She is 5 years old, she is from Glendale, Ariz., she was last seen wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and pink flip-flops, and she is black.
The last characteristic matters, and not only because Jahessye Shockley's family needs the public's help to find their little girl alive. It matters because according to the Justice Department, children of color make up 65 percent of all missing children cases; 42 percent of those are African-American, 23 percent Latino.
It matters that Jahessye is black because despite those statistics, of which she has now become a part, the face of the missing child in America has long been, and continues to be, a white face. Six years ago, it was Baby Jessica. Right now, it's Baby Lisa.
A Google search crudely but clearly suggests the disparity in the cases of these two girls, who vanished within days of each other in October. "Jahessye Shockley," 143,000 hits. "Baby Lisa Irwin," 3.8 million hits. Another expression of the disparity, less scientific but sobering nonetheless: reward amount in the Shockley case: $11,000, offered by law enforcement and the group Silent Witness. Reward amount in the Baby Lisa case: $100,000, offered by an anonymous donor.
These are not disparities measuring racial gaps in the ranks of tenured college professors or the chances of a black man hailing a cab in New York City. This is a disparity that reflects the public outcry, media and police response that have been brought to bear, when time is of the essence, to find two children who were perfectly safe one minute and who may or may not be breathing now. The reason we know about Jahessye at all is that two weeks ago her grandmother, Shirley Johnson, put on a purple "Grandma won't stop" T-shirt, went to the Phoenix state capitol, got in front of a microphone and pointed out the deafening silence surrounding her granddaughter. Ten days passed before a major network flashed her butterfly-wing barrettes and bright smile on a television screen.
"Even though the coverage has finally taken off somewhat, it's still not anywhere near the level of Baby Lisa, who is dominating the local and national news," said Derrica Wilson, a Washington, D.C.-area law enforcement officer and co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation, Inc., based in Maryland. Wilson started the organization with her sister-in-law, PR specialist Natalie Wilson, to help families of color with missing loved ones. Since 2008, on a shoestring budget, Black & Missing has helped recover 50 missing persons of color or their remains.
"The fact that it's still such a struggle for Jahessye's case to stay fresh," Derrica Wilson said, "that is heartbreaking." And there is a surreal cruelty in the fact that a family in Arizona has to live with the idea of their daughter as perpetually growing stale, while every 24-hour cycle breathes new life into another family's daughter in Missouri -- even though that imbalance is something reporters understand intuitively.
In a previous life, I covered crime for the Boston Globe. That job meant, among other things, pulling out a notebook and walking up to someone's mother a few hours after she'd learned her 16- or 14- or 12-year-old had been fatally shot -- or on some nights, as she frantically pushed a hospital elevator button to get to the floor where her child was clinging to life. My goal was to get information, but also to try to get a comment that was more gut-wrenching than the comment she'd given a reporter from another paper. That's the news business.
I did that many times over a few years. But none of it prepared me for the day in 2007 when, visibly pregnant with my daughter, I sat down for four hours at a kitchen table in Paterson, N.J., with Janet Harris. After congratulating me on my pregnancy, asking if I had names picked out, and gently rubbing my belly, Janet began to tell me the story of her baby boy, Jyrine, who had been missing for five years. Whenever a missing child makes the news, I still think about that day.
In those four hours, there was no waiting for the gut-wrenching quote to come. All of it was gut-wrenching. Not just because Jyrine was taken from his crib in the middle of the night at the age of 2, leaving behind his Tweety Bird blanket; and not just because he was taken during a two-month period when his mother was in jail on child abuse charges -- charges that were later dropped and unequivocally disproved after medical experts confirmed Jyrine suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly know as brittle bone disease.
In addition to that suffocating heartache, there was the calendar. Jyrine was abducted on June 23, 2002 -- 18 days after the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl from Utah named Elizabeth Smart.
One black toddler, one white teenager. Both of them sleeping innocents, but with radically different outcomes. One mobilized unprecedented police and volunteer manpower, generated a $250,000 reward, dominated TV news and crime-show programming for months, and helped push a federal sex offender registry bill into law. The other generated a $1,000 reward from the county prosecutor's office, a mother's homemade T-shirts and flyers, and seven stories in the local paper, most of them focused on bogus abuse charges.
The roads that forked so widely for Elizabeth Smart and Jyrine Harris then, and for Lisa Irwin and Jahessye Shockley now, don't indicate that the media and law enforcement deliberately set out to place more value on the life of a white child over that of a black child. It only indicates that, over and over and over again, that is the result.
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