Katie Couric Media (KCM)
February 16, 2022
In the U.S., hundreds of thousands of people of color (more than 200,000 in 2019 alone) are reported missing every year: They account for 40 percent of the missing persons population. But if you can’t name any of them, you’re not alone. That’s because this country is plagued by what some cultural pundits call “missing white woman syndrome.”
“‘Missing white woman syndrome’ describes this skewed passion that people have for certain people who are missing, namely white girls,” says Soledad O’Brien, who recently produced the 4-part HBO documentary series Black and Missing, named for the foundation it focuses on.
Having covered news for multiple networks, including MSNBC and CNN, since the ’90s, the award-winning journalist and documentarian has seen firsthand how passionately people react to some missing persons stories. “When Natalee Holloway went missing, I remember doing stories on regular people who were just getting on planes to go to Aruba to go look for her,” says O’Brien. “The coverage and what’s happening in law enforcement is spurring on people who are so upset, who care so deeply, and who have no connection to the case, but they’re willing to get on a plane to see if they can be helpful. Why does that not exist for people of color? I think it’s a very fair question.”
Missing white woman syndrome is certainly not a new phenomenon but it’s seen renewed attention as of late, especially given the media coverage of Gabby Petito’s disappearance in August 2021. The coverage of the discovery of her remains and the search for her missing fiancé was fervent: It was the top story in major newspapers and on websites ranging from The Washington Post to BuzzFeed. The response on social media was similar, with users trying to solve the mystery themselves. Meanwhile, a report from the University of Wyoming found that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing from 2011 to 2020 in the state where Petito’s remains were found. A 2016 study of four national and local news outlets found that Black people were “significantly underrepresented” in coverage of missing persons. In a stunning twist, the search for Petito revealed more than it originally intended. As O’Brien points out, “The authorities started finding bodies of other people who were missing while they were searching for Gabby.”
O’Brien’s new series follows Maryland-based sisters-in-law and Black and Missing Foundation co-founders Derrica and Natalie Wilson, who launched the foundation in May 2008 to help families find their loved ones. Throughout the series, the two fight an uphill battle to bring awareness to the Black missing person cases, which are often buried by law enforcement and ignored by national media.
“We all know the names Casey Anthony, Chandra Levy, and Gabby Petito, but name someone who’s Black or brown that’s missing. I’m sure you can’t even name one person of color who’s missing, man, woman, or child,” says Natalie.
Natalie and Derrica are on a mission to change that. Knowing that cases of missing Black people remain unresolved four times longer than those of white people, “We said, Why can’t we do something?” says Natalie. “I’m in media relations and Derrica’s in law enforcement, and those are the two critical professions needed to help find and bring awareness to our missing.”
People can report a missing person by calling Black and Missing, or submitting a report on its website. “When someone contacts us, whether it’s through social media or calling us directly, the first thing we want to ensure is that there’s a missing persons report on file,” Natalie explains. “Once we verify that, we upload that person’s information to our website, as well as our social media platforms.” The two then make efforts to raise awareness in communities, alert media outlets, and connect with police departments. They also help the missing person’s loved ones through the process, free of charge.
“We’re meeting them at the worst point in their lives,” says Natalie. “And you can’t think when you have a loved one that’s missing, you really can’t process it. So we’re coaching them through this.”
There are many reasons people come to Black and Missing. “We all know that there’s a sense of distrust when it comes to the minority community and law enforcement,” Derrica explains. “People are more comfortable coming to us because we’re relatable and we look like them. But honestly, we don’t care who they are, we just want to help.”
Derrica says that families tend to come to Black and Missing as a last resort, after being disappointed by the response from the community or police investigators. “These families who are desperately searching for their missing loved ones have nowhere to turn,” says Derrica. “Many of them just want law enforcement or the media to provide assistance, some type of coverage, or help along the way, so that their loved ones can be brought home.”
Families often tell Derrica and Natalie they’ve reported a missing persons case, but the police department hasn’t taken it seriously. “We understand that there are limited resources that are dedicated to missing person units within these police departments, because quite frankly, they’re not considered a priority,” says Derrica. And O’Brien’s documentary clearly illustrates how missing people of color are treated as less of a priority than other cases.
Often, missing teens get classified as runaways. “There’s no sense of urgency with law enforcement” in those cases, as Derrica points out in the documentary. “When that happens, you don’t receive an Amber Alert,” Natalie explains. “And we have seen that Black children are disproportionately classified as runaways.”
As John Walsh, founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says in the documentary, “Cops are going, ‘Yeah, another Black kid, they’re missing all the time.’ And nobody calls you out in the end when they find the body.” Journalist Deborah Mathis explains, “When a black person is in distress, it’s not a big deal to law enforcement, because they don’t think we have much to lose.”
Derrica and Natalie know that every missing person case won’t make the evening news, so they rely heavily on social media to be that “digital milk carton,” says Derrica. The hope is that the post will go viral: “Someone out there knows something and we need that someone to say something so we can end this nightmare for these families.”
When O’Brien learned of Black and Missing’s work, she wanted to help the organization shed light on this issue. “They were trying to solve the problem of how you get the media and the law enforcement — and also just communities generally — to care about the large number of people of color who are missing, and how do you close that giant disparity?”
The Gabby Petito case brought renewed attention to the idea of “missing white woman syndrome,” but in a positive sense, O’Brien observes that things are changing as a result. “I think for a lot of people just understanding that it’s a problem really was eye-opening,” she says. “I’ve definitely seen a difference. I have found generally when you point out bias or you point out that data is really skewed, that people actually say, ‘Let me take a closer look at how we can do a better job.’”Since its inception, Black and Missing has helped reunite or bring closure to nearly 400 families. But Derrica and Natalie wouldn’t mind going out of business. “It’s our hope and prayer that the Black and Missing Foundation dies a natural death — that we won’t need a foundation like this in the future,” says Derrica. “But as of right now, we’ve got to continue pounding the pavement and being the voice for the voiceless.”
Photo credit: HBO