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What ‘Dahmer’ is teaching us about race

At this month’s Golden Globes, Ryan Murphy accepted the Carol Burnett Award for his monumental and historic television career. The star of his own polarizing Netflix series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Evan Peters, took home the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. At the People’s Choice Awards in November, the series also took home the award for Most “Bingeworthy Show” of 2022. And just last week, Damer actress Niecy Nash-Betts won the Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television.

The accolade is warranted, not only because of the stellar performances, but also because Murphy’s take on Dahmer’s narrative offers a fresh perspective, highlighting realities that sadly still resonate today. The men targeted by Dahmer were seen as disposable, dismissed as trash because they were black and gay at a time when many in society would have loved to see those demographics of people fall off the face of the earth.

But have law enforcement learned anything from the profound racial implications of the Jeffrey Dahmer case? Unfortunately, similar cases have followed and the way they have been handled mirrors Dahmer’s fiasco.

For example, in 2019, Ed Buck, an activist, actor, and political campaign donor from Los Angeles, was accused of fatally overdosing Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean in his Los Angeles apartment. For nearly a decade, Buck lured young black men to his Los Angeles apartment to “party and play.” This involved Buck soliciting these men for sex, many of whom were homeless, struggling with drug addiction, or both, according to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.

Buck injected his victims with fentanyl, some voluntarily, some not, and once they were unconscious, he sexually assaulted them. Activists have spent years pleading with local authorities to step in, to dig deeper into these deaths, but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. When Moore’s body was found in 2017, Buck was not charged. The same happened when Dean’s body was found two years later.

It wasn’t until a man escaped in September 2019 that Buck was arrested and finally charged. The incident closely mirrored events that had occurred nearly three decades earlier in July 1991, when Tracy Edwards escaped her four-hour confinement in Dahmer’s home and alerted authorities, ultimately leading to Dahmer’s arrest.

Even more recently, in September 2022, Bishop Tony Caldwell, a local pastor and activist in Kansas City, released a video saying there was a serial killer targeting young black women in Kansas City. In the video of him, which has been reposted since Kansas City defender, Caldwell stated that “We have four young women who have been murdered in the last week.” When the video went viral and other concerned black activists started speaking out about the Kansas City Police Department’s refusal to investigate the reports, the police released a statement saying the claims were “completely baseless.”

A month later, an extremely emaciated black woman, barefoot, wearing latex underwear and a chain lock around her neck, knocked on a woman’s door in a Kansas City suburb. She claimed she ran away from the home of a man named Timothy Haslett Jr. She told police Haslett kidnapped her and kept her locked up in her basement for more than a month where he allegedly raped her , beaten and tortured. She also claimed that other women had been there with her, saying her friends “didn’t make it”.

Haslett was arrested and charged, but no other women were found at his residence. According to Kansas City activists, there really hasn’t been a concerted effort to find them. Haslett is currently in custody and his trial will begin on February 24 after being rescheduled for a third time.

Dahmer, Buck and Haslett: three white men who preyed mostly or exclusively on blacks with sustained impunity, suggesting once again to us that when it comes to black lives, society cannot be disturbed. Even when the cries of a community ring loud, the silence of those charged with protecting them drowns out those cries, which makes the pain that much more excruciating.

If the missing, abused, cannibalized, and murdered were mostly straight and white, someone would have done something about it long before the numbers climbed to what they were. A 2018 Washington Post the analysis confirmed this, finding that 63% of killers are arrested when the victim is white, but only 46% when the victim is black.

This does not lessen the pain and anguish that everyone feels when a loved one is taken from them. All cases of homicide, regardless of the person’s racial makeup, are heinous and tragic. But what if no one is looking for their loved one? Didn’t they believe you when you reported him missing? Did the media side with law enforcement and never print your story? This is a scenario that can happen in any community, but is more likely to happen in black communities. In 2020, a study published in the scientific journal Sociology of race and ethnicity found that “victims killed in predominantly black neighborhoods receive less news coverage than those killed in non-Hispanic white neighborhoods. People killed in predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhoods are also less likely to be discussed as multifaceted and complex people.”

In one of the best sequences of Murphy’s series, Glenda Cleveland, played by Nash-Betts, is credited for helping to bring Dahmer to justice. Cleveland, who is black, called the police on several occasions and warned them that something was “not right” with her neighbor Jeffrey Dahmer. Her calls were never processed. In the film, while she is being honored, the police are also being honored in a separate event. Her ceremony takes place in a closet-sized room with stale coffee and donuts. The officers’ ceremony takes place during a gala that appears to be attended by Milwaukee’s best.

This sequence is central to the series and shows how deeply entrenched the lines of inequity and division are: police versus citizens, black versus white, right versus wrong. It shows that even when concerned Black citizens speak up to help solve crime, they are not held in high esteem. It is to these victims, and these witnesses, that I hope our binge turns into an earnest plea that Black lives not only matter, but be held in the same high regard as the series many have come to love.

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