The Media’s Role in Attaining Justice for Black and Missing Persons


This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

There is a rising sentiment in this country that places value and regard for Black life at a fatally low level. It has been made dangerously evident that Black demise at the hands of anti-Black, racist violence—state-sanctioned or otherwise—has become far too common. Society has not been taught to value or respect Black lives. The shooting deaths of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and the hundreds of thousands of slain Black people who came before them should illustrate that point. But to further drive the point home, consider that there are 64,000 Black women and girls who have gone missing in the United States just since 2010.

This lack of regard for the safety of Black people and the protection of our rights is symptomatic of the established order of white supremacy in this country, which must be dismantled. Dismantling white supremacy is a tall order, and one way to start is through equity in media exposure as an entry point for re-education. There are examples of these successes as videos recorded by active bystanders become viral on social media and raise the visibility of the frequency of these violent offenses. Similarly, for missing persons of color cases, social media campaigns raise their visibility through memes, Facebook, and Twitter. Luckily, social media has been used to tighten efforts and strengthen the exchange of information and actions taken in attaining justice for Black victims.

Specifically, the media attention for victims in missing persons cases are primarily reserved for white women and has been diagnosed as the “missing white woman syndrome.” Media executives have argued that “privileged people disappear and die less frequently, and therefore are more newsworthy in their unusualness.” Ultimately this means that violent crimes and abductions of Black people have become common in our society—a matter of fact. To live with the idea that there is a high probability and expectation that Black people are going to get abducted and killed is a human rights issue. The missing white woman syndrome articulates a lived experience of the intersectional realities of racism, sexism, and classism, which currently supports the myth that Black people are not valued, important, or worthy of efforts to enforce laws in protecting Black lives.

While Black Americans make up only 13.2 percent of the U.S. population, they represented over 40 percent of its missing persons cases in 2010. The disparities that are evident in missing person cases of Black women and girls are primarily linked to the mainstream media’s unwillingness to cover their stories. Too often mainstream media will only cover a story about violence against innocent Black people if it’s about a journalist who reports the truth only to receive state-sanctioned reprisals of jail or, worse yet, violence and discrimination from law enforcement, as in the case of the Washington Post‘s Wesley Lowery, who’s been reporting from Ferguson. And it is all but guaranteed the media will cover a story about a crime if a Black person was the one who committed it.

However, anti-Black violence is erupting in Black communities all across the country. As a 2010 federal report from the FBI Civil Rights Division explains, 66 percent of single-bias hate crimes reported by law enforcement were motivated by “anti-Black bias,” which means that the crimes were racially motivated based on the person being Black.

Fortunately, there are some ethnic media outlets that feed content and information to mainstream media for missing Black women and girls. Sadly though, even those ethnic media outlets have been accused of drawing greater visibility to the more aesthetically attractive Black woman. This sentiment is a far cry from the “Black Is Beautiful” cultural movement, which had the sole purpose of celebrating the fact that Black people’s natural features, such as skin color, facial features, and hair, were inherently beautiful. In the face of the mainstream opinion, which identified Blackness as ugly, this built the esteem of the Black aesthetic and community. Unfortunately, the “Black Is Beautiful” movement did not go far enough in solidifying that attitude as fact in the public sphere. The historical trauma impressed on the minds and psyche of Black people, and our treatment by the systems of this country manifests itself in the form of internalized racism. This could explain why even ethnic media struggle with featuring missing women who they find undesirable.

At this point, it is too early to determine whether exposure in ethnic media markets will increase mainstream media’s coverage for missing people of color. However, what we do know is the potential to elevate the media spotlight on the disappearances of Black women and girls could also address yet another disparity, and that’s how quickly the authorities investigate a Black missing person’s case. These attitudes are connected to the belief in Black communities that violence and abduction is all but assured. Media has the resources and power to draw attention to missing people of color, as well as the power to put necessary pressure on authorities that are frequently slow to investigate the disappearances of Black women and girls. Far too frequently, the consequence of the constant racial bias that is inflicted on the Black community from law enforcement situates the perpetrators at an advantage, while placing the victim in fatal harm. Especially, if the perpetrator is white and the victim is Black.

This fact goes along with an adage frequently used and deeply understood among Black women in the reproductive justice movement: “If we don’t protect and defend ourselves, no one else will.” One of the core principles of this human rights framework centers the right to parent our children without fear that he or she will be hurt or killed. Freedom from violence is reproductive justice. What is clear is that there is no equity in the visibility of missing person cases involving Black women and girls. When the media neglects to cover these stories, it is omitting the fact that people care about missing Black women, and permitting the conditions for this toxic environment of invisibility and violent actions with no recourse to thrive. Families, communities, and activists care about missing Black women and girls. There are nonprofit organizations that respond specifically to this need for visibility through bringing awareness and resources to missing people of color. And, access to social media like Facebook and Twitter is also a quick and cost effective way to raise visibility and get alerts out about missing Black women and girls.

Among the recent cases putting on trial gunmen of slain Black people, the Theodore Wafer case in which Renisha McBride’s killer was found guilty sets a strong example for attaining the human rights of safety and justice for Black people. McBride’s story is not the first case where a killer has been brought to justice for crimes against Black lives, and we certainly hope that it won’t be the last.

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Follow Jasmine Burnett on twitter: @Blkfeminst