September 2, 2023
Black women are disappearing at an alarming rate. In 2022 alone, more than 97,000 Black women were reported missing, according to the 2022 NCIC Missing Person and Unidentified Person Statistics, and we believe there are even more. Yet their stories are not making the national headlines. Carlee Russell’s case going viral was an anomaly that we had hoped would change that and spark nationwide interest in our cases.
Instead, it led to backlash due to the outcome. We’ve heard it all, from people saying they will never share a case of a missing Black woman again to resentment and anger, and even a halo of distrust that has others in our community looking at every Black missing woman’s story with a side-eye.
The sad fact is that we can’t afford to look the other way because the statistics and reality of the number of missing Black women is too glaring to ignore.
When I started as the co-founder and publicist for the Black and Missing Foundation, families were reaching out to us in desperation, seeking any help to bring awareness to their loved one’s disappearance. We were their last hope because no one was taking their cases seriously. There was a lack of media coverage, law enforcement support, and community engagement was sparse and disheartening. Although over the last 15 years, the Black and Missing Foundation has made some progress with national and local media partnerships, it is still not enough, with the number of missing Black women continuing to rise.
According to the Urban Institute, only seven percent of missing person cases involving people of color receive national media coverage. In those early years, beyond the Black press, I can’t tell you how many times my pleas for media coverage were met with silence or disinterest despite Black women representing 18 percent of all missing persons cases.
What I didn’t know in those early years of the foundation that I know now, is that Black women are often targeted, particularly regarding sex trafficking. Interviews with predators and pimps revealed that they target Black women because they believe no one will look for them and the penalty will not be as harsh for trafficking them. Also, Black women are not seen as victims. They are often stereotyped as promiscuous and responsible for their disappearance. Their white counterparts, however are viewed as a damsel in distress, needing to be rescued.
Without media coverage to raise awareness, the cases of missing Black women often fall through the cracks. Media coverage sets a sense of urgency in motion, galvanizing the community and putting pressure on law enforcement to add resources to the case, which can result in a quicker recovery. Sadly, our cases remain open four times longer than our white counterparts.
Missing Black women are rarely front-page news; sadly, many of us don’t even know their names. Tarasha Benjamin has been missing for over 13 years after disappearing from Selma, Alabama, following a trip to the flea market. The family of Emily Victoria Benjamin have been searching for her for nearly a year after she disappeared from Culpeper, Virginia, on September 2, 2022, after leaving for a road trip. Then there is Javitta Brockington, who was last seen on August 6, heading to Atlantic City, New Jersey. These are just a few of the cases we are actively working on.
These are our mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends, and if we don’t search for them, who will? While Carlee Russell’s level of media exposure was unprecedented, it doesn’t have to be.
What if it became the norm, and we brought more of our missing loved ones homes? The Black and Missing Foundation has been able to help locate more than 400 individuals with the community’s support over the years. We are working with thousands of families right now. That’s why we can’t afford to be deterred, derailed, or defeated by the Carlee Russell situation. We ask our communities to be our digital milk carton by sharing the profiles of those missing.
Help us to help the cases go viral. It only takes one person to come forward with answers to help bring home the missing individual or provide answers to families who are desperately searching for their missing loved ones. Elected leaders must work to enhance the public communication alert systems. When time is critical, you need to be able to reach the most people in the shortest time. The media and social media are the only entities that have the power to amplify these cases and to keep them top of mind with the public, which is critical for bringing our loved ones home.
Race, zip code, income, and education should never be factors in who gets media coverage and law enforcement support. Our missing Black women are counting on us. They matter, too, and deserve to be found.
Natalie Wilson is the co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. With two decades of experience in public and media relations, she knows the power and reach of media coverage. Natalie, who is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), holds a Master of Arts in communications from Trinity University and a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Howard University.
Photo credit: HBO