draft Riots during which once again blacks were denied victim status in the media, and compensation from the authorities, despite suffering appalling treatment at the hands of white protestors in a disturbance which quickly gave way to racialised and sexualised violence. Chapter 4 examines the media's portrayal of another key evil of the late 1890s (and on into the mid and late twentieth centuries) that of black 'lynching'. Chapter 5 provides a very interesting discussion of crime reporting more generally, and especially notes how stories of family violence or 'crimes against intimates' all but disappeared from media reporting by the 1920s and how 'sentimentalized' reporting of crime gave way to a more 'objective' 'facts-based' style, especially following the establishment of institutions like the FBI, which the author argues were built on racist foundations and would later use scapegoats like 'radicals' and 'communist' to hide a much more racialised agenda.
In chapter 6, the author examines the beginnings of the televised news media and how it quickly excluded blacks in its bid to offend no one and thereby reach the widest possible audience for the advertisers who sponsored it. Here the author covers the 'growing intimacy' (p.113) between reporters and the police, and the increased use of crime statistics by both. This chapter also examines the moral panic surrounding 'white slavery' in the first decades of the 1900s and how this laid the foundations for the FBI's first 'war on crime' in the 1920s. Chapter 6 examines the media portrayal of the civil rights movement in the 1960s especially before moving on to consider more recent racialised media reporting, including the cases of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson.
All the book's chapters are accessible and of great merit in their own right, and together they build up an impressive, analytical history of the topic. The author's principle interest in the book is clearly with the nineteenth century media and the early twentieth, and as such one could argue that later developments are covered in less depth. This is a small point to make about a book which overall will be of huge benefit to anyone interested in these issues across a range of academic disciplines including sociology, history and victimisation as well as crime and race.
Matthew Hall, University of Sheffield.
Christie, N. (1986), 'The Ideal Victim'. In: E. Fattah (ed.), From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 17-30.
Connell, R. (2005), Masculinities, 2nd Edition, Polity Press: Cambridge.