Is Racism Behind The Underreporting Of A Missing Black Girl?

Illustration for article titled Is Racism Behind The Underreporting Of A Missing Black Girl?

It's often said that crimes involving white children get far more media attention than those involving minority kids (or adults, for that matter). Usually it's hard to come up with specific examples of the differences in how these cases are handled (possibly because minority victims rarely become household names), but currently there are two missing children drawing national attention. Baby Lisa, a white girl from Missouri, was on the cover of People last week. Meanwhile, relatives of Jahessye Shockley, a 5-year-old Arizona girl who is black, have been having trouble drawing similar attention to her case. They claim that's because of Jahessye's race, but there are other factors that may account for why the media seems to find Lisa more worthy of coverage.


In some ways, the complaints from Jahessye's family have been working. More news outlets have picked up the story in recent days due to the racism angle, and today there's a feature about Jahessye in the New York Times that focuses on the persecution of her mother in the media. Both moms have claimed that the police are treating them as suspects. Lisa Irwin's mother, Deborah Bradley, admitted in an interview with NBC News that she was drunk the night that Lisa disappeared. The screen in Lisa's bedroom had been tampered with and people have reported seeing a man walking nearby with a baby.

The claims against Jerice Hunter, Jahessye's mother, go far beyond drinking a little too much boxed wine. When Hunter was pregnant with Jahessye, she was charged with child abuse in California. Hunter's mother, Shirley Johnson, called the police after she found scars on the children and they told her they were being abused. According to the Arizona Republic, the oldest, who was 14 at the time, told police that his mother routinely punched him and severely beat his sisters with an extension cord. Hunter pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to eight years in jail, but she served less than half her sentence. The children were cared for by relatives until Hunter was released, as their father is a convicted sex offender who's currently in prison. Hunter says that on the day of Jahessye's disappearance she left her in the house and the older children playing outside while she went to run errands. When she came back, Jahessye was gone.

Theoretically, Jahessye's mother's past shouldn't influence how much attention is paid to a missing child, but it's still working against her. A cousin who took care of Jahessye until she was four told the Arizona Republic that she thinks the children are still being abused, raising public speculation that the girl ran away or that her mother might have killed her. To make matters worse, when a reporter called Hunter to ask for a comment, she yelled that the cousin wasn't credible then hung up on her. Hunter, who is eight months pregnant, has been combative with several journalists and recently her other children were taken into state custody.

While "missing white woman syndrome" is certainly real, in Jahessye's case it's exacerbated by her family coming across as less than sympathetic. While Lisa's mom has been the subject of plenty of ugly accusations, being a mom who drinks a bit too much wine is a confession that still plays well on the Today show. Plus, there are plenty of other details in Lisa's case that feed into Americans' love of playing amateur detective. In addition to the reports of a mysterious man spotted with Baby Lisa, there are similarities to an infanticide case near Bradley's old home in North Carolina. Plus, cadaver dogs picked up the scent of a body in the home and investigators found disturbed soil in the backyard. In Jahessye's case there haven't been any scintillating leads (or at least none leaked to the media) and the new developments in the case mainly consist of accusations of horrific child abuse.


It's sad and extremely troubling that race and family background play into how much effort we put into finding a missing child. The small consolation for Jahessye's family is that thanks to their continued efforts, they've defied the odds and garnered national media attention for the disappearance of a non-white child. About 2,000 children are reported missing every day, and we never hear a word about most of them.

Search for Lost Girl Puts Spotlight On Mother's Past [NYT]
Cousin Of Missing Girl Talks [Arizona Republic]
Statistics [Missing & Exploited Children]


Earlier: 10-Month-Old Baby Disappears From Her Crib
Mom Admits She Was Drunk When Baby Disappeared
Baby Lisa Lands People Cover; Other Missing Kid (Who Happens To Be Black) Ignored



I think it's fair to call racism but I also think it's simplistic. There are several factors that go into making a case, whether it be a murder, rape, kidnapping or other violent crime one that gets national attention. It's a big, violent country we live in (those of us that live in the U.S.), and not every case is going to make it onto the national news or the cover of People magazine.

Obviously, the more sensationalistic, the better. For kidnapped children, "snatched by an unknown intruder" is invariably going to get way more play that "stolen by a parent." Think Polly Klaas, Elizabeth Smart, JonBenet Ramsey, etc. Being conventionally attractive helps. Being middle class helps. Being white helps. I think being female helps. Many of these factors I think play into a narrative of "relatibilty." I think there's an assumption, either overt or subconscious, that these stories are more important or relevant to viewers because viewers can relate to the grieving parents, the worried families. And again, whether it's overt or not, the assumption is that the audience is white and middle class.

I think calling it racism assumes that white audiences don't care about Jahessye Shockley, when I think what's really going on is the assumption that what happened to that poor little girl won't resonate with these white news consumers. They may feel bad, but they won't really be thinking "there but for the grace of God...", both because the child is black and because she's (apparently, reading between the lines) not middle-class.

Whether these assumptions are accurate, I don't know. I'm not a media insider, so I don't know how news outlets decide what to report. I do think that if the media got together and decided to make us really, really care about Jahessye Shockley, they could do so. After all, relentless media coverage had many crying over "little" Caylee Anthony as if they knew and loved her.