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Missing Blacks Get Less Media Attention

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BV Black Spin
November 10, 2009

The pain was so visible on Kyana Hunt’s face that she could barely speak about her missing mother.

Fifty-year-old Nancy Cobbs lived in the same Cleveland neighborhood as suspected serial killer Anthony Sowell. She had been missing for seven months, when police uncovered the remains of 11 African American women from Sowell’s home.

Hunt explained how her mother never stayed away from home without calling and how she hadn’t received any help, even after reporting her mother missing to police.

“She always comes home. It’s not just like her to disappear,” Hunt said.

But it turns out that Cobb’s family reported her missing to housing authority police and did not file a report with the Cleveland police department until four days after the first bodies were uncovered. The mistake, said Derrica Wilson, CEO and founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, is a common one among African Americans whose loved ones go missing.

“The truth of the matter is minorities do not know where to turn or what to do when their loved ones go missing in most cases,” said Wilson, who also works as a police officer. “Housing Authority Police are not trained to handle cases such as missing persons. They do not have the tools, and it also appears that they didn’t notify law enforcement once this information was reported to them.”

Last week, Cobbs’ remains were found in Sowell’s home.

It’s tragedies like these that inspired Wilson to start the Black and Missing Foundation five years ago with Natalie Wilson, a public affairs specialist for the District of Columbia Office of Tax and Revenue.

But while the foundation is committed to making a difference, statistics show that people of color make up a disproportionate percentage of those who go missing.

According to the FBI, 255,575 African Americans were reported missing in 2008, 33 percent of the total. Minorities accounted for 38 percent of the total, but it could be higher because some Hispanics and Latinos are classified as white based on appearance, according to the FBI.

The stories of missing white women and girls, such as Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart and JonBenet Ramsey are covered as national, even international, news. But I live in New York and have never heard of the cases of Sasha Davis, Jarib Bennett and 4-month-old Selah Davis. All three, from the Bronx, N.Y., went missing in February 2008 after visiting friends. Their car was later found abandoned.

“She’s gone. I have her 9-year-old, and she wouldn’t stay away from her daughter. I think she might be dead,” Davis’ aunt Gwendolyn Hardy told AOL Black Voices in an interview.

Hardy said that family and friends have been unsuccessful in trying to draw more coverage from the media, and they believe that race has a role to play in that.

“If it’s white people, they do all kinds of stuff. It’s all over the TV; it’s a never-ending story,” said Davis’ cousin Debbie Wilson in an interview. “Media coverage would help, because a lot of people did not hear about the case. You go on the Internet and type in ‘Sasha Davis,’ and you see stuff from last year. It’s like the case is dead.”

Sheri Parks, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of the upcoming book ‘Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture,’ told AOL Black Voices that the discrepancy in coverage is wrapped up in a myth about black women that we perpetuate:

It plays in to a larger national narrative as to who is perceived as needing rescuing. Despite the advances of feminism and the larger roles of white women, there is still a national narrative of the vulnerable, young white woman,” said Parks, who popularized the term ‘White Woman Syndrome’ to describe the difference in media coverage.

Black people are invested in the idea of the strong black woman, that black women should be able to take care of themselves. Black women need to take control of the image and recognize their strengths and dangers. It’s dangerous if people think you can do it all by yourself and don’t need the help. The most successful women have support systems.

Davis’ support system has not given up yet, but her disappearance has taken a harsh toll on family members.

“I just need help. I need somebody to help me. I just want to know where they are to get closure,” said Hardy.

Take a look at Wilson’s Web site and the stories of missing African Americans and minorities are astounding. Wilson sat down with AOL Black Voices to discuss the disparity in media coverage of missing African Americans, what we should do if our loved ones go missing and how to keep safe.

Black Voices: What inspired you to start the Black and Missing Foundation?

Derrica Wilson: I was born and raised in Spartanburg, S.C., the same location where Tamika Huston went missing back in 2004. I witnessed how her family fought to shed light on her case and attempted to bring it to the media forefront. Meanwhile, Natalie Holloway’s story [a young white woman who went missing in Aruba] was dominating the local and national news network. I looked at the FBI statistics of missing persons and realized that 40 percent of missing persons in America are persons of color. It was clear that something had to be done to help these families. There’s nothing worse than not knowing where your loved one is. I see how it affects families.

BV: Why are African Americans and people of color underrepresented when it comes to missing persons media coverage?

DW: There is a term often used — “White Women Syndrome.” In most cases, unless the missing person is young, white, blue eyes, blond hair, attractive, the coverage isn’t there. In my opinion, a lot of these media outlets are looking to see what sells or what they think people would want to hear or read about.

BV: What can minorities do to improve the response from police and the media?

DW: The most important thing we have to do first and foremost is report our loved ones missing. Time is of the essence. I dealt with a woman last year who said her brother has been missing since 2005 but that no one filed a police report. Distrust of police and the media also plays a role, but there’s nothing police can do unless a report is filed. If you haven’t heard from someone, report them missing whether you think they’ve left on their own or not. No one can do anything until a missing person’s report is filed.

In another case, a woman’s child went missing from a grocery store at 10 a.m., but no Amber Alert was issued until 8 p.m. The child, who is really young and didn’t know any better, could have been taken out of state. Follow-ups are so important with police departments and media outlets as well. It’s just one of those things where we have to make our people a priority. If we are not satisfied with police help, everyone has a commander.

Also, be prepared. I’ve had people come to file missing persons report and not have a picture of their loved one or a good physical description. How many people are 6-foot-2 with a medium build and brown eyes? If your loved one is 35, I don’t want a picture from when they were 16 years old. We need recent photos. Parents should keep recent photos of their children in their wallets. If your child went missing right now how would police know who to look for?

BW: Does law enforcement treat all missing persons cases the same regardless of race?

DW: In my opinion, the answer is no. Working with these families has definitely been an eye-opener. When it comes to black missing children, law enforcement automatically assumes the child is a runaway. Rarely do runaways receive exposure about their disappearance. When it comes to adults, such as black men or women, police tend to associate their disappearance with criminal activity.

BW: Don’t members of the community bear some responsibility to help solve missing persons cases?

DW: Sometimes we want to put all the responsibility on the police, but it’s the community’s responsibility as well. We can organize a search, put out fliers and hold candlelight vigils. There’s a lot of things the community can do to work hand-in-hand with law enforcement.

BW: What about African American men?

DW: According to FBI statistics, there are more missing black men than black women in the United States.

BW: What are some safety tips that you can share?

DW: Become vigilant of your surroundings. Periodically check the sexual offender registry in the area of your home, work or school. Take precautions when it comes to Internet dating; a lot of offenders prey on women on the Internet.
Do not personalize your home answering machine; offenders prey on young women living alone. Do not give out personal information in public while you are on your cellular phone. Do not leave personal information inside your vehicle. Do not publicize your comings and goings over a cellular phone. Take a self-defense class; Rape Aggression Defense, also known as RAD, is for women only and usually offered through local police departments. Keep recent photos of your love ones.

BW: How can we make a difference in our community?

DW: Create a buddy system and be sure to check in with one another on a regular basis. Let at least one other person know where you will be at all times and how you can be reached. We must also mentor young people about personal safety and the dangers that are out there.

Photo credit: Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

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