Shining the Spotlight on Missing People of Color

These activists bring attention to victims who don’t fit into ‘missing white woman syndrome.’

PUBLISHED NOV 30, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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When people of color go missing, only one-fifth of the cases receive media coverage.

When people of color go missing, only one-fifth of the cases receive media coverage.   Image by glasskid50   Pixabay

When the disappearance of Gabby Petito began trending as a major news event, seasoned media watchers saw another example of “missing white woman syndrome,” a term coined by the late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill back in 2010 to describe how the mainstream media reacts when an attractive Caucasian woman vanishes. Almost a dozen years later, activists are doing more than just shaking their heads over the lack of attention paid to missing women of color from both media and law enforcement.

One leader in the fight to raise awareness of the myriad cases of missing people of color is Natalie Wilson, cofounder of the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. (BAMFI).

“It’s time for change,” Wilson said. “All of the social injustices that we have witnessed the past couple of years have made people more conscious and they want to make a difference. People want to use their voice for change. We are trying to change the narrative to say that these (missing people) are human beings and valued members of our community.”

How big is the disparity? Only about one-fifth of missing person cases involving a person of color receive media coverage, according to research from criminologist Zach Sommers. And people of color make up about 40 percent of active missing person cases, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. California consistently ranks among the states with the highest number of missing persons of color—and Wilson believes actual figures are even higher, because Latino and immigrant populations tend to underreport missing persons cases because of distrust of law enforcement.

So is it a media problem or a police problem? Both, Wilson says. Increased coverage does start with a police department calling attention to a case and asking for the media’s help. But reporters and editors ultimately dictate how much coverage a missing persons case receives. 

The Fight for Equal Coverage

Since BAMFI came on the scene in 2008, the organization has worked to encourage both media and law enforcement to spotlight the problem of inequitable coverage and encourage change in newsrooms.

There’s still a long way to go, Wilson said, pointing out the widespread national and international coverage garnered when pretty white Instagram influencer Petito went missing and was later found murdered, as well as the subsequent manhunt for her fiance, Brian Laundrie, who was found dead a month later. While that story played out, BAMFI was contacted by hundreds of journalists who recognized the coverage differential and wanted to acknowledge it in their stories.

“To me it seems like it’s different this time and they’re starting to get it,” Wilson said. “We have been contacted by hundreds of media outlets to talk about this and bring about change. I want us to continue the discussion around this issue.”

She also praised Gabby Petito’s father, Joseph Petito, for spotlighting the disparity in his time of grief. “Social media has been amazing. I’d like to thank everyone for that, it was very helpful in bringing our daughter home,” Joseph Petito stated, later adding, “This awareness should continue for everyone.”

BAMFI is currently assisting families in 50 cases in California out of the thousands of cases nationally in its database. The organization, which is completely funded by individual donors, provides guidance and assistance for families to advocate to the media and police for more attention on their loved ones’ cases as well as financial assistance for search efforts like posters and flyers, travel and living expenses, and, in sadder circumstances, expenses for funeral arrangements. When missing persons cases don’t receive coverage, it greatly impacts a family’s ability to enlist the public’s help by publicizing search efforts or offering a reward, Wilson said. And the spotlight also keeps pressure on police to conduct a more exhaustive investigation.

Natalie Wilson and her BAMFI cofounder and sister-in-law, Derrica Wilson, are in the spotlight themselves right now in Black and Missing, a four-part HBO documentary series by Geeta Gandbhir and Soledad O’Brien. The episodes are available now on HBO Max; watch the trailer on the series website.

The Stories Behind the Names

Another website, Our Black Girls, is managed by a California journalist in her free time and serves as a database and advocacy platform for missing women of color throughout the nation. Launched by activist Erika Marie Rivers in 2018, the site makes the most of social media to bring urgency to featured stories of missing women with the goal of getting them to trend online. The stories are also more fully fleshed out thanks to Rivers’ reporting, which goes beyond the police bulletin and connects with family members and loved ones to paint a more complete portrait of the missing person. 

The stories are heartbreaking and drive home the point that this can happen to anyone, which is why Rivers created the site. “Growing up, I was always fascinated by stories of Black girls and women that made the news due to tragic circumstances,” she writes on her site. “It wasn’t some morbidity that drew me to their cases; it was a sense of familiarity. I was looking at faces that were similar to mine and that made me identify with these victims or survivors. I would think about their families, their loved ones whose hearts ached while these women were missing, who were angered by them being mistreated, or who mourned because they were murdered.”

More Paths to Action

Native American women are also overrepresented in missing persons cases and underreported in the media, and their cases also suffer from a lack of resources. Rural communities may be policed by tribal law enforcement entities that don’t have the same revenue streams as typical police departments. According to the website Not Our Native Daughters, Native American women are stalked, raped, murdered, sexually assaulted, abused, and victimized by domestic violence at a rate 50 times the national average. The site seeks to mobilize resources and advocacy efforts to focus on the problem and educate Native American communities how to protect themselves and advocate for more attention.

And what does California as a state do on this issue? It offers a California Missing Persons page that serves as a database for about 20,000 active missing person cases in the state. With so many cases that are fed to them by local police jurisdictions, the site can do little more than post the police bulletins of missing persons that it receives, but the inability to share any of the stories from the site itself is problematic. 

The state’s missing persons page also has separate Featured Missing Children and Featured Missing Adults pages that highlight individual cases and shows far more diversity in the page for children than adults.

As Wilson noted, the problem persists and requires citizen activation to keep the pressure on police and media to tell these stories. So what can individuals do to advocate for missing persons of color?

  1. Donate to organizations like BAMFI, Not Our Native Daughters and Our Black Girls.

  2. Follow those organizations on social media and share their stories while tagging the local police department and news stations.

  3. Study the websites and search for local cases. Then share them and ask others to share and support.

  4. Follow local reporters and news stations on social media and call attention to cases they are missing.

  5. If you’re a fan of true crime websites and podcasts, ask their creators to feature stories about missing persons of color equally. Put the pressure on them to level the playing field.

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