Over half a million people are reported missing each year in the United States. Yet the names and faces of Black women and children like Arianna Fitts, who disappeared in San Francisco in 2016 when she was just 2 years old, are far less likely to receive the Gabby Petito or JonBenét Ramsey treatment.
Fortunately, California Gov. Gavin Newsom is sounding his own alarm through the “Ebony Alert,” a new system designed to help bring more missing Black women and children home. In a better world, we probably wouldn’t need a race-specific missing person alert, but here we are — and at least some states are trying to do better.
According to a press release quoting California state Sen. Steven Bradford, who wrote the legislation that introduced the Ebony Alert, the bill will go into effect in his state on Jan. 1. It will hopefully bring much-needed attention to the Black women and children who go missing while the details of their cases and identities remain broadly unknown.
The legislation specifies that law enforcement can authorize the new alerts on highways, radios, TVs and elsewhere as long as cases meet a combination of criteria, such as the missing person being a certain age and their physical safety being potentially endangered. This allows more people to be responsible for protecting California’s missing Black women and children — not just in theory, but in practice.
“The Amber Alert only deals with individuals 17 years and younger who come up missing. With the Ebony Alert, it will be from 12 to 25,” Bradford said in a recent interview with NPR. “It will also concentrate on individuals who might have some kind of physical or mental challenges, [and] also individuals who are suspected of being sex-trafficked or are disappeared under suspicious reasons.”
Black women and children go missing at disproportionately high rates in the U.S., yet they are underrepresented in news coverage compared with their white counterparts. In some instances, white women’s cases — while often horrific and tragic — take up so much space that their names become embedded in the fabric of our nation’s pop culture. Meanwhile, most Americans likely cannot name a missing Black woman or child who has received national attention and support.
This is partly due to a phenomenon known as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Journalist Gwen Ifill used the phrase to describe the media’s obsession with missing white women and children, who become the focus of high-profile stories that inspire empathy and increase ratings.
A recent study found that while white women made up a smaller portion of the missing person population (compared with all people of color), they accounted for a majority of online news coverage. We all know how important media stories can be in helping to solve a case or locate a missing person, so less coverage for people of color sends a pretty strong message about how undervalued our lives are.
We also need the Ebony Alert because law enforcement often classifies missing people of color as runaways or assumes their activity to be gang- or drug-related. This causes an overall desensitization to their cases due to assumptions about missing Black people being from impoverished, “crime-infested” areas.
The Ebony Alert, as Bradford describes it, should increase public knowledge of efforts to locate missing Black women and children, and combat a persistent lack of awareness around their cases.
This new alert system is way overdue, and I’m just waiting for word on when it’ll be the protocol in all 50 states.