In 2008, Natalie Wilson, who works in public relations in Washington, and her sister-in-law Derrica Wilson, a veteran law-enforcement officer, founded the Black and Missing Foundation to help African-American families in DC and across the country find missing loved ones. The Wilsons, who are black, were inspired by a 2004 case in South Carolina in which a family struggled to draw attention to the disappearance of a young black woman whose boyfriend later confessed to murdering her.
National crime statistics show that in 2016, African-Americans made up 38 per cent of missing Americans under the age of 18, despite only making up about 15 per cent of the nation’s youth population. So, black children go missing at a disproportionate rate, while the media focuses on missing whites.
“We understand there’s a disparity in media coverage,” Natalie Wilson told me, saying reporters and editors don’t seem to think their audiences will care about missing black people.
Natalie coaches black parents to look as poised and speak as calmly as possible when being interviewed by journalists. It can be difficult to “create empathy across racial lines,” she told me.
Natalie added she realizes newsrooms are understaffed and overstretched. She said she did not want to point fingers, and that everyone – police, social workers, parents, reporters– must work harder to keep children safe.
I’m a black reporter who has worked all over the world and interviewed all kinds of people. I remember having trouble finding whites to interview for a story about affirmative action in post-apartheid South Africa. I interviewed several black South Africans and kept searching – and my editor kept pushing me – until I was able to get whites to share their perspective about a topic that made them anxious. I then strove to see the issue from their point of view. That allowed me to ask intelligent questions and listen intelligently to the answers.
Empathy is my job. And I’m convinced a daily dose of journalism can help make empathy anyone’s avocation. I particularly encourage getting that journalism by sitting down with a newspaper, away from the distractions of on-line ads and comments and out of the silo of your Facebook feed.
What I heard from Natalie is the old story of blacks having to be twice as good to get half the opportunity. What we’re talking about here is not even opportunity, but simply the attention that can make the difference between a lost child being found or never coming home.
Is the divide really that wide between any of us and a grieving and desperate parent, whatever our race or theirs?