On Dec. 18, 2011, she drove her 1998 Chevy Blazer out of her family driveway in St. Louis County, Mo., at 3 p.m. Three hours later, the vehicle was found at an intersection 25 minutes away in East St. Louis. The driver’s door was open, the car was empty and the engine was still running.
Phoenix was 23 years old. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since.The Coldons commemorated their daughter’s 26th birthday on May 23, a bittersweet moment considering the circumstances. But her disappearance represents a much larger problem: As of today, more than 64,000 black women remain missing across the United States.
Background: The Daily Mail explored this phenomenon in early 2012, and recently reposted their story to draw new attention to the issue. The statistics, in addition to others published by the FBI and the nonprofit Black and Missing Foundation, paint a grim picture of race and disappearance in America.
The numbers: Despite representing 12.85% of the population, black Americans accounted for nearly 226,000 — or 34% — of all missing persons reported in 2012. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, the comparison with other racial groups is unfavorable: Whites and Hispanics are a combined 80.1% of the population, but account for 60% of missing persons.
This is especially troubling when you break down the numbers by age. Black and Missing reports that 37% of missing minors and 28.2% of missing adults in 2013 were black. No fewer than 270,000 minorities have gone missing since 2010, 135,000 of whom were black and 64,000 were black women, according to the Atlanta Black Star.
It gets worse: The reasons for these disappearances vary, and cannot all be attributed to foul play. But a telling pattern emerges in how they’re documented by the media, with critics citing a stark racial divide in news coverage of such incidents.
Essence points to a 2010 report titled “Missing Children in National News Coverage,” which found that while black children accounted for 33.2% of missing children that year, the media exposure rate was an unimpressive 19.5%. While black men go missing at statistically higher rates, coverage of black female disappearances is particularly telling in light of the attention similar stories get when white women are involved.
“If you Google ‘Natalee Holloway,’ how many impressions would you get?” Black and Missing cofounder Natalie Wilson told ABC News last year. “If you Google ‘Unique Harris,’ who’s missing from D.C., the story is not the same.”
She added, “We cannot wait until the news cycle. We have to get this information out right away. Our people deserve to be found. We deserve awareness so that their families can get closure.”
The reasons: Natalie and her sister Derrica Wilson started the Black and Missing Foundation in 2008 specifically to raise awareness and provide resources, advocacy and pressure around this issue. Derrica has a background in law enforcement. Among the reasons she cites for disproportionate black disappearance figures are poor training and dismissive attitudes.
“I spent six months at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy in Ashburn, Va., where we had only two hours of training on missing persons cases,” she told Essence. “In the field, I’ve seen a majority of black missing children classified as runaways, who don’t get Amber Alerts.”
Plus: “For black adults, police usually link their disappearances to criminal activity, so they aren’t valued as much. Training needs to be enhanced so police forces know how to handle these cases.”
Natalie told the Daily Mail that lack of newsroom diversity also skews the way black missing persons are covered by the media. And while the plight of missing black women has received more coverage of late (albeit notably through international cases, like the 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April), it’s still not nearly at a conscionable level.
So many remain missing: The families of girls and women like Relisha Rudd, Kamira Baxter, Cerra Lapsley, Makayla Randall and many others still anguish over their missing loved ones. Phoenix Coldon’s family has spent their entire life savings and countless hours searching, posting flyers, distributing mailers, maintaining a Facebook page and appearing on TV and radio shows in a relentless effort to find their daughter.
“Some people say that they are impressed with our efforts to find Phoenix,” mother Goldia Coldon told the Huffington Post. “But I feel that we have not done enough … I don’t know what else to do.”
As the numbers clearly indicate, the Coldons are not alone. And so the search continues.