The FBI confirmed this week that the human remains discovered in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest are those of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, who was from Long Island, New York. Her disappearance and death are presumably at the hands of her fiance, Brian Laundrie, for whom the FBI is desperately searching. This tragic story is every parent’s worst nightmare.
As is the case with millions of other Americans, I have witnessed a good portion of the nonstop news coverage of Ms. Petito. It has been nearly impossible to miss, whether on television or on social media. It’s an all-too-familiar pattern of violence against women. Regardless of the women’s racial background, the assailant tends to be their intimate partner. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarity ends.
Native American, African American and Hispanic American women, who are often in the greatest danger of such violence, rarely receive the level of news and social media coverage that white women do. While it may seem somewhat odd to view this phenomenon as an example of white privilege, it most certainly is. There is no other reasonable conclusion that one can draw.
The late, highly respected journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” to describe the longstanding tendency of the news media to engage in extensive coverage of white women and girls who disappear — as compared to a dearth of coverage for women and girls of color. (This is especially true when the victims are upper-middle class or wealthy.) This isn’t merely a feeling; research has demonstrated that women and girls of color have far less news coverage. To make matters far worse, fewer law enforcement resources (and even volunteers) are dedicated to finding them. The same is true of children and men of color.
Importantly, the images that most of us have in our heads about missing women and girls probably do not reflect reality. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that, of the more than 600,000 people who were reported missing in 2018, roughly 60% were people of color. This is compared to the fact that African Americans comprise just 13.4% of the population and Hispanics comprise just 16.7%. Further, people of color are less likely than whites to be listed in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
The problem goes deeper. According to the Black and Missing Foundation, which is dedicated to finding African Americans who are missing, stereotypes about Blacks regarding crime plays a role in shaping media coverage. The news media frequently will label missing African Americans as criminals who are likely involved in drugs, gangs and theft. We’re also assumed to live in places where crime is more common, so we’re “naturally” more likely to be victims.
Fortunately, some well-known people are speaking out. Author Don Winslow, whose works include “The Dawn Patrol” and “Savages,” recently tweeted, “I am 67 years old. I have never seen a young Black woman’s disappearance covered like the #gabbypetito disappearance. Not once. That is horribly wrong.”
After Winslow’s tweet, legendary horror author Stephen King weighed in by simply responding, “Absolutely Correct.” Winslow and King are both white.
I encourage you to perform a test. Ask yourself how many of the following names are familiar to you: Caylee Anthony, Natalee Holloway, Polly Klass, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, JonBenét Ramsey and Elizabeth Smart.
Now, ask yourself how many of these names are familiar to you: Yasmin Acree, Dulce Alavez, Kimberly Ballantine, Mariel Encarnacion, Ashley Guillory, Dawnita Wilkerson and Delano Wilson.
Is there a difference in familiarity? Have you at least heard of the people from the first list? What about the second list? If the latter names aren’t familiar to you, why do you think that is the case?
It is important to emphasize that I don’t begrudge the coverage that Ms. Petito and other white women have received; it is appropriate and necessary. I’m simply calling for the same type of care, concern and resources to be dedicated to women and girls of color. The tragedy of domestic violence, abductions and murders should not be compounded by disproportionate attention and zeal — or in meting out justice. This message should resonate with those who proudly proclaim that “All Lives Matter.”
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.