Politics & Media
Jul 10, 2013, 10:43AM

The Racial Politics of Missing Children

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On July 7, Shawna Smith awoke in her Menifee, CA home unable to find her 11-year-old autistic son. She reported him missing and, since then, a team of nearly 1000 volunteers has searched the surrounding area for Terry Smith. I grew up in Menifee and, when I read about the efforts of my hometown’s residents, goose bumps ran up my arms. Facebook updates from friends still living in Menifee that expressed pride in the community’s response to the crisis and concern for the boy and his family cluttered my news feed. Living 300 miles north in Fresno, all I could do was watch the story unfold from afar.

NBC Southern California covered the story, as did ABC 7, KTLA, CBSLA, and several other local news outlets. When the Miami Herald reported on the search, the story went national. Menifee is a suburban development nestled between Los Angeles and San Diego where many residents commute. Growing up there meant playing in my cul-de-sac’s street or riding my bike through the rows of winding, closely-colored model homes. Low land prices and mass-produced houses incentivized a migration away from expensive city living to suburban developments like Menifee. For my family, our 1990 move from an overpriced condo in LA to our moderately priced house in Menifee was an easy choice. Since the 1950s, mostly white families have moved away from the problems ailing American cities to pursue a quieter life in the suburbs.

They’ve moved away from places like Detroit, where 15-year-old Ja'Nell Chapman went missing on July 2. From places like Sacramento, where Shateema Harrison, 13, went missing on June 14. From places like Chicago, where 15-year-old Yasmin Acree went missing on January 15, 2008. From places like Baltimore, where Stephen Beard, 14, went missing on June 2, 2001.

In all of these cases, the victim was a person of color whose disappearance received little to no media attention. Approximately 800,000 children are reported missing in the United States every year and 47 percent are racial minorities. Despite accounting for nearly half of children reported missing, those of color rarely receive media coverage. While Jon Benet Ramsey and Elizabeth Smart are household names, very few know the names of Ja’Nell Chapman or Stephen Beard.

The reasons for this disproportionate media coverage vary. There is no doubt in my mind that we do not live in a post-racial America, but I believe that something more than general racism accounts for these children’s underrepresentation in the media. Something about suburbia’s aesthetic of uniformity and order—the evenly spaced, closely colored homes; the homeowner’s associations that police grass height or the length one can leave a trash can in the street—suggests an immunity to tragedy. Everything so watched after, nothing ever out of place, that it’s hard to imagine something going wrong. So when it does, when tragedy strikes suburbia, it defies our expectations, making for an entertaining piece of news.

If this is true, it also means that we expect the tragic in our abandoned and crumbling American cities. We aren’t surprised to hear that there were 386 homicides in Detroit last year, and so we should not be surprised that few of these individual homicides made the national news. Today, nearly 60 percent of Americans live in non-rural areas outside of the major cities. Nearly 60 percent of us have attempted to shield ourselves from the problems the rest of the population regularly faces.

I hope that Terry is safe and rescuers find him soon. I also hope that, in the midst of this crisis, residents of my hometown will pause and consider that tragedies like the one they are facing occur far more often than we know or think about.

  • Shane, where did you get this information "those of color rarely receive media coverage"? Does it include Amber alerts etc or just newspaper stories? Interesting article if you can back up your assertions.

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  • Hi Texan, I started with this: http://academia.edu/857391/Missing_Children_in_National_News_Coverage_Racial_and_Gender_Representations_of_Missing_Children_Cases It's a fairly in depth study of the representation of missing African-American children in the news. I found out about the disappearance of Ja'Nell Chapman and the others on the Black and Missing Foundation website (http://www.blackandmissinginc.com/cdad/) which was created because of a lack of representation in the media. Finally, if you look at the Google Search "Terry Smith missing" (https://www.google.com/search?q=terry+smith+missing) and "Ja'Nell Chapman missing" (https://www.google.com/search?q=ja'nell+chapman+missing) the difference is absolutely staggering, even though Terry and Ja'Nell went missing a mere 5 days apart. I didn't do any research on AMBER alerts (though that would probably be worthwhile) because I was more interested in the media explosion surrounding Terry's disappearance.

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  • Thanks Shane. I'll look at the study. I don't doubt your assertions on these two specific cases but am curious to read the assumptions made for the study. Too often, these studies omit key criteria in order to push a position. Not referring to this issue alone, but any politically hyped issue has both sides claiming the numbers prove their case. I only bring up amber alerts because here in Texas, most appear to me, to be minority children. Same for the missing photos at the doctor's office. No judgment intended.

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  • I've been hearing anecdotal laments on this subject for 40+ years. My strong impression, one formed with no personal or academic understanding of the news business, is that those few cases that get green-lighted have been ramrodded by someone with both a personal connection and access. It's seldom working class folks' kids, much less those of an underclass, whose story gets attention. There just happen to be many more of such folks who are white. Guanxi matters everywhere, even if its particulars differ from culture to culture. Heck, the stories of Michael Orr and Dennis Rodman are more than a little similar, yet Dennis' 'adoptive' family got no movie. No surprise, because the Toohey's are wired to a fare-thee-well.

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  • "Ohr"

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  • "Nearly 60 percent of us have attempted to shield ourselves from the problems the rest of the population regularly faces." Funny that you should mention Detroit, in particular. This white boy was born there, as were two generations before him. My folks did an extensive housing search there in 1966, but elected to move from a rental in one collar suburb to an OOD in another. Missed our own personal dispossession by THAT much, 12 months later. Three years after that, my grandparents were jacked up in their own home of 45 years. Not once, but FIVE times, by five different men, in the span of less than a year. They'd rebuilt their modest house with a $35,000 inheritance only two years before they fled with the grand sum of $4,000. I can assure you of one thing, they courted every single one of those problems of which you speak, WITH ENTHUSIASM. It's 40 years ago this year that Freedom rang in the Motor City, as the newly-elected black Mayor told his City's felons to "Hit 8-Mile Road and don't come back." I've had a ringside seat to a tragic circus which even Fellini would've thought too absurd for the screen. Rome's Fall had a 2000 year head start, yet these clowns have repeatedly lapped them, long since past.

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  • Jack, I'm not sure I would agree that this is simply an anecdotal lament. In regard to people of the upper class, you say, "there just happen to be many more of such folks who are white." Is this an honest way to look at things? Isn't it possible that history has something to do with this? I have a hard time believing anyone who explains the current state of reality as "just the way it is." There are reasons for everything. I'm a bit confused as to what I should take away from your own personal anecdote in your second comment. I'm sorry that things were rough for your grandparents in Detroit, but isn't that exactly what my article is trying to draw attention to? That the everyday realities of your grandparents do not garner media attention while the rare incidence in suburbia does?

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