Despite the Carlee Russell hoax, Black women go missing disproportionately. Where are the news stories about them?
by Hiram Jackson
In July, the nation was gripped by the strange case of Carlee Russell, the 29-year-old Alabama woman who falsely claimed to have been abducted and held captive for more than 48 hours. The damage of falsely reporting a crime, especially crimes against women, is obviously a stain on her reputation. But moreover, it undermines the efforts and the urgency to investigate reports of thousands of missing women across the nation.
Surprisingly the Russell case received national attention from media sources who have historically provided lackluster coverage — if any at all — of the litany of Black women and women of color who have been lost to their families for years.
According to the National Crime Information Center, despite making up only 7% of the U.S. population and 18% of the female population, Black women and girls accounted for nearly 34.6% of 300,000 missing women in 2021.
But given that Black women go missing at a rate double that of their representation in the overall population, shouldn’t there be at least double the number of stories reported by media?
On the contrary, abductions and disappearances of Black women get less than a quarter of coverage. This stark disparity is directly linked to the race of the victim and the racial composition of the law enforcement agencies tasked with resolving these crimes.
So, when major media outlets neglect or selectively allow these cases to fall into the darkness of oblivion, we in the Black community and Black news have to keep these stories alive.
Media outlets are key players in bringing public attention and putting pressure on police departments to prioritize these cases and allocate additional resources to locate the missing individuals.
In my home state of Michigan, studies show that Michigan is ranked 49th in the nation in terms of missing persons — roughly 5.6 missing people per 100,000 residents. However, my home city, Detroit, ranks in the top five cities in the country with the most missing people.
When combined with the fact that the timeline for initiating comprehensive missing persons investigations for Black women is four times longer than for other ethnicities, the prospects of locating these individuals diminish significantly.
Ultimately, the ball is in our court, and the onus is on us, the Black Press, to bring and keep the faces of these women up-close-and-personal in the public psyche.
In this era marked by overwhelming cynicism and floods of conspiracy theories, when people inquire about the rationale behind spotlighting a particular case, I can only speculate about why the Russell case garnered so much attention. Perhaps there is a shift underway. Recently the Detroit branch of the FBI joined the investigation for two missing Black teen girls who vanished from their adoptive parents’ home in June — about 110 miles from Detroit in a northern Michigan community.
The late great Gwen Ifill coined the phrase “white woman syndrome” to address the lack of attention to the cases of missing women of color, which basically means that in our industry, the stories of missing white women often supersede the stories of missing Black women, or Indigenous women, or Latinas.
We, the Black Press, have the power to change that, and change that we must.