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Excerpted From: Itay Ravid, Inconspicuous Victims, 25 Lewis & Clark Law Review 529 (2021) (193 Footnotes) (Full Document)
Since the mid-1960s, the victims' rights movement has altered social conceptions of victimization and has promoted meaningful institutional change in the criminal justice system. Through civil engagement and both federal and state legislation, the voices of crime victims--“the human-interest element” of crime have been amplified in the criminal process. From an early stage, however, the socio-political reality of crime and victimization has advanced a narrow form of victimization: The criminal justice system, imbued with deep racial inequalities, has cloned its institutional patterns into the realm of victims, creating a hierarchy of victim-worthiness, with Black victims consistently placed at the bottom of the hierarchy. This ranking of victims has had a direct effect on the treatment Black victims received--and continue to receive--from the criminal justice system: from recent debates regarding police violence and use of force against Black Americans, through lack of standing in criminal trials, hurdles in accessing health services for victims suffering from trauma, and more. The COVID-19 crisis, which brings to the fore questions related to the institutional allocation of resources and societal power structures, reminds us of the significance of diving deep into the root causes of such an entrenched institutional neglect.
Despite the harmful effects of such unequal treatment, there is a surprising dearth of scholarship delving into the causes and consequences of racialized victimization. This Article bridges this gap by offering an empirical look into the roots of the racially disparate treatment of Black victims of crime. Specifically, in this Article, I claim that through the illusive concept of “the ideal victim,” the criminal justice system has blotted out specific groups of victims and deemed these victims as unworthy of institutional recognition and protection, while establishing social and psychological distance from those undeserving of societal empathy.
The ideal victim is a socially constructed concept, and as such, a rather flexible and mobilized one. Nils Christie originally described the ideal victim as “a person or a category of individuals who--when hit by crime--most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim.” Christie's definition predominantly focused on situational circumstances of the criminal event, such as the activity pursued by the victim, his or her vulnerability, or the relationship of the victim to the offender and the offender's traits.
Indeed, in the U.S. context, these situational circumstances are strongly tied to racial predispositions and the socially-perceived reality of crime. Such ties have prompted a reality in which specific racial groups, predominantly whites, receive higher victimization status over minority groups, predominantly Blacks. While the process of minority victims' stratification can be explained primarily by historically discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system, preserving such hierarchies of victimization is well synchronized with the current realpolitik in the U.S., which seems to capitalize on social tensions to augment a sense of social division.
As in the past, the current definition of “ideal victim” has little to do with actual victimization rates. When examining the differential risks of homicide among the U.S. population, racial minorities confront much higher odds of violent death. For example, a 2017 report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) demonstrated a consistent gap between the homicide rates of non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic white individuals. In 2015 alone, homicide rates were 5.7 deaths per 100,000 for the general population, 20.9 for non-Hispanic Black individuals, and 2.6 for non-Hispanic white individuals. Moreover, public health studies consistently show that Black individuals are more likely to become victims of gun violence compared to white individuals (or other minority groups).
Such disparity between the “ideal”--and thus protection-worthy--victims and the reality of crime bears meaningful consequences for the victims themselves. First, it bears directly upon institutional and legal recognition, and thus to federal and state support for victims and their families. Equally important, these “second class” victims are deprived of their rights to complete and legitimate victim status, including recognition for being vulnerable and innocent. This lack of recognition, in turn, can affect membership in society and participation within the criminal justice system, denying the “basic humanity conferred by victim status to African Americans.” Moreover, the victims themselves may internalize these white ethnocentric narratives.
This Article suggests that no attempt to understand the social stratification of Black victims and the treatment they receive from the criminal justice system is complete without investigating the media's role in the construction of a racially-defined ideal victim. Particularly, and building on literature concerning the psychological effects of exposure to racial misrepresentation in the media and the effect of this exposure on the mindset and policy attitudes of media consumers, this Article's underlying claim is that the media's crime reportage has contributed to the establishment of the “non-ideal” Black victim.
Using a novel ten-year dataset, I investigate the racial portrayal of homicide victims to tease out who the media's “ideal victims” are. To this end, I analyze media coverage on crime by The Washington Post (The Post) (1997-2006), then contrast the coverage with true crime statistics collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Project, and archived state-level crime data from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Utilizing both content analytical and multivariate techniques, I fill a methodological and empirical gap in the current literature on the representation of crime victims in the public sphere as reflected through the media, a field that is heavily concentrated on the coverage of suspects and perpetrators.
The data show, first, that despite purportedly equal mentions of Black and white homicide victims in both the local and national news, crime stories with white victims are on average more salient than stories on Black victims. Second, on local news, Black homicide victims are systematically underrepresented and white victims overrepresented compared to true victimization rates.
These findings indeed substantiate repeated claims and concerns about the hierarchy of victimization across racial lines, one that is well imbued in society and its institutions. As the data show, such a hierarchy is socially formed and has little to do with the actual reality of crime. If anything, so I argue, and as official victimization statistics suggest, the pain and suffering inflicted on Black communities due to their increased victimization rates should have received more media attention. The data suggest otherwise. This Article thus exposes yet another dimension in which ideal victims--those receiving more recognition and social empathy--remain white. Black victims, on the contrary, are silenced, and stories about their loss and pain due to violent crime do not receive the attention and recognition they deserve.
