The Columbus Dispatch

HBO probes racial gap in ‘Missing’ cases

- Erin Jensen

The flood of news coverage that followed Gabby Petito’s disappeara­nce last summer surprised even her own father.

“If you don’t do that for other people (who) are missing that’s a shame, because it’s not just Gabby (who) deserves that,” Joseph Petito told the media assembled at a Sept. 28 news conference. “Look to yourselves on why that’s not being done.”

Petito, 22, didn’t return from a summer road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie, and was later found dead from strangulat­ion. Her sparkling blue eyes, blond locks and bright smile were fixtures on news programs, as was Natalee Holloway, another young, white woman who disappeare­d in 2005 while celebratin­g her high school graduation in Aruba.

Rebkah Howard remembers a nation captivated by the Holloway story as she fought for national media coverage for her niece Tamika Huston – a 24-year-old Black woman who went missing in 2004 – to keep police motivated to solve the case.

“I was sending (press) releases, I was calling producers, I was calling news desks, every network, every website I could think of, and I hit a brick wall,” the publicist says in HBO’S docuseries “Black and Missing” (now available on HBO). “In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Well, here’s my niece. She’s young, she’s beautiful, she’s missing. Her story is just as compelling.’ The only difference is that Tamika’s Black; Natalee Holloway is white.”

The new series focuses on the Black and Missing Foundation, co-founded by sisters-in-law Natalie and Derrica Wilson in 2008 when they noticed the same imbalance for Huston who’s from Derrica’s hometown of Spartanbur­g, South Carolina.

“Black and Missing” spotlights several such cases and examines why, as the series claims, “cases of missing Black people remain unresolved four times longer than those of white people.”

Adrien Sebro, an assistant professor of media studies at The University of Texas at Austin, attributes the gap to media coverage of the victims. “With newsrooms that are largely led by white men, it often comes up the idea of ‘What’s marketable?’ or ‘Who are desired and respectabl­e?’ as far as who’s going to get attention,” he says. “All these people who are missing deserve coverage, but there is a very clear over-representa­tion in media when white women go missing and an under-representa­tion when Black, brown or indigenous women go missing.”

Natalie and Derrica were “willing to be the solution,” Derrica says. “With my background in law enforcemen­t, (and) Natalie’s background in public relations, those are the two critical profession­s needed to find our missing individual­s.”

Adds Natalie Wilson: “We can name the Natalee Holloways, the Chandra Levys, the Gabby Petitos. This is no disrespect to their families, but our missing matter too.”

The FBI (using statistics from the National Crime Informatio­n Center’s Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files) reports Black people accounted for 32% of the 89,637 missing person cases in 2020, yet made up just 12% of the population, according to Census data.

“As African Americans, we are far more vulnerable to being preyed upon by predators and traffickers, especially when it comes to grooming and luring,” Natalie says in the docuseries. “These predators know that no one will be looking for these Black children because their lives are not valued.”

Derrica Wilson tells USA TODAY the cases of missing Black people are often ignored.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States