‘Long history of neglect’: why are missing Black people still less likely to be found?

Soledad O’Brien and the directors of an eye-opening new docuseries, Black and Missing, talk about how media and police bias still affects how missing people are covered and looked for

Gabby Petito’s disappearance captured national media headlines and kicked off a well-oiled and coordinated manhunt, with tips pouring in through social media, that nevertheless ended in tragedy. After her remains were found, Petito’s parents thanked law enforcement and the public for their assistance at a press conference. Joseph Petito also made a pointed statement. “This same type of heightened awareness should be continued for everyone,” he told the gathered media. “It’s on all of you, everyone that’s in this room, to do that. If you don’t do that for other people that are missing, that’s a shame, because it’s not just Gabby that deserves that.”

“That’s coming from a grieving father,” says Soledad O’Brien to the Guardian. The former CNN anchor and executive producer of the four-part HBO documentary series Black and Missing is vividly recalling the press conference on the phone. “Imagine your own little girl goes missing and you have to chide the media to also look for people of color.”

Joseph Petito didn’t mention race, but we all heard the implications in his statement. His daughter’s disappearance became a textbook example of “missing white woman syndrome” – the compulsion among law enforcement, the media and the public to rally around rescue efforts for young white women. Meanwhile, missing and murdered women and children who are Indigenous and Black are historically, continuously and systematically ignored by all of the above. An entire episode in Black and Missing is dedicated to “missing white woman syndrome” and media bias, which brings forensic attention to the systemic issues that lead to the disappearances of people of color and subsequently prevent them from being found.

The docuseries – created by O’Brien and Geeta Gandbhir, and directed by Gandbhir, Samantha Knowles, Yoruba Richen and Nadia Hallgren – is thorough, insightful, devastating and galvanizing. The film-makers embed themselves with Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson, co-founders of the Black and Missing Foundation. The grassroots organization assists families and rallies communities in the search for their missing loved ones. We see them handing out pamphlets, booking media appearances and sticking it to police departments that are quick to dismiss the concerns of Bipoc families. The Wilsons, who are sisters-in-law, are uniquely equipped to confront such issues, which they commit to after their day jobs. Natalie works in public relations. Derrica is formerly law enforcement. They know how media pressure gets police to act faster, if at all.

In the very first episode, a mother explains that her missing daughter was mislabeled a runaway, which takes the onus off the police department to search for her during the crucial early days when they have the best chance at finding her. The series is quick to point out that that’s not an isolated incident.

And as the Wilsons help different families navigate horrifying scenarios involving missing children or seek resolution after experiencing heartbreaking loss, the film-makers take a step back to grasp the bigger picture. They thread the intimate stories dealing with domestic violence, abduction and trafficking with the macro issues that they illuminate: the criminalization of Black children, the systems that allow cycles of poverty and trauma to re-victimize Bipoc families and the media’s contribution to these problems.

Missing poster for Keeshae Jacobs
Missing poster for Keeshae Jacobs. Photograph: HBO

“Systemic racism is not independent of what’s happening in this story,” says O’Brien, who explains how familiar she is with the media’s role in these issues. O’Brien goes back to her time anchoring the CNN morning show Starting Point when South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was charged with murdering his wife, the model Reeva Steenkamp. O’Brien was taken aback by the extensive coverage, which prioritized a tragedy in South Africa over local news. It dawned on her that the coverage was an opportunity to wallpaper Steenkamp’s image all over the screen. “We [were] covering this story because there’s very ‘attractive’ people involved,” says O’Brien. “There are certain people who the media thinks are a good story. And then there are others who are not.”

O’Brien says she knew the problem existed for years. But didn’t realize there were grassroots organizations pushing back against biased media coverage of missing people until 2017, when the Black and Missing Foundation was honored at Black Girls Rock!, an awards show airing on BET. A year later, O’Brien and Gandbhir started working on the docuseries, recruiting a largely female Bipoc team, including co-directors like Knowles, Richen and Hallgren, who would be sensitive to the culture and challenges facing the families they portrayed.

“We really tried to humanize the victims in our series,” Knowles told the Guardian, on a phone call alongside Gandbhir. They describe the care taken to build trust with families, portraying them with thoughtful consideration. That representation is crucial in cases like these. There are reasons the Wilsons are so meticulous about how they position families when pitching them to local or national news and shows like The View.

“Families would provide photos of their missing loved ones and the police would choose to use a mug shot,” says Knowles, describing common practices that insistently criminalize Bipoc people and set off a chain reaction in how they are seen. “That really affects how the media sees that missing person. If the media does end up covering them, it affects how the public sees that person. And it ultimately affects the results of the case.”

Throughout Black and Missing, the Wilsons advocate for sustained media coverage pressuring police departments that generally don’t prioritize missing person cases. “Missing person units are notoriously underfunded”, Gandbhir explains, adding that the detectives are often slow to react because unless there’s evidence of violence or an abduction there is perceived to be no crime to act on. As Natalie explains early in the first episode, most police departments are graded according to the murders and robberies they solve. They are structurally set up to capture criminals that can be tried and sent to prison instead of aiding or rescuing potential victims and serving the community. It’s a model that favors punishment over prevention.

Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson in Black and Missing.
Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson in Black and Missing. Photograph: HBO

“And then the prison industrial complex is there,” adds Gandbhir, spelling out the economics of the justice system. “It’s a cash cow for many, many folks, which is not a great model for justice.”

The docuseries evokes the conversation about defunding the police that has been getting louder since George Floyd’s murder. The dedicated and considerate community work that the Black and Missing Foundation put in is a stark contrast to examples of police negligence, bias, violence and ineffectiveness. On multiple occasions, the series presents instances where victims, witnesses or community members would rather report to the Wilsons than police; the Black and Missing model offering a helpful alternative. An argument can be made to divert funding from one type of organization to the other, accordingly.

“It’s a little harder to tease it out,” says O’Brien, explaining that I may be simplifying a complex problem. Systemic issues that are rooted in history and take four hour-long episodes can’t be solved with an e-transfer, after all. The film-makers agree that organizations like the Black and Missing Foundation can do a lot with more with proper funding. But they also point out that the Wilsons, while repeatedly frustrated with law enforcement, depend on police resources to find missing persons and seek resolution for certain families.

“There’s such a long history of neglect between the police and people of color, especially Black people,” says Knowles. “[Natalie and Derricka Wilson] model what it looks like to bridge the gap, to be this kind of alternative to having to interact directly with police. But at the same time, they know that they need every single tool that’s at their disposal [including police] and they’re very honest about that.

“They want to hold the police accountable.”

  • Black and Missing starts on HBO on 23 November with a UK date to be announced


Radheyan Simonpillai

The GuardianTramp

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