African American Women as Victims of Violence

How do news stories affect our perception of crimes against women from different racial backgrounds?

  • Michelle Kimberly Jackson
    Michelle Kimberly Jackson, whom “You’re Dead — So What?” is dedicated to, is a homicide victim whose case has remained unsolved for approximately 30 years.
    Photo courtesy Cheryl L. Neely
  • You're Dead — So What?
    Cheryl L. Neely provides an empirical study of media and law enforcement bias in reporting and investigating homicides of African American women compared with their white counterparts in “You’re Dead —So What?”
    Cover courtesy Michigan State University Press

  • Michelle Kimberly Jackson
  • You're Dead — So What?

Though numerous studies have been conducted regarding perceived racial bias in newspaper reporting of violent crimes, few studies have focused on the intersections of race and gender in determining the extent and prominence of this coverage. In You’re Dead — So What? (Michigan State University Press, 2015), Cheryl L. Neely discusses the symbiotic relationship between media coverage and the response from law enforcement to victims of color, particularly when these victims are reported missing and presumed to be in danger by their loved ones.

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Several years ago while surfing through cable television channels for something of interest to watch, I happened upon the Nancy Grace program on CNN. Grace, a former Los Angeles prosecutor, is known for her brash and aggressive approach in examining crimes against society’s most vulnerable victims, namely women and children as victims of homicide. That night’s program centered on a young white wife and mother from North Carolina who had been brutally bludgeoned to death in her home as her young child slept in a nearby room. In her customary style, Grace was seething with anger and berating defense attorneys on the show’s panel of guest commentators who dared to proffer a possible defense for the victim’s husband, the suspected killer. At the time that the show aired, I was in the process of defending my dissertation proposal on the topic of the media’s coverage of female homicide victims by race.

Being drawn to programs such as the Nancy Grace show was not unusual for me since I have held a lifelong interest in issues related to violence against women. Needless to say, I was impressed with Nancy Grace’s passion and vigilance in addressing a problem that is all too often ignored or minimized within the United States and globally. Intimate partner violence remains the leading cause of death for women ages fifteen to forty-four. Nonetheless, women are less likely to be victims of violence than men. Yet while homicides in particular have declined overall, what has not changed is the fact that women are far more often murdered by men than men are by women. Essentially, even with declining homicide rates in the United States, the violent deaths of women continue to be fodder for increased ratings on television news programs; yet not all victims are viewed as rating bonanzas.

As I continued to tune in to Nancy Grace’s program, I became acutely aware that she almost exclusively covered violent deaths of white female victims. If the basis of the show’s coverage was to highlight shocking or appalling crimes against women and children, statistics would indicate that black women were far more likely to be victims of homicide. Reviewing FBI data from 1997, black women were almost four times more likely than white women to be homicide victims:

Despite the fact that the population of black females in the United States in 2011 was 22 million compared to 100 million white females, they are more at risk for lethal violence. They are also less likely to be informed of this unsettling reality by the media.

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