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Before police poked holes in Carlee Russell’s disappearance, her case went viral. We should still react with the same alarm when other people of color go missing.

Natalie Musumeci
July 21, 2023

The disappearance of Black Alabama nursing student Carlee Russell made national headlines — the perfect reaction that advocates and family members hope for to help solve a case.

But in the aftermath of Russell’s reappearance 49 hours after she vanished last week, the Hoover Police Department has cast doubt on the 25-year-old’s abduction story, saying that authorities have been “unable to verify” most of her statements to investigators.

Authorities also revealed that investigators found “strange” internet searches on Russell’s cell phone in the days and hours before her disappearance about the cost of Amber Alerts and the movie “Taken,” which depicts kidnappings by human traffickers.

But even though holes have emerged in Russell’s account, experts say that the public should still react with the same alarm they showed in Russell’s case when other people of color go missing.

“One case should really not set a precedent for all missing persons cases of color,” Natalie Wilson, the co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, told Insider this week, adding, “We can’t afford to let one incident derail our progress.”

Studies have shown that missing people of color garner far less media attention than missing white people, even though people of color make up a significant portion of the hundreds of thousands who go missing every year in the United States.

Data from the National Crime Information Center shows that nearly 40% of those reported missing in the US last year were people of color, despite Black Americans making up just 13% of the population.

Black women and girls accounted for nearly 98,000 people out of the more than 546,500 Americans who were reported missing in 2022, the data shows.

“We know that for missing black women and girls, we don’t become household names. There’s no attention paid,” Kaye Wise Whitehead, a professor of communications and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland, told Insider. “Except in this one instance and we are watching this unravel before us.”

Russell’s case, Wilson said, showed that “we have the power to come together as a community” when it comes to giving attention to a missing person and noted that she hopes “more cases of color will get the same level of media coverage” that Russell’s did.

Both Wilson and Whitehead applauded the Hoover Police Department’s response when Russell was first reported missing, as well as the public and the media for spreading mass awareness about the case.

“It was a true testament, I believe, to the work that Black folks … have been doing over the years to make sure missing Black girls and women get the same type of attention,” said Whitehead, the president of the National Women’s Studies Association.

But since police called Russell’s case into question, Wilson said that she has seen internet chatter about people expressing wariness of ever sharing a missing person flier again.

“It’s really disheartening,” said Wilson. “We’re hoping this will not deter people.”

Whitehead added that she fears Russell’s case will have setbacks on the attention that’s given to the cases of missing people of color.

“People have immediately gone into the defensive stance around Carlee Russell and they’re saying she did not tell the truth,” said Whitehead.

However, Whitehead said, “Carlee Russell’s situation should not impact the next time we raise the alarm about a Black woman or girl.”

“We have to make sure that going forward we put the same type of care and concern and alarm when it happens again,” Whitehead said.

Police said their investigation is ongoing in Russell’s case and investigators want to interview her for a second time.

“There are many questions left to be answered, but only Carlee can provide those answers,” Hoover Police Chief Nicholas Derzis told reporters this week.

Photo credit: Insider, Hoover Police Department

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