In the United States, white people have long told both overt and veiled narratives of the purported danger and criminality of people of color. Sometimes known as ‘danger narratives,’ these gruesome accounts often depict the kidnapping, assault, and murder of white women at the hands of men of color. These narratives have been used to promote and justify enslavement, lynching, mass incarceration, and a host of other methods and institutions of white supremacy and racial control.
While white people have been creating and consuming danger narratives, they have also been telling other stories about crime. Like danger narratives, these stories, known as ‘true crime,’ have existed for centuries, purport to be based on actual criminal acts, and largely focus on violence against white women. Like danger narratives, true crime stories are intended to invoke feelings of horror and shock among their audiences and suggest specific methods—arrest, incarceration, or death of the perpetrator—by which social order may be restored. Unlike danger narratives, however, true crime stories focus almost exclusively on white-on-white crime.
Scholars and others often characterize danger narratives as violence-focused stories with explicit racial and racist intent and outcomes, while true crime is generally treated in the media as entertainment, in which crime and punishment are explored largely as if people of color do not exist. This Article challenges this disparate treatment, arguing that true crime narratives serve to justify and support institutions of racial control while claiming racial impartiality. The study of these stories may nevertheless contribute to abolitionist and anti-racist revisioning of our criminal system, as the focus on justice in true crime narratives can inform and inspire alternative visions of justice which are in service to racial equity rather than in support of racial subjugation.