Missing and Not White: Does Race Matter?

On the television show Everybody Hates Chris, African-American comedian Chris Rock details stories from his youth in New York City.  The great acting and humorous story lines work well as Rock skillfully uses hyperbole to describe his world back in 1985. 

His father was so cheap that... 

His mom was so mean that...

He was the not the first black student at his all-white school, but the first black student to actually make it through the front door still breathing...

Rock, known for his rants on race,  has plenty to say through the characters about different cultures and beliefs.

In one episode, the young Chris and his brother skip school to try and get hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky's autograph. 

His mother learns that the pair is not in school, and begins searching for them.  She calls the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to report them as missing and once she states that the kids are black, a uniformed officer states,"Sorry ma'am, we can't help you" and then hangs up on her.

She calls the NYPD back to report her missing kids again, but this time describes them as being "white with dark tans."  

To hammer the parody's message, an officer knocks on mom's door the second she hangs up the phone. She thinks: "Now that is service."

After reflecting on Rock's dig on police for their disinterest in missing persons who are not white, I happened to read an article by Jeff Mays comparing two recent cases involving missing children:
Anthony Thomas* is considered a critically missing child from Washington, D.C. That means police think he is in severe danger. He was last seen Saturday on a D.C. street.

Kyron Horman was last seen by his stepmother at his Portland, Ore., school as he walked back to his classroom, after a science fair. He never returned home and police also have strong concerns for his safety.

Both cases are potentially heart-breaking tragedies. It is a scary and sad experience anytime a child goes missing.

Type Horman and Thomas' name in to Google, though, and the results are equally as frightening. Thomas' case was reported as a brief in the Washington Post and some local television stations. He was also featured as the weekly Black and Missing person here on Aol. Black Voices.

On the other hand, Horman's story has made it on to People's website, CBS News, and Good Morning America. In addition, a full story has appeared in statewide paper, The Oregonian, and several other websites.

Now guess which child is black.

Unfortunately, the disparity in the coverage of missing people of color still exists...
So, are Mays and Chris Rock accurately describing a problem?

In some respects, I do agree that race can be a factor in how much exposure that a missing person case receives. 

But, I will argue that it is not the only determinant and believe that if the child described by Mays, Anthony Thomas, had disappeared from his school after a science fair display like Horman did, he would have received similar coverage from the media.

I also think the media, in the business of making profits, is more to blame for this problem of missing person coverage than law enforcement. 

After media execs find a marketing pitch that they believe works with a story, like the one labeled the Missing White Woman Syndrome, and news outlets will offer it to viewers on a weekly basis.

What then do I believe is a better explanation of what drives media attention of certain cases?

Here are five factors in the order of impact:

1) Physical Attractiveness
Unfortunately, this is number one. If the missing person is considered beautiful/handsome he/she will likely attract more attention than those disappearances involving someone who is considered less physically appealing.   

2) Children
Missing children will likely trump missing adults; especially those that involve possible stranger abductions. 

3) Community power and prestige
An adult who is from a wealthy family or has a highly visible and powerful job is more likely to attract attention.

4) Vocal spouse/parents/loved ones
If the missing person's loved ones are not visible and vocal with police and the press, the case may not be covered by the media at all (unless the victim has lots of appeal due to physical attractiveness as described above).  The squeaky wheel can apply to disappearances, and often parents and loved ones play a pivotal role in being able to loudly communicate the missing individual's story.

5) Circumstances
Odd cases certainly play well in the media, but I believe this one falls behind those items listed above.


Isn't it a shame that in 2010, despite all of the improvements that societies have made through the years, it is a missing person's attractiveness that contributes heavily as to how much attention the case receives? 

*Note: Anthony Thomas safely returned home to his family a few days after Mays' article was published.  The young Horman is still missing, and a case that I hope to have a guest blogger detail next week.   


Sue said...

