This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Monica List, PhD
Gwen Ifill is credited with coining the term “missing white woman syndrome” at the “Unity: Journalists of Color” conference in 2004. She used it to describe the disproportionate attention garnered by criminal investigations in which white women are victims, and in some cases, perpetrators. Discussions of this phenomenon resurfaced in the wake of recent media attention to the case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman from Long Island, NY, reported missing on September 11th—and whose death, confirmed on September 21st was determined to be a homicide, allegedly at the hands of her fiancé.
It is not the attention on these cases themselves that is the issue, but rather how they distract focus away from similar cases occurring at a much larger scale, such as the disappearance of Black and Indigenous women. According to NPR, in 2020 nearly 100,000 Black women and girls were reported missing in the United States. In 2019, more than 5,590 Indigenous women were reported missing, although this may be a gross underestimation given the lack of adequate reporting systems. Most of us would find it difficult to name a single one of them. Yet in the past weeks, our screens, newspapers and minds were filled with Gabby Petito’s name, her story, and her images. Petito’s death is undoubtedly a tragedy, and the fact that it has been so prominently reported is not problematic in of itself, but it is symptomatic of a deeper failure.
From a racial justice perspective, part of the issue is the entrenched racial stereotyping underlying the belief that women of color are somehow at fault for their own disappearances and any violent acts against them. According to Dr. Ashraf Esmail, Director of the Center for Racial Justice at Dillard University, there is a perception that risky lifestyles and personal choices are a license to shift the blame to the victim and diminish social responsibility for these cases. A report published by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that 38 percent of media articles reporting on murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls made references to drugs or alcohol. Narratives portraying women of color as angry or hypersexual are also part of this problematic perception, says Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, associate professor of Communications and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland.
But this is not simply another failure of the justice system to respect and protect the lives of Black people and other people of color. In addition to being a racial justice issue it is a public health issue. As with other public health issues, the collection, interpretation and reporting of data can be both a problem and a solution. In this case, it is one of the deep roots of a complex, systemic problem. The title of a 2020 article on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls summarizes it well: “They Disappear Not Once, but Three Times: In Life, In the Media, and In the Data”.
There are levels to how women and girls of color disappear in the data. First, the racial and ethnic breakdown of data categories unsurprisingly reflects the pervasive structural and systemic racism of our information management systems. The FBI’s missing person databases’ race categories are Asian, Black, Indian, unknown, and White. There is no category for Hispanic or other ethnicities, nor any subcategories for different Indigenous groups. Even within those limited categories, race misclassification is a common issue. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report found one instance in which a law enforcement agency still used an outdated coding system dating as far back as the 1960s, in which “N” was interchangeably used for “Negro” and “Native American.” This report also identified several police departments as including American Indians and Indian Americans in the same category. At least one of the databases (the FBI’s National Crime Information Center) does not allow data to be analyzed using race and gender combinations (e.g. “Black” and “woman”), making it difficult to obtain information on actual numbers of women of color reported missing.
Second, there is no national, unified system for the reporting of missing persons. In the United States, there are three federal missing person databases: the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC); the FBI’s National DNA Index System (NDIS), and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), administered by the Department of Justice. One failure of this setup is that data on missing individuals entered into one database does not automatically populate or transfer to other databases, and access varies. NCIC and NDIS can only be accessed by local, state and federal criminal justice agencies, while NamUs is public and can be accessed by families of missing persons, law enforcement, medical examiners, and victim advocates. While NamUs seems like a good resource, especially to those victims and families who fall through the cracks of law enforcement, it is not mandatory for criminal justice agencies to report to NamUs in all states. Additionally, while almost all law enforcement agencies use NCIC, only a small fraction are registered to use NamUs. In a country with well-documented systemic racism issues, leaving federal reporting up to the good will of local law enforcement is a losing game for women of color.
The final piece of the puzzle is a lack of inclusion of relevant socioeconomic data that would allow a contextualized analysis of cases. This would not only increase chances of recovery of missing women and girls of color, but also help plan and implement preventive strategies. A first step to achieving this is making the collection and analysis of missing persons data inclusive and intersectional. This includes efforts to decolonize data, which from a public health perspective means gathering the data that a community itself finds meaningful, in ways that align with their social structures and cultural practices. But to be clear, these solutions also need good allies outside of those communities. Tomorrow, another Black or Indigenous woman will go missing, and many of us will be sad and angry again. In the meantime, the systems that continue to render missing women of color invisible and uncountable remain unchanged.
Monica List, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine; Dr. List is Head of Research and Animal Welfare for World Animal Protection, an international non-profit animal welfare organization.
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