Does the Media Care When a Young, Black Girl Goes Missing? The Disappearance of Larie Butler
She might as well be called Jane Doe for all the media cares about her. But she has a name. Her story didn't even make the front page of her city's local paper. It was buried in a middle section of the print edition which combines local community news with business news. If she were a white 17 year-old young woman from a wealthy family, no doubt her disappearance would have been on the front page. Indeed, perhaps an Amber alert would have been issued and broadcast by the major cable news networks.
Unfortunately, though, Larie Butler, is a poor black teenager. And despite the suspicious circumstances that led to her disappearance, news coverage of her plight is rather limited, to say the least. Which raises the question (a rhetorical one, I know): If a young black woman goes missing and no one in the national media notices it, does her life mean anything?
Well, it does to her family, and it does to me:
Larie Butler’s mother said she talked to her daughter by phone at about 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The 17-year-old told her she loved her, and said a friend was going to pick her up to take her to The Marketplace mall.
“That’s the last time I talked to her and that was four days ago and I want my baby back,” said Karen Snipes. “It’s been too long. I don’t know how I am going to keep holding up.”
Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard on Tuesday called the disappearance “suspicious” and said investigators do not believe Butler is a runaway.
At a news conference late Wednesday morning, Sheppard said the situation is “very serious,” adding that Larie is considered a good student and has no history of running away.
In fact the family is desperately trying to get Larie's story out, hoping against hope that she is still alive and that someone will recognize her from photographs they have released to the local press and passed out on flyers to the general public. Here is one of the photos of Larie:
Larie has beautiful smile, don't you think? A lovely face. Just a lovely as any white teenager who goes missing. But Larie lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rochester, NY. I know. I've driven through there. The homes are run down and many of them are abandoned. She goes to a public high school that is roughly 70% African-American. The Rochester City School District, of which her high school is a part, has a graduation rate of 46%. Compare that to suburban, predominately white schools in the same area. Fairport: 99% graduation rate. Penfield: 96%. Rush-Henrietta: 92%. Churchville-Chile: 94%. Pittsford-Mendon: 98%. The lowest graduation rates for suburban or exurban high schools in the Rochester area are all above 80%. Schools that are predominately white. Statewide, the average graduation rate for all New York high schools was 73% (2010 figures).
Meanwhile, Larie's teachers at East High are frustrated with what they perceive to be a lack of effort on the part of authorities and the media to diligently search for Larie:
Several teachers have called media outlets to express their frustration with what they perceive as an apparent lack of effort in the search. Many have used Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to announce Butler’s disappearance.
“I think we’re all frustrated there doesn’t seem to be anything happening,” said Noreen Gallagher, a speech pathologist at the school. “We are all one family and people are very concerned. If this girl was from Pittsford something would be happening.”
Pittsford, by the way, for those of you unfamiliar with this area of the country, is by far the wealthiest community in the Rochester metro area, and is over 90% white. Her teachers are correct. If a Pittsford teen was missing, it would be all over the TV and radio, and plastered on the front page of the local paper. Not to mention that the police would be putting a full court press on to find her. The family of that hypothetical girl wouldn't be forced to hand our flyers to the general public to draw attention to her disappearance:
Family members hope someone will recognize Larie's picture, and remember seeing her Saturday.
Tonight, they searched and handed out flyers in Mark[et]place Mall. They left a little disappointed, as they found many people just weren't interested in what they had to say. But loved ones say they will not give up until they find 17-year-old Larie Butler, who's been missing since Saturday afternoon.
Here we have a promising student, doing well in one of the worst schools in New York State (based on graduation rates), who mysteriously disappears under suspicious circumstances and it is just a blip on the local news radar. Then again, until recently, Trayvon Martin was just a blip on the local news media, too. Larie's grandfather believes she is being held against her will (though that may be wishful thinking on his part). There can be no denial of the fact that greater media attention regarding Larie's disappearance would be a great aid to finding her, just as the media's intense focus on Trayvon Martin's death has led to increased efforts being made by the Federal government (and presumably local officials, also) to determine if George Zimmerman should be arrested and indicted for Trayvon's murder.
How did the Trayvon Martin killing finally get national media attention? It wasn't because the national news media cared about the case. It was driven by the internet: blogs, twitter and other social media created a groundswell of outrage that the national news networks and major newspapers could no longer ignore. Does the disappearance of Larie Butler deserve that same level of attention? Well, if the disappearances or murders of Lisa Irwin, Jon Benet Ramsey, Natalie Holloway, and Elizabeth Smart (to name but a few white children whose disappearances led to major mass media feeding frenzies) deserve such attention, shouldn't the Larie Butler, and all the instances of missing women of color, deserve the same level of attention as well?
I know, another rhetorical question. Let's be honest, boys and girls. We still live in a racist society, racism about which the majority of white people living in America are in deep denial. Seventeen year old Trayvon Martin's death by a 250 pound male with a semiautomatic handgun is the exception that proves the rule. Indeed, if we are honest with each other, the fact that Trayvon's murder reached the level of media attention that it did is extremely rare. How many young black males who are gunned down (not counting famous athletes or rappers, etc.) ever make the national news? Well, I think you can count them on one hand. How many women of color who go missing or are murdered garner media attention of the scope that consumed this country in the cases of Natalie Holloway and Elizabeth Smart? I frankly can't think of any.
Locally, yes, these cases get some media attention but it usually goes away pretty quickly. People of color know the reason why this occurs. They don't matter to a news media dominated by white people, mostly white men. They don't have the same rights white people do, either. Legally, yes, they are considered equal under the law but in practice, no. In practice, they don't even count as 3/5 of a person, that famous fraction included in the Constitution for determining how to count a slave for purposes of assigning the number of officials from each state who could be elected to the House of Representatives. In practice, for many white people, people of color count for less than zero. And that is especially true among the elites who dominate the political, judicial and media institutions of this country.
If it were otherwise, George Zimmerman would have been arrested and indicted weeks ago, and Larie Butler would be as well known across the country as Natalie Holloway, or Elisabeth Smart or any of those other white women from upper class backgrounds who also mysteriously disappeared under "suspicious circumstances." But we don't live in that alternative universe, do we?