Race Issues: Petito Case Uncovers Disparity in Missing Persons Coverage

Since van-dwelling vlogger Gabby Petito was first reported missing earlier this month, a wave of headlines and social media discussion has prompted nearly the entire country to follow the investigation into her disappearance and subsequent death. The remains of Petito, originally from Long Island, N.Y., were recently discovered at a national park in Wyoming. Though the outcome of this search was incredibly tragic, it is sure to bring some sense of closure to Petito’s loved ones as she was laid to rest on Sunday, Sept. 26. 

Amid the widespread coverage of the Petito case, many have decided to speak up about the disparities in national attention about certain missing people, and why some stories gain an immense amount of traction while others remain under the radar. This sentiment is echoed by the Indigenous American community in Wyoming, who have collectively reported 710 missing people between 2011 and September 2020, according to a study by the University of Wyoming. Eighty-five percent of these people are minors, and 57 percent are women. The same study shows that Indigenous people were almost twice as likely to remain missing after a period of 30 days than their white counterparts. Additionally, 51 percent of Wyoming’s white homicide victims received newspaper coverage, though only 30 percent of Indigenous homicide victims and 18 percent of female Indigenous homicide victims received similar attention in the media.

Unfortunately, for Indigenous and other minority racial groups in the United States, this reality is far from new. All across North America, Indigenous people, particularly women and girls, are murdered and disappear at greatly disproportionate rates in a crisis dubbed “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” (MMIW). A 2012 report by the Department of Justice found that nearly half of all Native American women will be the victims of rape, domestic abuse or stalking. On some reservations, women are murdered at rates more than ten times the national average. In 2020, nearly 100,000 African-American women and girls went missing, comprising nearly a third of all missing women and at a percentage far greater than their share of the U.S. population.

Reading these statistics, it isn’t hard to imagine the frustration that many people of color in America have when one specific case, almost always involving a White person, suddenly receives a massive amount of attention. Though nobody will contest that a serious tragedy occurred this month in Wyoming, the same amount of hurt is felt far too often by the same racial minority groups, who suffer in silence as their stories are not heard on a national platform. 

This begins to beg the question of perceptions and implicit biases when it comes to handling missing persons cases involving people of color. In a July 2020 interview with NBC News, Tammy Carpenter, the mother of an Indian woman found shot to death in California, said that the sheriff investigating the death of her daughter had insinuated that their family was troubled, lacked jobs and was involved with drugs. Carpenter maintains that this is far from the truth, and that she and all of her sisters were employed college graduates. Unfortunately, these kinds of preconceived ideas that many harbor about certain racial groups are sometimes a barrier to empathizing with them, and members of their communities are often left feeling that outsiders believe these victims must have done something to end up in their situations.

Regardless of whatever social issues tend to affect certain groups, the stories of all missing people deserve equal amounts of attention, and there remain many issues that continue to go unrecognized in mainstream coverage. The United States as a whole had an unforgettable summer in 2020, where more people than ever came together to fight against racism affecting the African-American population. Let’s keep this momentum going by giving the same amount of attention to the stories of missing people of color, as well as the socioeconomic issues that affect a large percentage of Indigenous Americans. For now, I can only hope that stories of missing people of color will one day take the national spotlight, and we can all begin to take the measures to rectify the circumstances surrounding the disproportionate incidence of tragedy in communities of color.