Although African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population, 40 percent of the missing person population in this country are people of color.
African Americans turn up missing at a startling pace and generally speaking take four times as long for law enforcement to locate than whites. Several organizations, however, are trying to expedite the process by raising consistent awareness.
“We come along as a lifeline,” said Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. “When every door closes, these families have no one there, we help them to keep it open.”
The organization is seeking to bring awareness to missing Black folks and other people of color. Since 2008, they have assisted families and law enforcement reunite over 400 people with their loved ones.
“We’re here as an organization to lend our support to them and come alongside and let them know to don’t give up,” said Wilson.
The disheartening reality
After Donna Green, founder of the Raymond Green International Outreach of Hope, gave birth to her son Raymond at Grady Hospital in 1978, her five-day-old child was taken from her hospital room.
“I chose not to be broken,” Green said. “I think adversity gives you strength and it’s going to break you or build you.”
Similar stories from across the country are all too common. When student Tamika Houston was reported missing in Wilson’s sister-in-law Derrica’s hometown of Spartanburg, S.C. in 2004, both of them noticed that there was not any press helping with informing the community about the investigation.
“We read how her family, particularly her aunt, Rebekah, who was in media relations struggled to get that national media coverage,” Wilson said.
Derrica and Wilson began doing research. They found out that 30 percent of all missing persons were of minority descent. They decided to do something about it.
“I’m in media relations, Derrica’s in law enforcement and those are the two critical professions needed to help bring awareness and find our missing,” Wilson said.
It’s a different story if you’re white, though. Less than a year later, the disappearance of Natalie Holloway in Aruba gained round-the-clock, international coverage. Houston’s name was nowhere to be found.
“We are on the low totem pole unless it’s bizarre,” Green said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s like that for us but we aren’t alone.”
In most cases, police will report the person of color as a “runaway.” Wilson shared with SaportaReport that some jurisdictions will not allow family members to file a missing person report until they have been unseen for 24 or even 48 hours.
“The parent knows, ‘that’s not my daughter. She’s not going to do that,” Green said. “But the police are not listening because they are desensitized from what’s going on.”
“What we want to do is make our missing household names too,” Wilson said. “When we first started the organization, we found that only seven percent of our missing we’re getting media coverage. How disheartening is that?”
A database of the missing
When developing Black and Missing’s website, Derrica wanted it to look similar to the popular 90s crime show “America’s Most Wanted,” with images and descriptions of wanted criminals. Finding people was what they wanted to do, so that is what they did.
On the site, you will find hundreds of missing minorities that they have accumulated in their database. People can report their missing family members, and their staff quickly updates the site and social media with new information.
“For us to assist, there must be a police report on file first,” Wilson said, “Many times, we’re noticing that it’s challenging for the families to do that. So what we do is help them contact the detectives on their behalf or we walk them through what they need to do and use that terminology to make the connection with law enforcement.”
An example of this was the disappearance of Kayla Flagg in DeKalb County. Last year, Kayla was reported as a runaway by law enforcement when her family knew that it wasn’t true. With the help of Black and Missing, they were able to help with the month-long search for Flagg, who was found safe in another state after enduring a horrible ordeal.
“We receive cases just about every day,” Wilson said. “That’s just a fraction of what we know of and they’re reported from families and friends in the community.”
Today, Black and Missing’s database has 42 females listed last seen in Georgia. According to the site, 31 of them in the Atlanta metro area, but the actual number is likely much higher. Atlanta is a hub for sex trafficking, and Wilson knows that their database is only showing a fraction of women missing from our communities.
Missing white woman syndrome
Media attention for missing young white women like Holloway, Lacy Petterson and most recently Gaby Petito, commentators have noticed that others, who are also in need of being found, not getting any attention at all.
Coined from PBS News anchor Gwen Ifill, the term “missing white syndrome” is referred to as the apparent disproportionate amount of coverage of missing-person cases involving young, white females compared to their non-white counterparts.
“Natalie Holloway disappeared and her name dominated the news cycle.” Wilson said. “Tamika’s aunt reached out to those same outlets, same reporters, same networks and there was no interest in her story at all.”
“We’re not blond hair, blue eyes, we’re not going to get that [attention] first,” said Green.
Both organizations help try to balance media coverage by being persistent in advocating for victims that are still missing.
“Many times, we are the family’s last resort,” Wilson said. “They have been shunned by law enforcement and so we want to use our professions and help them to bring awareness to this issue within our communities.”
The digital milk carton
Wilson and Green know that law enforcement can’t do this alone. The community has an equal partnership in making sure that someone is found.
“We can’t put everything on them, we have to do our part to be out in the community,” Green said. “We got to do our part to hear these parents and try to connect with the police.”
“The rule of classifying a child as a runaway needs to change for one,” Wilson said. “We don’t know what they’re running away from.”
But community involvement is key to finding those missing. Green said Black girls and women are going vanishing at a staggering rate and there are many things neighbors, classmates and other members of the community can do to help the process.
“There’s so much we can do to help keep our community safe,” Green said. “We need every foot soldier on the ground.”
Green says community members need to be on the lookout for suspicious activities. Abductions happen in plain sight, so being aware of your surroundings and the activities of people around you is important.
“If you see something, take action,” Green said.
“When you see a flier, help it go viral,” Wilson said. “Like it, share it within your network. Be our digital milk carton. We need eyes on these because someone knows something.”
One person can help find the people families have desperately been trying to find.
“It takes all of us and we know there’s a sense of distrust between the minority community and law enforcement,” Wilson said, “so we have an anonymous tip line if anyone knows the missing person or the whereabouts of a missing person.”
Wilson also says that financial support is crucial to finding those who are missing. Black and Missing provide funding for the cost of reward incentives, printing fliers or even burial costs if the missing person is found to be deceased.
“Think about how much more we can do,” Wilson said. “We can scale up building our team and bring home more people through financial donations.”
To contribute to the Black and Missing Foundation on their website.