The Crisis of Missing Black Women and Girls Deserves More Public Attention

Six months ago, the story of Gabby Petito’s disappearance captivated the American media and the public. Eight days after being reported missing by her family, Gabby Petito’s body has tragically been found.

I was devastated to learn that another young woman was allegedly killed by an intimate partner. Gabby’s story stuck with me for another reason.

During these eight days of September, it was impossible to go on the news without hearing about his case.

For black families, however, Gabby’s story served as a reminder that the media and the public are not captivated by the stories of our missing daughters. There is no national research, nor a special evening paper. The cover we enjoy will fade quickly, and the families of our missing will continue their search alone.

This statement is historically as true as it is dark.

In 2020, 268,884 women were reported missing, according to the National Crime Information Center, nearly 100,000 of whom were black women and girls. While black women make up about 15% of our US population, we make up more than a third of all missing women reported in 2020.

So why don’t we know their names?

In a 2016 study, “Missing White Women Syndrome,” legal scholar Zach Sommers found that when black people go missing, the media covers them with fewer stories compared to other demographics.

The problem is certainly not a lack of interest in the subject. True crime media have become inextricably linked to our entertainment market. From podcasts to documentaries, there is no shortage of media to share stories of missing girls.

We don’t want to capitalize on the tragedy of one family, but we need to recognize the popularity of this kind of media consumption and use these platforms to raise awareness of the stories of missing black women.

More abuse, including sex trafficking

In addition to representing a disproportionate percentage of all missing persons and receiving less media coverage, black women and girls are also at increased risk of being harmed.

Over 20% of black women are raped in their lifetime. That’s a higher share than that of women overall, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The risk of domestic violence is higher among black women. In fact, 45% of black women have experienced physical violence, sexual violence or harassment from their intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Black women are at a particularly high risk of being killed by a man. According to the FBI, at least four black women were murdered per day in 2020. This staggering number is likely an undercount, as crimes against black women are underreported. When it comes to human trafficking, black women are also at increased risk here. As noted in the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s report on human trafficking, in a two-year study of human trafficking incidents across the country, 40% of victims of sex trafficking were identified as black women.

According to the FBI, 53% of all “child prostitution” arrests are of black children. There is no “child prostitution” – it is sex trafficking, as minors cannot consent to sell sex. Implicit bias plays a role here. Black girls have long faced misconceptions about hypersexuality, leading society to downplay instances of sexual assault, trafficking, and prostitution.

These statistics are staggering, and these are just some of the factors that explain why so many black girls go missing, and why it’s so shocking and hurtful that their cases don’t get more attention.

I recently chaired a subcommittee hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on this crisis. I also introduced the bipartisan Black Women and Girls Protection Act, which would establish an interagency task force to examine the conditions and experiences of Black women and girls in the United States. We need to do so much more.

We must do better. Black women and girls deserve better.

U.S. Representative Robin Kelly, D-2nd District, is a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, and co-founder and co-chair of the Caucus on Black Women and Girls.

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