July 21, 2023
The case of an Alabama woman who vanished after calling 911 to report a child walking along an interstate captivated the nation this week and put a spotlight on the issue of missing Black women and girls in the United States.
As investigators raise questions about what really happened to Carlee Russell, who reappeared at her home two days later, here’s what to know about the disproportionate rates of missing Black women and girls in the nation –and the historical lack of police and media attention to their cases.
“Even if this case is, in fact, not a legitimate case of someone missing, this is still a very important issue. And Black women still need the type of attention that this young woman got,” said Cheryl Neely, a professor of sociology at Oakland Community College in Michigan. “There are in fact young women who are missing and in danger.”
Black women and girls go missing at higher rates in United States
Last year, Black women and girls made up approximately 18% of all missing persons cases despite accounting for about 7% of the population, according to data from the National Crime Information Center and U.S. Census Bureau.
“Those statistics just hit really hard. It’s really alarming,” said Treva Lindsey, a writer and professor of women’s studies at The Ohio State University.
More than 546,000 people were reported missing in 2022, including more than 271,000 women, the data shows. Nearly 98,000 of those cases were Black women and girls.
“This is what we know when it’s been reported to law enforcement, so even that data still probably underestimates the reality of Black women and girls missing – and girls and women missing broadly,” Lindsey said.
Factors such as class, relationship to law enforcement, language, citizenship status and more may impact whether someone may report a missing person, Lindsey said.
Historical lack of attention to missing Black women, girls
The cases of missing Black women and girls historically haven’t received as much attention as those of other demographic groups. National print and broadcast media outlets disproportionately focus on missing white women and girls, several studies have found – a symptom of what’s known as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”
Several factors may contribute to the lack of media coverage of missing Black women and girls, as well as of people of color generally, according to the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Minority children are often initially classified as runaways and therefore don’t receive an Amber Alert, according to the group. Minority adults are often cast as “criminals” and portrayed as being associated with gangs and drugs, the group says.
The nation also has become desensitized to cases of missing people of color because “it is believed that missing minorities live in impoverished conditions, and crime is a regular part of their lives,” according to the group’s website.
“At the most basic level, there’s racism, and there are ways that we still see white femininity, white womanhood, white girlhood as constructed around this notion of innocence,” Lindsey said. “There’s a real racial empathy gap when we see Black, Indigenous and other women and girls who go missing. That chasm is one that we have to continuously bring up.”
Families who bring cases of missing Black women and girls to law enforcement often receive pushback and face responses such as “maybe she ran off with a boyfriend,” said Neely, who researches and writes about media and police responses to cases of missing and murdered Black women.
In 1984, Neely’s friend, 16-year-old Michelle Jackson, went missing on her way to school in Detroit.
“Her family took her report card to the police station to show them she was a good girl and she wouldn’t just run away,” Neely said. “Well, Michelle was found the next day by her family, raped and murdered in an abandoned garage.”
The man initially convicted in the case was later exonerated, and another suspect was arrested in 2019.
The Carlee Russell case
The recent Carlee Russell case should not detract from other ongoing and future missing persons of color cases, advocates and researchers say. Police officials in Hoover, Alabama, said they have been unable to verify details of Russell’s account, and many questions remain unanswered.
“We’re still getting information, but police seem to be intimating that this may have been a hoax – that she may have manufactured her disappearance,” Neely said. “If that is in fact, true, that is most disheartening because it is rare that Black women get this kind of attention when they are in fact missing or victims of foul play. So this kind of sets us back.”
On one hand, the large public response to the Russell case has helped chip away at the notion that Americans don’t care when a Black woman goes missing, Lindsey said. She’s been following national reports on the case, and her social media has been flooded with related tweets and posts.
On the other hand, Lindsey said she’s already seeing responses to the ongoing investigation that are “deeply criminalizing” of Russell.
“I will never feel ashamed of believing a Black woman is missing or caring for or wanting to see that person safely return,” Lindsey said.
Natalie Wilson, co-founder and chief operating officer of the Black and Missing Foundation, said one “incident” should not derail the progress that advocates in the field have made in recent years.
Wilson’s organization has been advocating for missing people of color for 15 years and has helped bring home loved ones or bring closure to more than 400 families, she said.
“I can only imagine how many families we can help if we put the same energy in finding other missing people of color,” Wilson said.
Many Black women, girls still missing
Meanwhile, other Black women and girls are missing around the country.
Amyah Smith, 16, went missing from Snellville, Georgia, in May, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Precious Branson, 17, went missing from Hemet, California, in January, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Cierra Chapman, then 30, was reported missing near Dayton, Ohio, in December. The FBI is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information in the case.
Devin “Sacoya” Cooper, then 33, was last seen in Columbus, Ohio, in August 2021. The FBI is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information in the case.
Rajah Adriana McQueen, then 27, was last seen in Cleveland, Ohio, in June 2021. The FBI is offering a reward of up to $25,000 for information in the case.
Dawnita Wilkerson, then 44, was last seen in Evansville, Indiana, in June 2020.
That’s merely a handful of cases.
Recent USA TODAY articles covered the cases of Alexis Patterson, a 7-year-old girl who went missing in Milwaukee in 2002, and sisters Tionda and Diamond Bradley, who went missing in Chicago in 2001, then ages 10 and 3.
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