Given the scholarship on media effects and the unsettling links between the portrayal of Black victims in the news and the treatment they receive from the criminal justice system, this Article aspires to start a conversation about potential ways to allow counter-narratives about race and crime to emerge. I thus briefly explore potential venues through which one could understand, assess, and rethink media representations of crime and race, as a first step in offering solutions to this long-lasting concern.
This Article proceeds as follows: Part II surveys the history of victims' rights in the U.S. and explores the concept of the “ideal victim,” including its origins, sociolegal foundations, and integration within the criminal justice system. Here, it discusses this idea in the U.S. context and addresses its contribution to inequalities pervading the American criminal justice system.
Part III discusses the existing literature on coverage of crime participants and situates this Article's contribution within the specific context of victims of crime.
Part IV discusses how media coverage on crime participates in the social process of defining ideal victims. Introducing theories of social cognition, priming, schemas, and scripts, I contend that cognitive linkage between social groups and social roles can be reinforced through media consumption.
Part V discusses data and methodology.
Part VI analyzes how homicide victims have been portrayed in The Post over a decade. Both descriptive and multivariate analyses show how coverage of white victims is consistently more salient than coverage of non-white victims. Moreover, at the local level, Black victims are underrepresented while white victims are overrepresented in crime stories compared to actual victimization rates. Such imbalance in media representation, I argue, preserves the divide between worthy and unworthy victims across racial lines. Through a multidisciplinary lens, Part VII briefly discusses potential explanations to these unwarranted findings as a starting point for thinking about potential solutions with an eye towards amplifying the voices of Black victims. The Conclusion discusses the implications of the findings with respect to the inequitable treatment of Black victims in the criminal justice system and, more broadly, the potential role of the media in amplifying the voices of Black victims of crime as a required step towards changing such treatment.
[. . .]
In 2006, narratives were challenged when Crystal Gail Mangum, a non-ideal victim, accused Reade Seligmann, David Evans, and Collin Finnerty, non-ideal offenders, of raping her. She was a Black stripper, escort, and dancer working at a party on behalf of an escort service. The accused were three young men, the captains of Duke University's lacrosse team. The criminal investigation stirred emotions nationwide, juxtaposing issues of race, class, and gender. What started as a tale of progressive law enforcement efforts to bring the “white elite” to trial, has evolved into a complicated story of law, media bias and racial politics, and ended with the accuser being blamed for fabricating the story and risking the futures of three innocent kids. The accusations were dropped, and with them the light tremors in the “national consciousness” stopped. Blacks will be Blacks. Whites will be whites. In 2016, a decade later, ESPN released the documentary “Fantastic Lies,” chronicling the events of this controversial rape case. The message was clear: Whites had once again been victimized by Blacks. Indeed, history works in mysterious ways; the nuances and complications of the case have been replaced by a clear racially typified narrative. As journalist Jen Yamato of the Daily Beast claims:
Fantastic Lies' resounding message is not that America should reflect even more deeply now on the sharp race and class divides that yielded such incendiary circumstances in Durham, North Carolina, a decade ago. Its message is that the world owes an apology to these resilient young athletes and their families--the real victims.
This Article explores the racialization of victims in the American criminal justice system. From Myrdal's work in the mid-1940s on the racial problem in the U.S., through the establishment of the victims' rights movement, to the present day, a straight, sharp line of racial inequality cuts through the status of Black victims in the criminal justice system. Through their definition as non-ideal victims, Blacks have been systematically excluded from law and policy aiming to improve victims' rights, and more broadly have not been recognized--socially and institutionally--as legitimate subjects of crime. This discourse has persisted despite true crime statistics, which show that Blacks are the racial group most vulnerable to violent crime, particularly homicide.
This Article claims that the media has had a meaningful role in the social construction of the ideal, and consequently the non-ideal victim. By analyzing a novel dataset of ten years of coverage on crime in The Washington Post, and through a triangulation of content and multivariate analysis, this Article provides empirical support for this claim, showing the different manifestations through which white victimization is consistently deemed more important than Black victimization, especially in local news. Moreover, this Article shows that at the local level Blacks are underrepresented as homicide victims while whites are overrepresented compared to true victimization rates.
These findings raised a conundrum regarding the persistence of racial typifications of victims even among liberal news outlets. These outlets were well aware of the need to offer narratives that counter those cultivated by news consumers after decades and decades of unequal and inaccurate racial representations of victimization. Yet the racial disparities remain evident in newsprint. This Article took a step further in laying the groundwork for future discussions about the potential mechanisms that can explain such a racially disparate coverage of homicide victims. It first addressed the traditional approach to explaining the consistent patterns of unequal representation of Black victims, that is the newsworthiness paradigm. This market-driven paradigm builds on the twin concepts of novelty and the preference for racial typifications. In the context of crime, the vast literature on newsworthiness predicts that stories that include white victims (and Black perpetrators) are most likely to be covered as they follow both these concepts. However, this Article planted the seeds for further exploration of alternative mechanisms, predominantly colorblind policies in the coverage of crime, that can either individually or cumulatively explain the persistent underrepresentation of Black victimization.
Recognizing the complex and nuanced mechanisms that affect the representations of Black victims of crime in the news is a necessary step for those hoping to enhance the voices of Black victims in the media. Such media enhancement and recognition are essential to the reconstruction of the ideal victim as perceived by the criminal justice system and by society as a whole.
Assistant Professor of Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, JSD ('20), JSM ('13), Stanford Law School.
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