Missing White Woman Syndrome

In March, it was reported that a rapidly increasing number of African American girls were going missing in the Washington, D.C. area, with 14 disappearing in a 24-hour period. While the Washington Metropolitan Police Department began judiciously reporting the missing girls through multiple sources of media, many felt that the girls were being slighted because the disappearances were being treated as runaways rather than potential kidnappings and because the increase in disappearances represented a larger problem that was not being properly solved with due diligence. There was just one thing wrong with the whole story: it was not true.


I am not saying that the girls did not go missing. That definitely did happen, but what was not true was the claim that disappearances were skyrocketing; in Washington, the number of missing children reports has actually been trending downward. The difference was that the police began to cover these disappearances more actively than before, creating the impression that more disappearances were taking place when they really were not. Perhaps the reason why people had reacted with such surprise to the increase in reports of missing black girls was that they assumed that the disappearances would be downplayed or outright ignored as a result of what is commonly called Missing White Woman Syndrome.


Missing White Woman Syndrome is a common name for a phenomenon wherein news media and law enforcement, when presented with many cases of missing people (usually females) in a given period of time, prioritize spreading news of missing white, middle- to upper-class people at the expense of their missing working class counterparts of color. This phenomenon likely originates from a pre-existing societal tendency to prioritize the needs of white people over the needs of people of color in most situations.


This phenomenon creates many problems for the application of fair law enforcement to missing person cases. Consider the case of LaToyia Figueroa. Figueroa was a black Hispanic woman from Philadelphia who was five months pregnant when she went missing in 2005. Almost two months later, her remains were found in rural Pennsylvania, the victim of murder by the father of her unborn child. This case bears significance in that it occurred at the same time as the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, a teen from Alabama, in Aruba. Holloway’s disappearance garnered far more media attention to the point that Figueroa’s was almost completely neglected. It was not until she was put on America’s Most Wanted at the behest of her family members that the search for her body accelerated in pace and her remains were found. Her case was also very similar to that of Laci Peterson, a pregnant Caucasian woman from California who also went missing before eventually being found murdered in 2002. Peterson’s case received far more media attention, and subsequently far more law enforcement attention, and many speculate that it was because of her being white.


This is obviously not the only case of Missing White Woman Syndrome to occur, but it very clearly highlights the disparity in law enforcement among the different races when it comes to missing persons reports, and given that missing persons cases often involve life and death, this is a phenomenon that should not be ignored.

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