October 4, 2023
Last month, about a few dozen people distributed fliers in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood with a photo and description of Keshaun Williams, a 15-year-old, 5-foot-7-inch, 130-pound teenager. Kee, as his family and friends call him, went missing on June 17. That night, Kee called his mother to say he was on his way home from a house party but never arrived.
Every day across America, numerous people vanish – disproportionately people of color who typically don’t get the media coverage that Keshaun has received. The Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. (BAMFI), a Maryland-based non-profit, is making a difference by spotlighting missing people of color when law enforcement and media outlets fall short.
Black people are overrepresented among missing people across the nation, Natalie Wilson, a co-founder of BAMFI, told BET.com. While Black Americans represent about 13 percent of the population, they account for nearly 40 percent of the missing persons.
“These are our mothers and fathers, our children, our neighbors who are disappearing at an alarming rate,” Wilson said. “Media coverage is vital because awareness is key in locating them. And it also puts pressure on law enforcement to add resources to the case.”
Billboards are one of the newest tools in BAMFI’s arsenal. The organization launched a 16-city billboard campaign in May to mark its 15th anniversary. The billboards display pictures and information about 48 missing persons of color to give them exposure.
Situation in Cleveland
In 2022, BET.com reported that data from the Ohio Attorney General’s office showed that around 803 Ohioans under 18 when they disappeared were still missing as of mid-February that year. About 61 percent of those children were Black, despite African Americans making up only 16 percent of the minor population.
BAMFI’s billboard in Cleveland spotlights three missing person cases: Paige Coffey (last seen May 1, 2019), Rajah McQueen (last seen June 2021) and Tonny Scriven (missing since April 2020).
“They don’t have enough coverage for people that are Black that are missing. They don’t have enough coverage, on the news, or in the papers” Cleveland native Laura Wilmore told local station WOIO, underscoring the urgent need for BAMFI’s billboard campaign.
Recently, media outlets have reported that more than 1,000 children have gone missing from the Cleveland area this year, including a surge of nearly 50 in September. Meanwhile, social media users are calling attention to the race of the teens who have suddenly disappeared.
But Cleveland authorities say the news and social media reports are “inaccurate.”
“As of September 27, 2023, the Cleveland Division of Police is actively handling a total of 132 cases of missing individuals: 65 juveniles and 67 adults,” a statement from Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb’s office sent to BET.com said.
“Since February 2022, the Cleveland Division of Police has handled over 4,000 missing person reports. In 2022, the Cleveland Division of Police solved 99 percent of all missing person cases received. So far this year, 94 percent of all cases have been solved,” the statement continued.
In June, Cleveland Police Chief Wayne Drummond told reporters there was a 20 percent surge of missing youth compared to 2022, but 1,020 of the 1,072 kids who went missing returned home. He said the numbers appear misleading because most of those kids are habitual runaways, and families often neglect to inform the police when their missing child returns home.
Missing White Woman Syndrome
The late veteran broadcast journalist Gwen Ifill famously coined “Missing White Woman Syndrome” at a 2004 journalism conference to describe the coverage priority newsroom managers give to missing attractive White women and girls.
“If it’s a missing White woman, you’re going to cover that, every day,” Ifill said, referring to the directive journalists receive.
A 2013 study by Northwestern University sociologist Zack Sommers appears to support Ifill’s observation, NPR reported. Although White women account for about a third of the national population, news coverage of missing White women represented half of the media’s missing person coverage. He based his analysis on cross-referencing the archives of four news outlets – The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CNN.com – with the FBI’s national database of missing persons.
The lack of media attention for a missing Black woman inspired Wilson and her sister-in-law, Derrica Wilson, to launch BAMFI.
Tamika Huston, a 24-year-old Spartanburg, S.C., woman vanished in June 2004. Her family struggled to convince media outlets to share her story in the hope of finding her, either dead or alive, to bring closure.
In a pattern that’s all too familiar, newspapers and TV news broadcasts chose to shine a national spotlight on the cases of White women who went missing around that time. Outlets lavished coverage on Lori Hacking, a 27-year-old Utah woman, when she disappeared in July 2004. And while Huston remained missing, the media became obsessed with the case of Natalee Holloway, 18, who vanished during a high school graduation trip to Aruba in May 2005.
The co-founders read about Huston’s family’s uphill climb in getting media coverage and decided to take action.
“My passion for this work comes from wanting to equal the playing field and to ensure that our missing are household names too. We want to ensure that there’s equal media coverage, law enforcement resources, and community engagement to bring our missing home,” Natalie Wilson said.
“We have found in doing this work for 15 years that race, income, zip code, and economic status are sometimes barriers to media coverage and law enforcement resources, and they shouldn’t.”
In addition to the White woman syndrome, several other elements hinder the search for Black people. Two factors determine whether the police thoroughly investigate missing children reports: the child’s age and the officer’s discretion, according to a USA Today analysis that found a patchwork of rules.
At the same time, the adultification of Black children impacts the sense of urgency to locate them. Data shows that Black girls are viewed as physically older than their chronological age, less innocent and more self-reliant than White girls, particularly in the 5-14 age range.
CrimeCon: Conference spotlights missing Black people
BAMFI produces a podcast titled “Untold Stories: Black and Missing,” through which the organization features missing person cases and educates listeners on related issues affecting the Black community, such as the disproportionate sex trafficking of Black girls and women.
At the annual CrimeCon, the largest gathering of true crime enthusiasts, held this year in Orlando, BAMFI hosted a live broadcast of “Untold Stories.” Wilson said it drew a diverse audience and was well-received at the convention.
Kevin Balfe, CrimeCon creator and organizer, told BET.com that the event launched in 2017 and draws a range of criminology professionals, from police detectives and DNA experts to psychologists, for the three-day gathering. They often delve into the latest scientific techniques to solve crimes.
The annual event is also a magnet for true crime fans, primarily middle-aged White women who often bring their daughters for a mother-daughter outing.
Balfe is trying to make the CrimeCon more diverse. In 2022, the organizers awarded BAMFI its inaugural Crime Fighter of the Year Award. It honors an individual or organization that profoundly impacted a case or the criminal justice system.
At this year’s CrimeCon, BAMFI addressed issues around Carlee Russell, the Hoover, Ala., Black woman who admitted to faking her kidnapping in July after garnering national attention.
“We have to remember that this one case should not take precedence, affect the families who are desperately searching and continue to search for their missing loved ones,” Willson said. “We cannot underestimate the impact that that case had because it was the first time a missing Black woman dominated the news cycle and had people from all walks of life aiding in her recovery.”
Looking ahead, Wilson is optimistic.
“We have made great strides,” she said. “We have had media partnerships on a national level. We’ve been invited to national and local newsrooms to discuss issues about missing people of color.”
Photo credit: Black and Missing Foundation