Wayne Williams Ted Bundy
I recently blogged about a Latino man who was killed by a rooster at a cockfight. I commented of course at the ironic and humorous aspect of the story, then commented about the acceptance of death and violence in Latino culture, and posited as to why that might be. I was challenged by a reader, who stated that whites are just as violent and threw out the usual suspects such as Hitler, and, surprisingly, serial killers as predominately white males. The instance of serial killing is so rare that it hardly makes a blip on the overall level of violence, so I had a hard time figuring out why the reader would use white serial killers as an example of how whites are at least as violent as Latinos. If anything, it makes the opposite argument. I was intrigued, none the less.
I thought about this, and considered that perhaps the reader was right about serial killers being mostly white. Certainly the most famous of them, for example Ted Bundy and the Hillside Stranglers, were white. But I recall seeing in the news over the past year or two that the last two or three serial killers arrested in the Los Angeles area were black males accused of killing prostitutes. Perhaps the myth of the white male serial killer is just that. This called for some research.
Only a few systematic accounts of the race and ethnicity of serial killers exist. There is an exhaustive study of African American serial killers (Homicide Studies 2005; 9; 271) by criminologist Anthony Walsh, and also Eric W. Hickey’s book, Serial killers and their victims, Brooks/Cole, 1997. Walsh identified 90 African American and 323 white American serial murderers, all men operating between 1945 and 2004. (Though Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans were not included in the study, their addition would not alter the fact that most serial killers are white men.) African American serial killers made up 22% of Walsh’s sample, a figure in close agreement Hickey’s enumeration. But, as blacks number well below 22% of the U.S. population, they are actually overrepresented among the ranks of serial killers — roughly by a factor of 2.
So it turns out that while whites make up a numerical superiority of serial killers, blacks make up a much higher percentage of serial killers relative to their percentage of the population. In a study by statistician
La Griffe du Lion, roughly 0.018 percent of adult white males, 0.033 percent of adult black males and 0.0025 percent of adult Hispanic males have values of criminality in the range of serial murderers. Using Census Bureau population estimates, the percentages translate to 13,000 white, 4,000 black, and 350 Hispanic adult males with criminality in serial-murderer territory. I have no explanation why black males would be twice as likely as white males to be serial killers. In general, they have criminality rates seven times that of whites. This might in some way explain it. I think the reason the white male as serial killer myth has predominated is because of the demographics of the victims. White female victims from middle class backgrounds get more press than black prostitutes in South Los Angeles. Movies have been made about the Hillside Stranglers, Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. Is it just and fair that white victims are accorded more publicity? Probably not, but that’s how it is. The two movies about non-white serial killers stand out because the killers were so out of the norm. Eileen Wournos, the subject of the movie Monster, was unusual because there have been very few documented accounts of female serial killers that didn’t work with a male partner. Richard Ramirez, a not particularly interesting or clever killer, was Latino, but was more noteworthy for the viciousness of his attacks, and widespread terror he caused throughout southern California.
Arguably the most famous black serial killer is Wayne Williams, who was suspected of murdering 29 black boys in the Atlanta area. I was unable to find any reference to any movie about him. I’m not sure why this is- it’s actually a pretty interesting case.
So I suppose the reader was technically correct. Numerically there are more white serial killers. It turns out, however, that this is a result of their overwhelming superiority in numbers, and not any disproportionate predilection to serial killing. That dubious honor goes to black males.