Stop Assuming This About Missing People of Color
New York Magazine
Natalie Wilson and Derrica Wilson
November 23, 2021
If we asked you to name a missing white woman, someone whose name you’ve seen in a national news headline sometime in the last 20 years, could you? You could: Gabby Petito, Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, Lori Hacking, Jennifer Wilbanks — household names forever etched in our memories, right? Now, think of the name of at least one missing person of color.
You would never know that Black and brown people account for 40 percent of all missing-person cases. The reason, of course, is an obvious one: Their stories are rarely told. Which is why, in 2008, we started the Black and Missing Foundation, a voice for the voiceless. We noticed that Tamika Houston, a missing Black woman from Spartanburg, South Carolina, wasn’t getting the same media attention as Lori Hacking, a white woman who had gone missing around the same time. We couldn’t turn a blind eye to this disparity and injustice. As we did more research, we found that there were even more missing people of color than we imagined. Every day we hear from families disheartened because they can’t get law enforcement to help bring their loved ones home — as in, they outright refuse to take a case seriously or put in any sort of search effort — let alone get the sort of media coverage that can pressure authorities into action.
Before we started the foundation, media coverage of missing persons of color was nearly nonexistent. Today, we’ve made some progress. In fact, in the last month, two major news outlets invited us to speak to their employees about how to cover the cases of our missing.
When we peel back the layers of a case, we find several consistent stereotypes stigmatizing and dehumanizing missing persons of color, which ultimately impact the resources and support they receive. When children of color go missing, for instance, they are often considered “runaways” by law enforcement. Based on our interactions with families, nine out of ten children of color reported missing are classified this way. Which means they don’t get Amber alerts or any media attention. The (ludicrous) idea being that, well, they don’t want to be found. So there is no urgency to find runaways — despite the fact that the first 24 hours are the most critical in finding a missing person alive.
This type of thinking by those in positions of power is not only insensitive to the suffering of these families, but also an excuse to justify their lack of action. Delayed search efforts steal precious time to collect evidence; important clues are lost forever. And it should go without saying, but history proves it’s worth repeating: If the child has been kidnapped, it gives the perpetrator time to get further away from the area.
Here’s the thing: Even if they did run away, they are still children — stop adultifying them. Because how can a child, whose brain is still developing, make an adult decision and fully understand the risks and consequences? Kennedi High is a prime example, as highlighted in our HBO/HBO Max docuseries, premiering today. At age 16, she was considered a runaway, when in fact, she’d been lured by a predator she’d met online and forced into sex trafficking. She was missing for days, and her mother spent much of that time searching on her own with minimal help from law enforcement. When Kennedi was finally located, miles away in another city, and safely brought home, an officer callously described the teen’s experience to her family as “an adventure.”
Missing adults, particularly Black males, are often stereotyped as bringing this upon themselves, usually as a result of some sort of criminal activity. They aren’t considered victims in most cases — not sons and brothers and fathers whose lives matter — just burdens on society and our tax dollars. When Jonathan Bandabaila went missing, his family told us that they had to endure 19 days with no assistance from law enforcement and no media coverage. Instead, the story of a missing dog dominated the news cycle.
For women, a similar stigma is invoked by being labeled “prostitutes” or “promiscuous.” Consider the case of several missing women of color in Cleveland from 2007 to 2009. When the families of nearly a dozen women went to law enforcement, they were dismissed. Their loved ones were likely on drugs or involved in prostitution, they were told; once the drugs wore off, they’d likely come home. They didn’t, because these women were murdered by serial killer Anthony Sowell. What if any of them could have been rescued? What if law enforcement had decided that these lives did in fact matter? Sadly, these families will never know.
Those who come from low-income communities also face a double whammy. There is a perception that the sudden desertion of responsibilities and relationships is typical, par for the course. In our nearly 14 years as a nonprofit organization, we have seen firsthand how our nation has become desensitized to the plight of missing people of color who come from marginalized communities. The perception is that when someone of color is reported missing, no one will miss them, so why dedicate the resources to finding them. And often the gatekeepers to police intervention are middle-to-upper-class white males with no connection to our communities who buy into and perpetuate this thinking. They don’t know our stories, and they don’t ask.
But to change this narrative, our stories need to be told. Stories have a way of challenging our perceptions of “the truth,” connecting us as real-life human beings who are worthy of the same rights and compassion. When Gabby Petito went missing, just hearing her story on the news galvanized thousands of strangers to aid in her search. Whether it was sharing a social-media post, flooding law enforcement with tips, actually traveling to help in the search efforts, or just participating in an in-person vigil, the nation was invested in finding her, and rightly so. We don’t want to take away from these cases, we just want the same for missing people of color.
For the first time, our stories will be shared and heard collectively on a major platform in a four-part series featuring multiple families. We hope this docuseries will be a wake-up call, a call to action to help us find us.
Photo credit: HBO