Inequalities cited in Black, Indigenous missing persons cases

Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 9:27 AM EDT
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(CNN) - Missing persons cases are often treated very differently in the public eye depending on the race of the missing person, some say.

The body of a missing Illinois graduate student was identified a month after he went missing.

Jelani Day was 25 years old and wanted to become a speech pathologist. His mother has been critical of police, saying there was no urgency in his case.

Police said recent national public exposure may have helped them find Day’s body.

Murdered or missing white women and children often capture national media attention. The most recent: Gabby Petito, found dead in Wyoming eight days after she was reported missing.

Meanwhile in Chicago, Karen Phillips is fighting to make sure the world knows her daughter Kierra Coles, a mail carrier, has been missing for three years.

“I believe that if Kierra was a different color, we would have more results back now,” she said.

This photo of Coles holding an ultrasound after learning she was pregnant is one of the last pictures taken of her in 2018.

“We couldn’t wait. We could not wait,” Phillips said.

Phillips is among dozens of Black and minority families struggling to get attention to their missing persons cases.

“I just miss her. She was doing so good in everything she wanted to do, and then for her to just come up missing,” she said.

”There are thousands of cases out there of folks that have gone missing that we don’t know about,” said Zach Sommers, a criminologist specializing in missing persons cases.

He said only a fraction of minority cases receive non-stop news coverage compared to cases involving white people.

“If there is a missing white woman, we are going to cover that every day,” Sommers said.

It’s a systemic issue the late, longtime news anchor Gwen Ifill coined “missing white woman syndrome” in 2004.

“‘Missing white women syndrome’ is the idea that young white girls and white women often get much more news coverage than other folks of different demographics when they go missing,” Sommers said.

According to 2020 FBI data, Blacks only make up 13% of the U.S. population. They account for nearly a third of the missing persons cases in the U.S.

In Washington state, Mary Johnson’s family is still waiting for answers. Johnson went missing late last year from the Tulalip reservation.

“I just want people to know if you see her, tell her we love her,” said Nona Blouin, Johnson’s sister.

“She is a Native American woman,” said Gerry Davis, Johnson’s sister.

“Sorry, I’m not racist or anything, but she deserves the same the same treatment,” Blouin said.

Online, minority families are using #GabbyPetito to post about their missing loved ones, hoping to gain momentum.

It’s a move that helped the family of Daniel Robinson raise awareness. Robinson went missing in June.

“We shouldn’t have to depend on other stories or other cases to push our own story, and we just want answers just like anyone else,” Roger Holly Robinson, brother of the missing man.

Those families also said they didn’t get the same allocation of resources or treatment from law enforcement.

“There is data that suggests that when people of color go missing, especially young adults, teenagers, adolescents, they’re more likely to be classified as runaways by police,” Sommers said. “They’re more likely to be considered missing of their own accord by voluntary means.”

How do we balance the coverage?

“No one is saying that Gabby isn’t worthy of coverage. It doesn’t have to be Gabby or someone else gets coverage. Both should be getting the spotlight shown on them,” Sommers said.

Today, Phillips should be celebrating her daughter’s 29th birthday. Instead, she made fliers with the message “Find Kierra Coles.”

“What can we really do about it other than just try to keep her name out there, you know, keep doing interviews and hopefully, one day, somebody just will leave a tip,” Phillips said. “We grieve every day because we don’t know where she is or what’s going on.”

Derrica Wilson, a former police officer, launched Black and Missing Foundation in 2008 to help raise awareness for missing people of color.

Lawmakers are also making efforts to address the issue.

This year, Minnesota’s state legislature passed a bill that would create a missing and murdered African-American women and girls task force.

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