In the past two weeks, ten children of color have gone missing in Washington, DC. The fact that this story is not consistently making national headlines reaffirms the existence of discriminatory racial biases, both implicit and explicit, perniciously permeating into the way institutions operate, specifically with respect to crises.
The Associated Press reports that D.C.’s recent missing person cases “at first garnered very little media attention.” In response to lack of coverage, on March 23, a local resident posted on Instagram claiming 14 Black teenage girls were reported missing in D.C. in 24 hours. Although that statistic was proven to be false, and I in no way support the dissemination of fake news, this post, as Colin Dwyer of NPR notes, it was the reason people began to treat this situation with the gravity it warrants. The post sparked a much-needed conversation about the disparities with respect to race present within the way in which missing people are perceived in this country based on their race.
It was not until this past Friday that Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a statement promising the city will dedicate more resources to finding these girls. These resources include augmenting the number of police officers assigned to the cases and creating a task force that will help identify social services from which teenagers could benefit. The social services aim to stabilize components of the teens’ home lives that could potentially be driving them to run away.
But even this response—the Mayor’s presumptive classification of these girls as runaways—is problematic. As Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness surrounding missing persons of color, expresses in her USA Today interview, “A lot of African American children that go missing are initially classified as runaways.” This, Wilson professes, prevents them from receiving “Amber Alert or media coverage.”
According to an Associated Press report, last week, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond and D.C.’s nonvoting congressional representative delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote to FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting an increase in resources allocated towards investigating this spike in disappearances.
Instead, yesterday afternoon, the FBI released a statement promising a reward of up to $25,000 to anyone with information concerning the whereabouts of Amy Lynn Bradley—a missing white woman from Virginia who was last seen on a cruise ship in 1998.
Although action with respect to any missing person case should be regarded in a positive light, that the FBI is doing more to find a woman who has been missing for 19 years than they are for ten children of color who have been missing for less than two weeks— and are therefore far more likely to still be alive points— to the prominence of what is commonly known as “Missing White Girl Syndrome.”
Sarah Stillman’s essay “The Missing White Girl Syndrome’: Disappeared Women and Media Activism” identifies this term as “an oft discussed phenomenon among scholars and journalists: how the media is more likely to mine a sympathetic response from a white woman’s disappearance than the disappearance of a person of color.” Replace flaxen curls with ivory braids and the urgency these cases require handled vanishes.
On the website known as “The Missing,” a database of missing individuals in New York, an aggregate of stories published under the umbrella title “Race and Gender: Media Bias in Coverage of Missing Persons” further fleshes out this phenomenon.
Heather Hodges, 22, and Sage Smith, 19, were both reported missing in Virginia in 2012. Hodges was white and cisgender while Smith was a black, transgender woman. Hodge’s disappearance was covered by local, national, and international news networks. Information on her case was reported up to three years after she went missing.
Meanwhile, Smith received little media attention; only the Huffington Post along with GLADD, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, published anything about her case.
These racial biases exist within the transgender community as well. According to Trans People of Color Coalition Executive Director Kylar Broadus, “A white trans person is far more likely to get press than a trans person of color. When they go missing or when they die, it becomes a public debate and there are conversations all over the States.”
America’s inclination to toss aside morals when it comes to people of color, specifically Black girls, is deeply entrenched within our history and manifests itself in various factors and theories, one being the criminalization of Black girls in schools. As defined in Melinda D. Anderson’s piece in “The Atlantic,” “The Black Girl Pushout,” “Society’s deeply entrenched expectations of black girls—influenced by racism and patriarchy—has led to a ritual whereby these young women are often mischaracterized and mislabeled because of how they look, dress, speak, and act. In short, black girls are devalued based on how others perceive them.”
It is this devaluation that could be one of the contributing factors to the implicit nature of Americans to care less when the missing little girl is not white. In a polarized, and, in many ways, racially divided city such as Washington D.C., this can be especially harmful. The criminalization of Black girls institutionalized through schools combined with the District’s inherent divisions has socialized us into implicitly internalizing the discriminatory biases on top of those preexisting, external ones within our governmental, legal, and policing institutions, causing staggering disparities within the communal responses to seemingly identical cases.
When someone you know goes missing, the feeling is an icy, gut-wrenching emptiness that will dissipate with time but will never completely disappear. Closure is critical; until the person, or their body, is found, nobody knows what to think or how to feel or even for what they should hope. Those charged with our protection doing anything but everything they can to find someone who is missing, or caring less because that person happens to be Black or Brown, is unforgivable.