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The consequences of “Missing White Woman Syndrome”

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Jamila White
August 9, 2023

Nearly 7 years ago, 21-year-old Keeshae Jacobs of Richmond, Virginia, told her mother she was going to a friend’s house following an argument with her then-boyfriend. She promised to be back in the morning to make her brother, Deavon, breakfast.

Around 11 pm on September 26, 2016, Keeshae texted her mother that she had arrived safely and that she loved her.

The following morning, her absence filled their home instead of the smell of breakfast.

That was the last time Keeshae had been seen. Her mother, Toni Jacobs, was left wondering what happened to her daughter — and how differently authorities might have handled their investigation if Keeshae was white.

When Toni first notified a police officer that her daughter was missing, he seemed skeptical about Keeshae’s disappearance.

“I told [the officer] that my daughter was missing … and he was like, ‘She’s probably not missing. She just probably just don’t want to be bothered,” Toni said in an interview with NowThis. “I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand. This is not her. I talk to this girl every day, all day.’”

“I literally had to pull my phone out and show him how many times a day this girl texts me or how many times a day she calls me,” she recalled. “And I was frustrated. I was like, ‘Why do I have to plead my case? My daughter is missing.’”

Officials waited over a year before stating that they suspected foul play to be a factor in her disappearance. For Toni, that fact was obvious from the beginning. “It’s appalling the way they just put us on the back burner,” she said. “It’s a lot of disbelief when it comes to us. But they put a lot of urgency on women of the other color.”

Unfortunately, the way Keeshae’s case was handled isn’t unusual for Black individuals.

“Typically, when a young woman or girl of color is reported missing, that case isn’t taken seriously by law enforcement,” Natalia Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc, told NowThis in a separate interview.

Only approx 1 in 10 women in the U.S. is Black, but of every 10 women who go missing, roughly 4 are Black, according to 2022 data published by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

“The media has a fascination with young white women and girls that go missing. They’re typically blonde, blue-eyed, described as attractive,” Wilson said. “[Black] girls and women are not seen as victims. You know, they’re oftentimes adultified. They’re fast, and they’re getting what they deserve, and that is so untrue.”

As a result of this oversight, on average, cases of missing Black women and girls stay open 4 times longer than other cases. This disparity also contributes to the higher rates of sex trafficking that Black women experience.

“Our young girls, and even boys, are victims of sex trafficking. That is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Wilson said, adding that Black women and girls are often targeted because it’s assumed that no one will look for them — and, if they’re caught, the penalty is frequently less harsh than if they were convicted of trafficking non-Black people.

There are some advocates fighting to change things for missing Black women, including lawmakers and organizations like the Black and Missing Foundation Inc.

State Rep. Ruth Richardson (D-MN) introduced legislation that would create a first-of-its-kind office dedicated to investigating cases of missing Black women and girls, per Yahoo News. Other states have viewed Richardson’s legislation as a blueprint for future laws meant to help protect these marginalized groups.

In California, Senate Bill 673 would create an “Ebony Alert” to help amplify cases of missing Black women and girls between the ages of 12 to 25, in a manner similar to long-standing AMBER Alerts.

Although legislation is needed to make a major impact on this issue, Wilson believes that change can start in our own communities.

“It takes all of us. It takes the media, law enforcement to come together and help us find us,” Natalie told NowThis. “I ask you to learn about cases like Alexis Ware, Tiffany Foster, Arianna Fitts, Keeshae Jacobs. And the list goes on, and on, and on, and on of Black women who are missing. But you haven’t heard about them because they have not garnered that national headline. But we cannot sit back and say, ‘This is someone else’s problem.’”

Toni is preparing to celebrate Keeshae’s 28th birthday on August 6, and like so many parents of the missing, she hopes to be reunited with her daughter one day — or at least be given closure.

“I want her to come home, but if she’s gone, I want closure,” she said. “But if she were ever to come home, it’d be amazing. You see how I’m lighting up?”

Photo credit: NowThis

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