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What’s really missing in the D.C. missing girls case

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The media and D.C. police and city officials were hammered for allegedly ignoring the plight of more than a dozen missing black and Latina girls in Washington D.C. Community activists chalked the seeming indifference up to racism. The outcry triggered a spate of news stories on the missing girls, angry denials from the police that they were asleep on the job in trying to find the girls, and lots of stats that purported to show that there’s been no major uptick in the number of missing persons in the District, and certainly nothing that points to any conspiracy to nab, traffic in or murder young black females. The pushback against the charges of murder and conspiracy is almost certainly right. However, it doesn’t answer the perennial question about how black female lives versus the lives of white females in distress are viewed and treated.

The disparity in the number of black kids missing, and how their disappearance is treated, is glaring. According to FBI figures, African American children make up 42 percent of non-family abduction. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find Amber Alert tweets and their pictures plastered on freeway alert signs. The media is no better. A 2010 Pace University study compared reporting by race and gender on several major news stations between 2005 and 2007. Predictably, it found that black kids were almost invisible in news coverage.

The issue of what victims get covered and ignored exploded as a major racial crisis issue when several cities were hit with a wave of serial murders of black women during the 1980s. The shout was that the murders went on with no public warning, media coverage and seemingly scant police action for years. Police and prosecutors each time bristled at the charge that they are less diligent when it comes to nailing serial killers who kill blacks than whites. In Los Angeles, which had a serial killer roaming on the loose in the 1980s killing scores of mostly poor black women, officials pleaded that they were under-staffed and lacked the resources and technology to make a swift arrest when the killings began. There was some truth to that then. But since then there’s been a tremendous advance in the use of computer matches and forensic and DNA testing. This has helped police quickly zero in on likely suspects. In Los Angeles, police officials went further and set up special task forces to track down the killer.

But that still begs the question that lurks underneath the case of D.C.’s missing girls: That far too often police and city officials do not see victims in inner city neighborhoods as the type of women who reflexively ignite police and public outrage. There are reasons, troubling reasons, for this.

The long-running serial killing saga underscores the great threat of murder and criminal violence to many black women. Homicide ranks as a major cause of death for young black females. A black woman is more likely to be raped and assaulted than a white woman. While the media at times magnifies and sensationalizes crimes by black men against white women, it ignores or downplays crimes against black women.

Then there’s the drug menace. Nearly half of the women behind bars in America are there for drug-related offenses; the majority are black. Some of the suspected serial murder victims, and in some instances in the case of D.C.’s missing girls, had a rap sheet for drug use and trafficking, or simply hailed from troubled homes. This was repeatedly mentioned in press accounts of the victims; they easily fit the popular public and media profile of the drugged-out, derelict black woman.

There’s also the notion that these women are dangerous women. The police slayings of black women in some cities, the upswing in violent crimes by women, and Hollywood films that show black women as swaggering, trash-talking, gun-toting, and vengeful stoke public jitters about these women. One in four women is now imprisoned for violent crimes, and half of them are black. Black girls are hardly exempt from this negative image and typecasting.

The proactive steps taken by D.C. police, city officials and the Congressional Black Caucus, which has called for federal intervention in the hunt for the missing girls, are welcome and much needed. It has certainly made the public much more aware of the peril that many black girls and women face on the streets. Part of that peril is the possibility of being the victim of violence.

Unfortunately, it took an outcry and an ugly and embarrassing media spotlight on the missing girls to make their disappearance a national issue. Now, the task is to make sure that public concern about what happens with their lives remains a national issue.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.