Breanna Reeves |
HBO is set to launch a four-part documentary series, BLACK AND MISSING, by film editor Geeta Gandbhir and journalist Soledad O’Brien, on November 23. The series follows founders and sisters-in-law Natalie and Derrica Wilson and their work bringing awareness to Black and missing people in the U.S.
The launch of the documentary comes at a critical time where discussions regarding the disparity at which Black people go missing and are found compared to White people, are growing. This disparity has long existed, as evidenced by work the Wilson sisters have been doing for 13 years as the founders of the Black and Missing Foundation, but the issue has been revived in the media after Gabby Petito’s case received an onslaught of news coverage and attention following her disappearance.
“We do this work because it’s important, and no one else is doing it to be quite frank with you,” explained Natalie Wilson. “I am the publicist for thousands of families because my (public relations) strategy is to saturate the local and national media markets so that our missing can be household names, too.”
During the time of Petito’s case in September, 25-year-old graduate student Jelani Day was reported missing in August. Before then, Daniel Robinson, a 24-year-old geologist was reported missing in June. Neither of their cases received national attention until public calls from their respective parents.
The media coverage and police urgency surrounding Petito’s case reinvigorated conversations about bias in media coverage, “missing White woman syndrome,” institutional racism that permeates the justice system, and the way in which society values particular people.
Black people are missing at high rates
In 2020, over 92,000 Black men and boys were reported missing in the U.S. In California, approximately 24,000 men were reported missing. And, while more and more reports are filed each year, people from previous years remain missing. Nicholas Edwin Barb was reported missing on October 23, 2020, in Desert Hot Springs and has not yet been found.
Across the U.S. people of color account for 40 percent of missing persons. In 2020, more than 260,000 women and girls were reported missing and approximately 34 percent of them were Black, according to the National Crime Information Center. Since launching the Black and Missing Foundation in 2008, the Wilson sisters have found that most missing persons are mostly Black males, a number that has only increased.
Natalie’s full-time job working in Public Relations has afforded her the skills and strategies needed to increase awareness around missing Black people. Utilizing social media has been a key tactic to alert the public about missing persons instead of solely relying on media outlets to pick up a story. The way by which media outlets latched on to the Gabby Petito case is evidence of an imbalance across media and demonstrates the lengths news organizations will go to increase readership.
Sociologist and Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences at California State University, San Bernardino, Rafik Mohamed, explained that society has assigned values to different groups of people, a conscious and unconscious act, that has pervaded nearly all institutions in the U.S. including the media and the criminal justice system.
Although Mohamed recognized his lack of expertise in media and mass communications, his knowledge of the criminal justice system has given him insight into the way missing person cases are handled across different avenues.
“And so, not only are the criminal justice outcomes often different, both in terms of the intensity of the investigation and then the severity of the punishment, but also, in the context of media, the amount to which we collectively care is shaped by this perceived value of victim, too, whether or not we acknowledge that,” said Mohamed.
Who’s Looking for Us?
The BLACK AND MISSING documentary will not only shed light on the rate at which Black people and people of color go missing, but it is also a testament to the work being done by the community to help locate their own.
The Wilson sisters are two of a few different people working to bring awareness around missing Black people. Erika Marie Rivers is a 39-year-old entertainment journalist by day and an activist who launched Our Black Girls, a website that focuses on the unknown stories of missing Black women throughout America.
Based in Los Angeles, Rivers runs the site by herself to educate the public, honor missing women, and bring attention to the circumstances surrounding missing Black women.
“We need to highlight stories of our missing Black girls because their stories go under-reported in the media — if they’re reported at all,” Rivers stated on her website. “We need to bring awareness to the stories of our Black girls who have been mistreated, are missing, and who have been murdered because they matter. Their lives matter. They are real people, not just sensationalized news bulletins. Let’s keep their stories alive.”
While grassroots efforts like Rivers’ website are instrumental in bringing about awareness, help from law enforcement agencies is also essential to locating missing persons. Derrica Wilson previously worked in law enforcement, and the Wilson sisters recognize that the “first gatekeepers are law enforcement.” Before taking on a missing persons case or publishing it on their site, the Wilson sisters confirm that an official report has been filed with local police departments.
Despite a longstanding and historical mistrust of law enforcement agencies by communities of color, Natalie asserts, “We all have a responsibility — that is law enforcement, the media and our community, to help bring awareness to and find our missing.”
“Well, I try not to put my opinion into anything I do, obviously, working in my capacity at the Sheriff’s Department and what I do. But as far as the Sheriff’s Department is concerned, we definitely aren’t giving more or less attention to a particular case because of our own personal feelings,” said San Bernardino County Public Information Office Mara Rodriguez.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department discovered the body of Lauren Cho who disappeared in the desert of Yucca Valley on October 9. Rodriguez explained that the circumstances surrounding Cho’s case such as her presence in the desert and elevated temperatures called for a protocol that included the canine unit and air support, but not all cases receive the same response depending on how they are assessed.
With the disparities that exist among missing persons cases, many have placed blame on police departments for their lack of attention to certain cases as it pertains to people of color. Missing people of color are often reported or portrayed as runaways, criminals or in general, in an unsympathetic light, circumstances which are less likely to be reported by the media or addressed by law enforcement.
“At the systemic level, there’s a lot more pressure on law enforcement agencies to solve crimes involving victims that have more value than there is (for) crimes against victims who are perceived as having less value,” Mohamed stated.
Work in Progress
“BLACK AND MISSING pulls back the curtain to explore how systemic behaviors and attitudes stem from centuries of deeply rooted racism. The series also exposes the stark disparity in the media coverage of White and Black missing persons,” the documentary press release reads.
The work of community leaders like the Wilson sisters and Rivers displays a sense of dedication to disrupting the narrative surrounding missing Black people to solve these cases.
To work toward a solution to a problem, the problem must first be identified. Media organizations, law enforcement agencies and the public must all recognize the role they play in perpetuating stereotypes about missing persons of color and deconstruct historical and racist practices of devaluing certain groups based on how their worth is perceived by society.
Mohamed expressed interest in seeing an experiment that creates an environment of equal televised network time and equal representation in cases of missing persons. Similar to televised political debates, public networks would be required to set aside equal time for news reports involving missing persons and “see how that might reshape how invested we are in this one missing person over another missing person.”
“And go another step even in terms of how media reports on these things might be, to have someone ensure that there’s neutrality in the language that’s used,” explained Mohamed. “So, if you have a missing person, there’ll be some assurance that not only does the Black victim and the White victim get equal time for similar circumstances, but then they’re also humanized in the same way.”
If you have a tip or information about a missing person, please share your tip with the Black and Missing Foundation.
Header image created by Chris Allen, C and C Design Agency