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Lacy Peterson. Natalee Holloway. Gabrielle Petito. When each woman disappeared, the intense media scrutiny that followed made them cultural touchpoints.
We haven’t forgotten Peterson, 27, who went missing in 2002. The same goes for Holloway, 18, who disappeared in 2005 and hasn’t been found. Petito, 22, was reported missing in August, and her body was found in September.
In each case, the woman’s disappearance triggered widespread searches, fueled by hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funding. (Just one leg of the search for Petito’s alleged killer has already topped $1.5 million, notes Inside Edition.) And in all three cases, efforts received national and international media coverage.
Even after nearly two decades, national news programs still air hourlong specials to mark significant anniversaries in the Petersen and Holloway cases.
Yet if they’d been women of color, we probably wouldn’t know their names.
That’s a harsh statement — perhaps callous. But consider that few of us know the stories of Evelyn Hernandez, 24, LaToyia Figueroa, 24, and Cecilia Hayes Ahmad, 16. These missing women of color disappeared around the same times as Peterson, Holloway and Petito, respectively.
According to social scientists, we don’t know of Hernandez, Figueroa and Ahmad because searches for women of color are underfunded and under-investigated by law enforcement and underreported by the media.
Further, studies show that when a white woman disappears, information gathering focuses on her education or career and that she’s a daughter, wife and/or mother. We hear about their kindness and that they’ve never hurt anyone — that they don’t deserve ill-treatment, as if anyone does.
Meanwhile, when a woman of color disappears, the emphasis is on problems, issues and presumed negative behavior. If we hear about their accomplishments, it’s frequently a quote from a family member. The implication is often that she’s missing — if she’s missing — because of her choices and behaviors.
Broadcaster Gwen Ifill coined a term for the phenomenon: “missing white woman syndrome.” It describes the way disappearances of white women — especially those who are young, conventionally attractive and of slight physical build — receive elevated priority and prominence among law enforcement officials and broadcast journalists.
It’s not that families of white women are more persistent or have more connections or financial resources. Instead, some social scientists say our nation’s de facto racial hierarchy and perceptions drive the notion that these white women possess a purity and innocence that must be protected. We see that stereotypical “girl next door,” and our default is to protect her.
The expensive, multistate Petito search is a particularly brutal eye opener, in part because of its byproduct: discovery of the remains of four other missing persons.
That is, people who had been reported missing — but law enforcement wasn’t actively looking for — were found during searches directly related to the Petito case. There was an unidentified homeless man found in Alabama. The remains of Robert Lowery, 46, of Texas, were found after Petito-searchers in Bridger-Teton National Forest called in tips about his remains. Remains of Josue Calderon, 33, were found in Warangal County, N.C. Sara Bayard, 55, was found near a highway in Douglas County, Colo.
To be clear, it’s of course right to search diligently for missing white women. To be fair, it’s important to apply equal and applicable care and resources to searches for all missing persons.
What’s not right or fair is the notion that white women are simultaneously fragile, venerated victims who deserve increased attention and resources. It’s an impossible, unattainable pedestal. Likewise, the distinction serves to devalue women who don’t meet the standard.
Karris Golden is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com