Slam, I have to say that I can only recall ONE missing persons case where the person was a male. I cannot recall ANY missing person case where they were non-white. Maybe I am not paying attention, but it does seem to me that the cases that get shoved down my through via media are white females. It was something I mentioned to a friend a few years ago. It is sad.

sheri said...

your post was so interesting and i have seen this played out right here in central kentucky. i can't help but wonder why we are still so ugly and ignorant after all these years...to include myself if i'm not careful :(
this was great work, slam dunk, thanks for posting it!

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
Oh, you have some great points.

In the attractiveness, I would also place "signs of socio-economic prosperity". I think a picture of a cute kid in a nice outfit will work better than a photo of a kid in a sloppy t-shirt. It signals neglect, even though any kid might have a sloppy shirt and great parents.

This also, for a missing black child, helps to confirm that the child is not running around on the streets by choice. Many are cynical about 'thug life' and think that the child is hiding.

I think that this also figures in the older victim, as the older a child gets, the more capable they are of taking off--and perhaps they have more reason to do so.

As to the vocal parent, I also think it has to be the right vocals. Screaming rarely gets the results that controlled emotion gets. The appeal to sympathy and decency probably works best.

Another comment: newspapers that use race in articles, but don't confront their own blindness, either promulgating that tension or ignoring their own.

Don't get me started--you know how I get--

Thanks for a thought-provoking post. Appearance should be the least of it, indeed.

Ann T.

Clara said...

Wow, you cleared out the points magnificently Slam. What you said is the bare naked truth (unfortunetly).

I'm glad to see the black boy was found and is safe. I hope the same happens to the white one.

primavera bebe said...

"Missing and Not White: Does Race Matter?" It should not be... I just hope those ppl would be much considerate next time and be fair to all. For I believe we all deserved an equal fair chance, an equal rights and an equal respect.It doesn't matter what colour, language or race we got. Thankie for posting this wonderful very inspirational article. Well done :)

LadyFi said...

Interesting and scary... says a lot about a society where skin colour and being attractive are highly valued. Very scary indeed!

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

What (another) great post, Slam Dunks, and one I connect with.

In 2009, Lexie Glover, an adopted 13-year-old black girl with RAD and serious health problems was murdered by her adopted mother. The police responded immediately and thoroughly. The local news covered it. However, you will never see Lexie on the cover of Time or People magazines like we saw Joan Benet.

Social Services was investigated and took some serious blame, but again, that would not make it to national headlines.

Why was a black child with disabilities--and adopted at that--overlooked by the media? Was she not pretty enough? Was she not white enough?

How dare we forget victims like Lexie.

Bless you, Lexie. And rest in peace.


J. J. in Phila said...

I think you are right on the money, but I would note that a young attractive white woman often trumps all others.

I remember one family member commenting on how the media coverage on the Gricar case dried up once the Natalee Holloway hit the news.

I do know of one case in Philadelphia where a non-white, Latoya Figueroa. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaToyia_Figueroa

It only received the media coverage because the family pressured the media, basically "guilting" them into doing something.

J. J. in Phila said...

I'll take that comment back after checking. It was the similar frenzy over Jennifer Wilbanks about ten days after Mr. Gricar disappeared. The principle is the samr.

Kristin said...

It is such a shame that we haven't evolved enough to recognize their are people out their missing their loved ones and need help finding them, no matter what age, sex or race they are.

obladi oblada said...

I completely agree that Kyron's case is given so much attention is due to the fact that he disappeared INSIDE his school. And the fact that his stepmom allegedly saw him in the hallway last at school, is definitely what makes it so odd and why its getting attemtion.

I believe that Rock is being unfair to police. I believe that the media is to blame for who gets attention and who doesnt in the news. Being ex law enforcement myself, I can say that all missing children cases where I worked were taken seriously regardless of the color of the child. Rock will do and say a lot if he thinks it will get a laught.

Delilah said...

Great article on the disparity between missing persons cases. For this very reason organizations such as Peas In Their Pods and Black and Missing But Not Forgotten have come about.

Bob G. said...

That was a very well presetned post about WHO gets the press when they turn up missing...!

You've got some fine comments as well.
Very thought-provoking.

My Husband's Watching TV... said...

Very interesting post. Glad at least one of the boys has made it home safely. I agree that the media has a lot to do with it. I think that a Law & Order (which is the extent of my police/law knowledge) episode discussed this same issue.

tattytiara said...

