Photo by ktus16, Flickr CC

Public outrage about missing Black and Latina girls struck the nation’s capital in March, with many calling the number of missing girls of color a crisis. While the number of disappearances has not risen considerably in recent years, and there weren’t actually 14 Black girls missing in 24 hours in DC, the question is an important one for sociological analysis. Who is considered a “victim” of violent crime and whose victimization goes unnoticed?  

Whites, particularly white women, are the most likely to be framed as victims of crime. Take laws named after victims in the U.S. (e.g., Megan’s law) — while Blacks suffer far more victimization from violent crime than whites, of the 51 laws named after victims in the U.S. from 1990-2016, 86.3% are named after white victims. Only four are named after Black victims, and three after Hispanic victims. Additionally, 65% of these laws were named after female victims.
The construction of whites as victims and Blacks as offenders extends to the reaction of law enforcement when girls are reported as runaways. Scholars argue that running away from home is particularly gendered, pointing to the high number of girls that run away compared to boys and their reasons for running away. Of girls that were considered runaways in the U.S. from 1997-2003, Black and Hispanic girls were significantly more likely to have a runaway charge than white girls. White girls were more likely to get off with a warning.
Similarly, Black girls are more likely to be punished in schools. A recent study showed that Black girls are three times more likely than white girls to get an office referral, a higher likelihood than white boys in the same school. Black girls also got referrals for more ambiguous infractions like dress code violations or disobedience.

What does all of this mean in the context of missing Black girls? It means that institutions, like schools and law enforcement, are far more likely to criminalize Black girls than their white counterparts, which means that they are less likely to see them as victims.