Crisis of missing Black women and girls deserves more public attention

In 2020, 268,884 women were reported missing, and nearly 100,000 were Black women and girls. Black women account for less than 15% of the U.S. population, but more than one-third of all missing women. So why don’t we know their names?

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Young women and girls hold candles in Douglas Park in tribute to missing Black girls as part of The Visibility Project.

Young women and girls hold candles in Douglas Park in tribute to missing Black girls in July 2018, as part of The Visibility Project.

Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times

Six months ago, the story of missing Gabby Petito captivated the American media and the public. Within eight days of being reported missing by her family, Gabby Petito’s body was tragically found.

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

During those eight days in September, it was impossible to turn on the news without hearing about her case.

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For Black families, however, Gabby’s story was a reminder that the media and the public are not captivated by the stories of our missing daughters. There is no national search, nor an evening news special. The coverage we receive will quickly fade away, and the families of our missing will continue their search alone.

This statement is historically as true as it is bleak.

In 2020, 268,884 women were reported missing, according to the National Crime Information Center, with nearly 100,000 of those being Black women and girls. While Black women account for less than 15% of our U.S. population, we made up more than one-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 are missing, the media cover them with fewer stories in comparison to other demographic groups.

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

We don’t want to capitalize on a family’s tragedy, but we must recognize the popularity of this genre of media consumption and use these platforms to increase awareness of the stories of missing Black women.

More abuse, including sex trafficking

In addition to making up a disproportionate percentage of all missing people, and receiving less media coverage, Black women and girls are also at increased risk of being harmed.

More than 20 percent of Black women are raped in their lifetime. That’s a higher share than women overall, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The risk of intimate partner violence is higher for Black women. In fact, 45% of Black women experienced physical violence, sexual violence, or stalking from their intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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

According to the FBI, 53% of all “juvenile prostitution” arrests are Black children. There is no such thing as “juvenile prostitution” — this is sex trafficking, as juveniles cannot consent to sell sex. Implicit bias plays a hand here. Black girls have long faced misconceptions of hyper-sexuality, leading society to downplay instances of sexual assault, trafficking and prostitution.

These statistics are staggering, and these are a few of the factors leading to why so many Black girls go missing, and why it is so shocking and hurtful that their cases do not receive more attention.

I recently chaired a subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on this crisis. I have also introduced the bipartisan Protect Black Women and Girls Act, which would establish an Interagency Task Force to examine the conditions and experiences of Black women and girls in the United States. There is so much more we need to do.

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

U.S. Rep. 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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