October 22, 2023
Gabby Petito. Natalee Hollaway. Elizabeth Smart. These are names most Americans recognize when you talk about missing young women.
But mention Kierra Coles, who was also pregnant, Destini Smothers, or Kathryn Bene Griffin, and their names may not be familiar at all.
That’s because when Black women go missing—news coverage does, too.
In late September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Ebony Alert system into law—becoming the first state to notify the public when Black children and young Black women between the ages of 12 and 25 disappear. It mirrors the AMBER Alert system, which generates emergency alerts on smartphones and electronic road signs. It also encourages the media to share news when someone vanishes.
But while this new system is a fantastic first step to alleviating racial disparities when it comes to paying attention to missing Black women and children, it doesn’t go far enough.
Black people—Black women—deserve better. Way better. The Ebony Alert system should be worldwide, just like its predecessor.
The AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) alert system was created in 1996 after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas.
According to the federal website amberalert.ojp.gov, the AMBER Alert system is actively used, not just nationwide, but in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Indian country, and 31 countries globally.
“As of January 2, 2023, 1,127 children were successfully recovered through the AMBER Alert system and 131 children were rescued because of wireless emergency alerts,” the website states.
“Thousands of people are reported missing every year in the U.S.,” according to a statement on the website of the Black and Missing Foundation. “And while not every case will get widespread media attention, the coverage of white and minority victims is far from proportionate.”
The real tragedy is that while Black people comprise just 13 percent of the U.S. population, nearly 40 percent of those who regularly go missing are African Americans, the U.S. Census reports.
According to Black and Missing, of the 546,568 people reported missing in 2022, just 57 percent were white, including Hispanic; 39 percent were minorities, and 3 percent were unknown.
Minorities who have vanished aren’t even cataloged the same way in crime statistics. “In 2022, there were 313,017 cases filed by the National Crime Information Center where the race of the reported missing was White,” according to the NCIC’s website. “In the same year, 18,928 people were missing whose race was unknown.”
It’s like no one is even bothering to note the racial breakdowns.
That is another thing that needs to change.
The fact is “thousands of people are reported missing every year in the United States and while not every case will get widespread media attention, the coverage of white and minority victims is far from proportionate,” according to the Black and Missing Foundation.
“When Black girls and women go missing, the country doesn’t come to a standstill the way it does when a white girl or woman goes missing,” Feminista Jones writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
She noted, “While African American females make up less than 7 percent of the population, they account for about 10 percent of all missing persons with an estimated 64,000 of them being missing at any given moment, according to the Black and Missing Foundation.”
If more black women of color vanish and die from violence, why isn’t that reflected in media coverage?
The answer is simple: “If you don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes,” Lynnette Gray Bull of the Not Our Native Daughters Foundation told Joy Reid on her show The ReidOut, “Our stories do not make it to the 6 o’clock news.”
What’s the solution?
Newspapers, radio stations, television outlets, bloggers, and the Black press—all of us need to care and become more inclusive in the coverage of ALL missing women—not just missing White women.
It begins in newsrooms where diversity has always been an issue.
But there are things you can do in addition to contacting legislators in your state and asking them to take the Ebony Alert system nationwide. If you’re on social media sites (whether that’s TikTok, a Facebook page, or Black Twitter), going to Black churches, speaking or teaching on college campuses or other venues and you hear of the case of a missing woman, child, or person of color, share it. Talk about it. Tell your friends! If it happens in your neighborhood, call the local press and ask them to amplify it. And remember, even if that person vanished in New Jersey, it doesn’t mean that person is still in the state.
Their kidnapper may have taken them elsewhere.
We must also urge Congress to create national legislation, so everyone is forced to pay attention to what should be categorized as much more than just a horrific oversight.
Here’s a thought: Perhaps President Biden can take the Ebony Alert system nationwide with an Executive Order.
Photo credit: Shutterstock