WWhen the late Gwen Ifill used the phrase “Missing White Woman Syndrome” at a journalism conference in 2004, it was responding to news anchor Suzanne Malveaux’s concern that the US media had not covered international genocides from the start, including Rwanda and Kosovo. Malvaeux told the diverse crowd: “In 1994 in Rwanda we were watching Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. The two figure skaters had received more coverage than a million victims and survivors of the genocide. Ifill playfully interrupted her, mocking the newsroom executives: “If it’s a missing white woman, you’re going to cover.” this, every day. ”The audience greeted his intervention with thunderous applause.
But rather than being celebrated as part of Malveaux’s critique of the US-centric media, “missing white woman syndrome” has found a life of its own. Commentators now use it widely to describe the disparity in media coverage that missing and conventionally attractive young white women receive compared to missing black and brown people.
This disparity is real. Blacks constitute 13% of the American population and 31% of missing persons; 54% of those missing are white, while they represent 76% of the population. A 2013 study found that news organizations covered missing white women much more often and more intensely than everyone else. As Charles Blow recently wrote: “It’s not that these white women should be less important, but rather that all missing people should be equally important. Race shouldn’t determine how newsroom executives allocate coverage, especially because these decisions often lead to a disproportionate allocation of government resources, as investigators attempt to resolve high-profile cases. Advocates and families of color express that the disparate media coverage indicates that the lives of loved ones do not matter as much as the lives of white women, which they say then discourages police from spending resources to carry on business.
Disparity and visibility are such fickle things. We can safely assume that the outrageous alarms about particular types of missing white women and the silence surrounding missing black and Indigenous women present issues of racial, gender and class equity. But what is missing from the popular discourse on the disparities around the “missing white woman syndrome” is that cops and news reports were never meant to save our loved ones, and those of us who do. this request could end up empty.
The answer makes sense. White women’s cries and lies have driven law enforcement and lynch mobs to act on their behalf for centuries. Perhaps this is because society treats white women as human beings who deserve to be saved. But the story offers a more nuanced narrative. For example, when Congress passed the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910, a poorly drafted and often misused law to combat sexual slavery and human trafficking, cops and investigators were often dispatched to ” rescue ”white women from the places they wanted to be. White women who lived with black men, immigrants or poor white men, for example, or adult women who worked in sex, were forcibly removed by police claiming to protect them. Yet when these same types of “helped” white women demanded fairness, housing, the right to vote, and education to be safe and reduce their vulnerability to actual predation, white men – including the police – generally resisted these efforts. Instead, they’ve invested in criminalization, policing, and prosecution. Legal scholar Aya Gruber explains that “the alliance of white women with law enforcement stems not only from racism and racial privileges, but also from women’s need for power and protection in a society that severely restricts their social freedom. , sexual and economic ”. So drastic law enforcement responses to missing white women could be seen as a societal failure, not an accomplishment or a goal.
For missing black people, the police and the mainstream media do very little, if anything, to recover them. Both have a longer history of hurting than helping. Mainstream and white newspapers ran “for sale” and “wanted” ads to help facilitate the slave trade, while law enforcement and judges belonged to elaborate networks that kidnapped free blacks and runaways. to sell them into slavery. During Reconstruction, as newly freed blacks set out to find their friends, families and lovers who had been stolen from them, cops spent their time removing blacks, people with disabilities and immigrants so that towns and cities and States can rent them out for a convict’s lease. Workforce. African Americans knew the police and white-run newspapers were not on their side, so they used mutual aid and hundreds of black newspapers in their quest to be reunited.
Much has happened since then. Police functions have expanded and black newspapers have been decimated. Blacks and indigenous peoples have started organizations to help families and communities reunite with loved ones all over the world. We find faces of the missing on websites, social media, utility poles and grocery signs. The cases of missing persons have fallen by almost half since 1997 and 90% of them are finally recovered. In 2019, for example, 609,000 people were reported missing and the police ultimately canceled 607,000 of those entries. The remaining persons should be searched vigorously; we should ask ourselves what is the best way to proceed rather than assuming the answer is endless media coverage and growing police budgets.
But what also seems to be growing is the idea that the amount of media coverage a missing person receives, or the number of resources the police spend to find them, is a litmus test for the value of life. black. It is as understandable as it is frightening. Understandable because media coverage spreads awareness that could lead to clues – a trick, a hidden life, or a body found (although according to the 2013 study above, little data supports national coverage. and intense help with this research).
Scary, because the coverage that very few white women receive in the reporting and the response from the police becomes the measure of what it means to be considered human. How much is the humanity of black women? Is that an amount equal to the amount of law enforcement resources to find us? The number of hours of media coverage? And why do we give so much power to the media and the police to decide how human we are?
Invisibility and disparity can make someone believe that what someone else has is desirable, so we fight for that as well, without asking if it’s poison. The demand for more police officers to see people of color as human beings and as wanted people will mobilize resources for the police. Federal, state and local authorities will no doubt decide to give the police more money to conduct body searches, rather than investing in eliminating the reasons why people go missing in the first place, including interpersonal abuse, homophobia and exploitation. If we dared to imagine different measures for our humanity, we could save more lives instead of looking for more bodies.
Derecka Purnell is a columnist for the Guardian US. His book Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom will be released next month