John Leo
So police came across the sniper suspects at least 11 times during the long manhunt, but let them go every time. The D.C. police chief acknowledged that race was a factor in this amazing failure. "Everybody was looking for a white car with white people," he told The Washington Post.

Writing on his Web site, Andrew Sullivan said this was racial profiling. If a white killer had been let go 11 times because cops were looking for a black man, he asked, "Wouldn't this be the basis for uproar? Wouldn't the cops involved be fired? Wouldn't there be a massive investigation ...?" Yes, and the press would have erupted in high dudgeon.

Why were police looking for a white man? The usual response is that, statistically, most serial killers are white. But that excuse would never be accepted if police had announced they were looking for black suspects simply because statistics on black crime are high.

Besides, statistical evidence about the high percentage of white snipers and serial killers is quite shaky. Whites are about three-quarters of the U.S. population but account for just over half of sniper killings, said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, reporting on statistics for 1976-2000. Eric Hickey, a criminal psychology professor at California State University-Fresno, says there are plenty of minority serial killers -- blacks account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population and 22 percent of serial killers.

Despite these numbers, the "angry white male" theory seemed to spread everywhere, mostly because it reflected attitudes of its media spreaders. Reporters were even ready with experts willing to explain why the sniper or snipers were white: "White males belong to a long-advantaged group that is now having to share power and control," said criminologist Jack Levin.

"Most reporters and editors wanted the sniper to be a white male," columnist John O'Sullivan wrote. Why? Because of the typical newsroom assumption "that the great American majority that never went to the Ivy League schools is made up of racists, sexists and homophobes ..."

We have been down this road before. The Atlanta child murders were a big story, but the press dropped it quickly when the killer turned out to be black. The church burnings hoax followed the same pattern -- a big story when arsonists were assumed to be white racists, an instant media departure when they turned out to be black.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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