Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
By now, everyone has heard the name Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old woman whose remains were discovered in Wyoming after she’d been missing for weeks. Her name and photograph have been flooding Instagram stories and Twitter feeds for several weeks now, and pretty much every reputable news outlet has produced at least one story on the case.
MSNBC’s Joy Reid was recently disparaged by some for speaking out against “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” with critics upset that she “pulled the race card.” But she is exactly right: Race is a central factor in this problem.
While the faces of Petito, Peterson and Holloway were generally recognizable to the public after being displayed so often on the news, I can’t recall a report on one of the 710 Indigenous people who went missing in Wyoming in the decade prior to Petito’s disappearance.
White people, specifically white women, are prioritized in missing persons cases over individuals of color. This must change.
“Missing White Woman Syndrome” is defined by author and professor Charlton McIlwain as “white women [occupying] a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting.” A study done by sociologist Zach Sommers exploring this phenomenon came to two conclusions: Missing white women are far more likely to be covered by the media than missing persons of color, and their cases are more likely to be reported on repeatedly.
This lack of coverage for missing persons of color is particularly frightening, as statistics show that while Black children only make up 14 percent of all children in the United States, they represent 37 percent of missing children.
This disproportionate reporting is deadly. As cases of missing persons of color are neglected, armchair detectives scramble to Twitter and Reddit to solve the white cases intensely advertised to them on the news. People are given the opportunity to call tip lines or see photographs of missing individuals, who they could potentially recognize on their way to work that morning.
These opportunities are not given to victims of color, and perhaps more cases involving missing persons of color would be solved if they were given adequate media coverage, and viewers were given the opportunity to recognize them.
In a case hauntingly similar to Petito’s, 30-year-old former New Jersey teacher Lauren Cho vanished in California after going on a cross-country trip with her ex-boyfriend. She disappeared on June 28, and until researching for this article, I had never even heard her name.
Palace Sonogod, last seen leaving her home. Caleb Asikoye, last seen in blue jeans and a black coat. Akia Eggleston, last seen at the Inner Harbor. Unique Jackson, last seen leaving school. Keilin Cambara-Gonzalez, last seen with her boyfriend at the Greyhound bus station. Cynnett Bell and Crystal Soriano, last seen over three years ago.
All are Maryland natives, and all are people of color.
I want to be clear: Just because these cases have been dissected by the media many times over does not make them any less tragic or any less important. These people were beloved by friends and family, and their disappearances and deaths are nothing short of devastating. But it only adds to the devastation when just half the reporting given to these victims could be given to others who need it more — and isn’t.
Anyone you pass on the street could tell you about Gabby Petito but would probably falter if you asked them about Alonzo Brooks or Relisha Rudd. None of these lives were more important than the other, and they don’t deserve to be depicted as such.
It’s time the media finally advocates for all people, instead of fetishizing the story of the missing white woman.
Rebecca Scherr is a sophomore government and politics and english double major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.