By Emma Holmes
A lot of media attention has been drawn to the Black and Latina girls missing in the nation’s capital this month. According to their website, as of April 4, the Washington, D.C. Police Department has 15 Juveline Missing Persons cases open, including three critical, but a week ago the count was touted by some outlets as being as high as 22. Tweets sent out by the D.C. Police Department as part of a new awareness campaign sparked concern for the frequency of disappearances. Rumors swirled about 14 young women missing in 24 hours and a spike in human sex trafficking.
The Congressional Black Caucus called for federal investigation, wanting to know if the incidents were related in any way.
The D.C Police Department addressed the concern, saying, “there isn’t a spike in missing people in DC, we’re just using social media more to help locate them.” The Metropolitan Police Department has additionally refuted rumors that about the girls being collective victims of human sex trafficking. In fact, data shows that the number of missing children in D.C. has decreased slightly from 2016 to 2017, with a majority of cases closed shortly after they’re opened.
A 10-year-old girl reported missing from the D.C. area was tweeted about, though no Amber Alert was sent out. Neighbors who saw the tweet expressed their concern, pointing to this incident as a symptom of a wider national problem: the disparities between missing white people and people of color.
Missing white, upper-middle-class women and children often receive more media coverage, which increases their chance of being found. The term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” describes the idealized role of white women as victims of violent crime, thus leading to overrepresentation in media coverage.
Even if there were equal media coverage, ingrained racial biases feed the assumption that Black and brown children run away voluntarily, dulling the alarm and response.
Women of color, particularly Black, Latinx and indigenous women are more susceptible to grooming for human sex trafficking because of the relative number of barriers they face in education and the labor force. Young women are sometimes lured in by people posing as significant others, or mentor figures taking them on longer and longer trips to reduce suspicion, and then they disappear altogether. Drugs, threats, and blackmail can all be involved, but sometimes are unnecessary due to the grooming.
Similarly, vague summer job postings or invitations to parties prey on people looking for work and food, and their disappearances are often dismissed more readily by law enforcement or else attributed to a broader problem of human trafficking, rather than receiving individualized attention in the media. While the case of the missing women in D.C. was hyperbolized by sensationalist media, it still reflects the broader systematic complaints about underrepresented missing people of color.