All the media biases became glaringly obvious when Jon Benet was killed. Didn't change anything. The public has very specific taste when it comes to victims.

tattytiara said...

And I meant to say - great post. Very well presented.

mrs. fuzz said...

excellent post! I haven't ever given this much thought before, but now as I'm reviewing in my mind the cases that have stood out to be over the last decade, they definitely fit the points you listed. Very sad. I would say that the media is to blame for pretty much everything.

T. Anne said...

I think you're accurate in your depiction of what signifies exposure in missing persons cases in our society. Sad that beauty is so venerated even in these tragic cases.

kathryn said...

Wow. I would really like to believe that race would not influence how hard a missing person is searched for.

What I don'tunderstand is how some of these families can do interviews w/the media just hours after their child/father/brother was murdered...while others can't even bear the thought of facing a news crew. I have noticed what may be a co-incidence in ethnicity in this case, but I'll keep that to myself.

Momma Fargo said...

Very great post! Your writing amazes me every time. And very mind/thought provoking. Out here...all of our missing persons have been white and most male. Is it just Wyoming?

Entre Nous said...

I read this and had to think long and hard about 25 years of taking the calls.

Myabe I just worked for an exceptional agency when it came to missing or endangered persons (it was not in a lot of other areas).

We would never fail to receive calls from families in other jurisdictions asking us to look for their loved one, as their own police dept. had told them they had to wait twenty-four hours to officially report them. This, to out supervisors, even 15 years ago, was a cardinal sin, everyone knew if the party was not found in the first twenty-four to forty- eight hours chances are they would not be, and all the clues would be non-existent.

You are right on the money as far as attractiveness and national media attention go. I do think I have to hold out for Nancy Grace being the exception. No insult to injury intended or meant here, just brutal honesty, she has shown some grisley looking missing children and adults that have gone missing, and God Bless her for it.

I think the Amber Alert thwarts a lot of the non-attention, and is a good thing, though one has to go through hoops to get one into the system.

Theresa Milstein said...

Thought-provoking post. Chris Rock's show nails a lot of problems with race in this country.

I once heard that showing a little girl gains more sympathy than a boy when they do commercials for charities in Africa. It's obvious that blonde hair and blue eyes is the most coveted in media with children and adult females.

Being aware of it helps a lot.

Dan said...

You also forgot that population density plays a role. The more people living within a 50 mile radius, the more media interest. I.e. write to the salable market. Out here in a far rural area, getting coverage of anything in mainstream media is rare, period.

One other factor that seems to rear its head is the size (if any) of reward offered for information. (Which indirectly goes to the wealth of the parents, but there are others who put up rewards on random cases.)

Slamdunk said...

Thanks all for the feedback.

@ Dan: Good point about the media market as a driver. I would put that more on the local scale as I was speaking to more national publicity. I think "looks" and wealth certainly would trump this element most of the time.

@ Obladi Obladi: Agreed--Rock is an entertainer and knows how to hype an issue through commentary.

@ Delilah: Good point about those groups trying to meet a need--I'll have to look into the organizations that you mention.

ocmist said...

I, too, have noticed the disparity in the cases that receive lots of media coverage and those than receive only small amounts or even none. It is a sad comment on the world we live in, and I do blame the Media and not Law Enforcement.

Ryo said...

Yes, despite all our fine words, we are still a primitive species, valuing good looks over all else. I'd say, though, that you're looking at the other side of the same coin as Chris Rock, since 3 of your reasons are closely related to race in the U.S.: (1) It's a sad fact that minorities, and particularly African–Americans, tend to be seen as less attractive than whites, and this is a legacy of racism; (2) African-Americans tend to be poorer overall; and (3) poor people aren't as skilled as being "squeaky wheels" as middle class people. Add it all up, and you and Rock are basically saying the same thing, although you're right to object to laying the blame on police. But Rock wouldn't be quite so funny if he had to spell it all out like this! Thanks for thought-provoking commentary.

Slamdunk said...

@ Ryo: Thanks for you insight.