The Yellow River in rural Newton County, Georgia, has many secrets. Its banks and unassuming-yet-dangerous waters wind quietly for 76 miles east of Atlanta, providing refuge and nurture for indigenous flora and fauna. It gave up one of its secrets on March 3 to a local fisherman: the body of a black or biracial girl, reported to be between 12 and 17 years old.
The Newton County Sheriff’s Office reported that there were no identifying scars, marks or tattoos on the body. Local news reports said that no family members had come forward as of March 8 searching for their missing daughter. What was most hurtful and disturbing was that 39 missing children fit the description of the body pulled from the river, according to Georgia’s Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
To be young, missing and black is a noxious reality. It is doubly so for black women and girls, no matter the age. Black bodies are not given the same coverage, nor sustained coverage, when they are missing. We live in a society where what’s important is what’s “trending.”
The story of missing black and Latina girls in Washington, D.C., last year provides another example of this. Social media played a pivotal role in focusing national news coverage on the missing teens, as posts bringing attention to them went viral. While officials tried to explain away numerous cases of those who were missing, far too many remained unresolved.
The Yellow River incident could have been a child runaway case or a child abduction gone horribly wrong. Child runaway cases and abductions by family members do not garner the same level of media coverage as abductions by non-family and strangers. Either way, this case raised the question about what happens to missing people who do not look like Elizabeth Smart or Natalee Holloway, whose cases were worthy of every second of coverage they received.
Why are missing black women and girls largely ignored, and what can be done to change this? Activist Shaun King argues that this odious practice can be placed in two frames: addressing the number of missing people in America, especially young black girls, and changing the media’s coverage of cases and how we are made aware of them. He also suggests that we are at the point of needing a network of PR firms to help when black children disappear. This speaks directly to the level of desperation that black families have reached.
Sounding the alarm to pull black bodies from the margins is appropriate, given recent reports outlining the numerous challenges black women continue to face in America. The lack of media coverage when they disappear is yet another burden to bear. Burdens that cannot be removed can certainly be shared.
Nationally, the number of missing people is daunting. In 2017, there were 651,226 missing persons records entered into the National Crime Information Center, according to the FBI. The same year, there were 464,324 NCIC entries for missing children, as reported by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The Black and Missing Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that raises awareness about missing people of color and provides support and resources to families, indicates that nearly 40 percent of all missing people in the country are people of color.
Published research supports claims of race and gender bias in the coverage of missing black children. Candlelight vigils, passing out flyers and using social media are important grassroots efforts to generate attention, but they are no match for the influence of local and national news coverage.
“This must be framed as America's problem, not one relegated to the margins of the black community.”
The Congressional Black Caucus took an important step a year ago when it issued a call for action to address the high number of missing young black teens in Washington, D.C. It called on the Justice Department to help with the investigation and requested that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-FBI Director James Comey look into the missing cases.
All levels of governmental and law enforcement entities ― local, state and national – must be engaged to address disparities. Progressive social justice activism requires that this issue to be framed as America’s problem, not one relegated to the margins of the black community.
Moses Ector, a retired police chief and former deputy assistant director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, suggested a three-pronged approach to the issue. First, families need to get involved earlier in the process of bringing attention to their missing children by aggressively engaging the media, instead of waiting to be contacted. Second, black families should not allow themselves to be held captive by feelings of shame and embarrassment when circumstances around the disappearance involve crime, sex trafficking and drugs. Third, law enforcement authorities and criminal justice agencies must give more attention to cases involving black children.
“We must hold local and national news outlets accountable when they fail to give missing black bodies the same level of attention and exposure they afford others.”
Despite the glaring gaps in coverage of missing black girls, Ector is still hopeful. He has noticed more awareness among members of law enforcement and society about the dangers of social media platforms, more special investigation units in criminal justice systems, and an increase in the speed with which we get the word out about missing children.
Families, activists and other concerned citizens must hold local and national news outlets accountable when they fail to give missing black bodies the same level of attention and exposure they afford others. Diversifying newsrooms may be an area worth exploring, as well as creating an environment that fosters better partnerships between families, law enforcement and the media.
This is far too late for the missing black woman ― somebody’s child ― pulled from the Yellow River in rural Georgia. She was identified a few days later as Shanequa Quanee Sullivan, a small-framed 23-year-old with autism. She had been reported missing by her family on Feb. 4 when she wasn’t seen after leaving her job at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
We know better and can do better for our missing black women and girls. Addressing and correcting this disparity in media coverage is a good place to start.
Curtis L. Todd is a social scientist and educator at Atlanta Metropolitan State College.