When was the last time you remember seeing substantial coverage of a missing persons case or an unsolved homicide involving a Black woman or girl? Can you name a woman or girl of color whose missing persons case has received major media coverage?
In 2020, about one-third of all the women and girls listed in missing persons reports were Black. Yet census figures show that Black women make up less than 13 percent of the American female population.
As we see playing out every day across news reporting and social media channels, these are the cases that are all too often forgotten by law enforcement and the public. Meanwhile, most people can remember any number of extensively covered—and often highly sensationalized—cases involving white female missing persons and homicide victims. These kinds of narratives highlight the wide discrepancies in who, exactly, we as a society feel is deserving of care and protection.
Make no mistake, every missing person deserves attention and help. It’s just that right now, that attention and help is skewed so much in favor of supporting familiar, media-driven narratives that highlight the victimization of white women, that Black women and other women of color have become, for the most part, invisible.
Every missing person deserves our attention
Take the case of Gabby Petito. The popular vlogger was white, young, and blonde. When she went missing during a well-publicized cross-country van trip with her fiancé, journalists covered every new development in the case, and her image was splashed across countless international media outlets. In a tragic turn of events, Petito was found murdered. The FBI has indicated that her fiancé, later found dead, was the killer.
Equally tragic are the unsolved cases of the hundreds of Indigenous women who have disappeared over the past decade from around Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, where Petito’s body was discovered.
“Missing White Woman Syndrome”
By the close of 2020, some 89,000 missing persons cases were active, and about 45 percent of these involved people of color.
Zach Sommers, an attorney and criminologist who researches how race, media, and law intersect, published a 2016 analysis of what late journalist Gwen Ifill first called “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”
Sommers’ study involved noting the demographics of missing persons covered in four major media outlets over a year, and comparing that data with the FBI’s overall records of missing persons. He found that white females received close to half of all news coverage, although they represented only about one-third of the total number of missing persons. Not only did Sommers’ study reveal disparities in whether a missing person received any coverage at all; it also showed disparities in the amount and intensity of the coverage each missing person received.
There are resources out there that challenge well-worn narratives about Black women and girls who go missing, offer information and help to families, and spark a larger public conversation and levels of awareness.
The HBO documentary Black and Missing tackles the multiple issues entwined in this topic over a four-part series produced by Emmy-winning director Geeta Gandbhir and renowned journalist Soledad O’Brien.
The series focuses on the work of the Black and Missing Foundation, established in 2008 by a pair of sisters-in-law: Derrica Wilson, a former law enforcement officer, and Natalie Wilson, a public relations professional. The Wilsons’ goal is to fight against the ingrained apathy of law enforcement, media, and the public to bring attention to Black missing persons, male and female.
The documentary aims to probe just how deep specific and systemic racism in this country runs in its neglect of people of color who go missing, and its failure to listen to the pleas of their loved ones. But the series also inspires hope in its analysis of instances in which the foundation’s work has helped bring a number of cases to resolution and closure.
The website and podcast titled Our Black Girls, founded in 2018, operate with the same mission. Like the Black and Missing Foundation, Our Black Girls disseminates information on missing persons that includes photographs and identifying data across multiple media platforms.
Our Black Girls’ founder Erika Marie Rivers is by profession an entertainment journalist. She maintains the website on her own personal time, and driven by her own passion for justice. Rivers wants to highlight as many of these stories as she can, in hopes of prompting someone, somewhere, to reach out with information leading to a resolution. She maintains an intense schedule of producing an article every other day.
Rivers’ website presents the cases not only of missing Black women and girls, but of unsolved homicide victims, as well.
Many of the people Rivers is trying to trace simply disappeared while simply walking through their neighborhoods. “It could happen to me,” she told National Public Radio in 2021.
Often, missing women’s families reach out to Rivers just to thank her for calling attention to their loved one’s case, attention that hasn’t come from officials charged with investigation, or from the media. She also hears from people with previously unknown connections to missing persons or homicide suspects she’s covered.
All that any of these tireless activists wants is, in the words of the Black and Missing Foundation, “equal opportunity for all missing persons.”