By D. Kevin McNeir @dkevinmcneir
When I was a little boy growing up in Detroit, I remember grabbing the milk from the fridge every Saturday and Sunday morning while my mother slept a bit longer before rising from her slumber, donning her robe, trotting down to the kitchen and putting a huge smile on my face after whipping up a batch of pancakes, a serving of scrambled eggs with cheese and three or four slices of bacon fried to a golden crisp.
A bowl of cereal would have to suffice until I grew old enough to begin cooking lessons that would lead to the day when I could begin preparing meals on my own. In those moments of solitude as I devoured my Captain Crunch or Raisin Bran, I sometimes took a closer look at the many pictures of little boys and girls that appeared on the outside of the milk carton – changing as often as the weather.
As far as I can remember, the photographs were almost always those of little white boys or girls – rarely did the pictures capture them in happier times. But where were the photos of little Black boys and girls? Had someone forgotten about children who looked like me?
One day I decided to take my concerns to my parents who explained that the photos represented children whose families could not find them. Somehow they’d gotten lost and were missing which helped me understand why they looked so unhappy in the pictures on the outside of the milk carton.
Still, Mom and Dad, for all of their wisdom and grownup solutions to all of my troubles, seemed to be at a loss when I pressed for answers as to why only white kids’ pictures were seen on the outside of our milk cartons.
Certain that my parents would never let anyone take me away from them I allowed the mystery about Black vs. white faces of children to remain just that – a mystery – eventually dismissing the entire issue and finding solace that we had enough milk for me to slosh around in my bowl of “Kellogg splendor.”
Those idyllic days of the 60s and 70s have long passed and I have since celebrated and embraced my role as both a father and grandfather. What hasn’t changed, at least not nearly enough, is how people still look upon milk cartons, billboards or fliers, as I once did – allowing little more than a passing thought as to what may have happened to those sad-faced children and whether they may ever be found.
Maybe the pace of society has quickened to such an extent that we simply lack enough time to worry about missing children who we do not know – we’re so busy that we can’t take a moment to care. Sure, that sounds reasonable but for one glaring discrepancy: when white children disappear, mainstream media seems to take great lengths to get the word out to the public. On the other hand, when the children in question are Black or brown, their stories rarely make the evening news or the front page of the daily newspaper.
It couldn’t be that in American society, the lives of white children have greater value than those of children of color, could it? Recent data suggests that such a premise has validity as missing white children invariably receive far more media coverage than missing Black and brown children, despite higher rates of missing children among communities of color.
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center database lists a total of 424,066 missing children under the age of 18 in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. But 37 percent of those children – that’s more than a third of missing child cases – are Black, even though they only make up about 14 percent of all children in the U.S.
It’s ever harder to say with any accuracy how many Hispanic kids are missing as the FBI’s annual report groups white and Hispanic children together but estimates indicate that 20 percent of missing children are Hispanic or Latino – a number that’s probably much higher, says Robert Lowery, vice president of the missing child division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“There’s a false belief that white children make up the biggest number of missing children when in fact (proportionally) it’s just the opposite,” Lowery said, adding that the high number of Black girls reported missing is particularly troubling.
Experts point to several reasons for why we don’t hear more about missing children of color: families are hesitant to call police whom they often distrust, even if they think their child is missing; families choose not to file a report that their child is missing because they fear it could have unintended, negative consequences.
Lowery thinks Latino children are underreported because some families with undocumented members refuse to contact police for fear of being deported.
Statistics notwithstanding, Black (and brown) boys and girls face the likelihood that whether they’ve been abducted or have run away, once they’ve gone missing, chances are they’ll never be seen or heard from again.
It’s not that Black parents are complacent or that Black communities have become apathetic. The problem rests in the fact that the cases of missing or exploited Black children don’t get as much media attention – something considered vital to helping solve those cases – as reports about white children. Further, Black families, in general, do not have the financial resources needed to more effectively respond when a child goes missing – like hiring a private investigator, taking off from work to help look for their child or regularly following up with law enforcement and the media.
In some cases, Black families just don’t know where to begin or what to do.
Race shouldn’t matter in the prioritizing of cases of missing children and yet, it often does.
I suppose we could send letters to our representative in Congress, or start a social media campaign with a catchy hashtag. Maybe, we could organize or join others in public protests, rallies and marches down Main Street U.S.A.
For today, I suggest that you keep your children close to you, be sure to know their friends and their friends’ parents and have a regular plan for checking in if they’re old enough to venture out on their own.
Do you know where your children are?