To Be Young, Missing And Black
The Yellow River in rural Newton County, Georgia, has many secrets. Its banks and unassuming-yet-dangerous waters wind quietly for 76 miles east of Atlanta, providing refuge and nurture for indigenous flora and fauna. It gave up one of its secrets on March 3 to a local fisherman: the body of a black or biracial girl, reported to be between 12 and 17 years old.
The Newton County Sheriff’s Office reported that there were no identifying scars, marks or tattoos on the body. Local news reports said that no family members had come forward as of March 8 searching for their missing daughter. What was most hurtful and disturbing was that 39 missing children fit the description of the body pulled from the river, according to Georgia’s Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
To be young, missing and black is a noxious reality. It is doubly so for black women and girls, no matter the age. Black bodies are not given the same coverage, nor sustained coverage, when they are missing. We live in a society where what’s important is what’s “trending.”
The story of missing black and Latina girls in Washington, D.C., last year provides another example of this. Social media played a pivotal role in focusing national news coverage on the missing teens, as posts bringing attention to them went viral. While officials tried to explain away numerous cases of those who were missing, far too many remained unresolved.
The Yellow River incident could have been a child runaway case or a child abduction gone horribly wrong. Child runaway cases and abductions by family members do not garner the same level of media coverage as abductions by non-family and strangers. Either way, this case raised the question about what happens to missing people who do not look like Elizabeth Smart or Natalee Holloway, whose cases were worthy of every second of coverage they received.
Why are missing black women and girls largely ignored, and what can be done to change this? Activist Shaun King argues that this odious practice can be placed in two frames: addressing the number of missing people in America, especially young black girls, and changing the media’s coverage of cases and how we are made aware of them. He also suggests that we are at the point of needing a network of PR firms to help when black children disappear. This speaks directly to the level of desperation that black families have reached.
Sounding the alarm to pull black bodies from the margins is appropriate, given recent reports outlining the numerous challenges black women continue to face in America. The lack of media coverage when they disappear is yet another burden to bear. Burdens that cannot be removed can certainly be shared.
Nationally, the number of missing people is daunting. In 2017, there were 651,226 missing persons records entered into the National Crime Information Center, according to the FBI. The same year, there were 464,324 NCIC entries for missing children, as reported by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The Black and Missing Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that raises awareness about missing people of color and provides support and resources to families, indicates that nearly 40 percent of all missing people in the country are people of color.
Published research supports claims of race and gender bias in the coverage of missing black children. Candlelight vigils, passing out flyers and using social media are important grassroots efforts to generate attention, but they are no match for the influence of local and national news coverage.