Insights and Impact

3 Minutes On Missing White Woman Syndrome 

Sarah Stein, SPA/BS ’04, cold case consultant and cofounder, Center for the Resolution of Unsolved Crime, sheds a light on cases involving women of color that have gone dark   

Sarah Stein

The media is far more likely to seize on the disappearance of a White woman than that of a woman of color—a phenomenon known as missing White woman syndrome. Sherri Parks, then an American Studies professor at the University Maryland, first coined the term, and the late Gwen Ifill popularized it at a journalism conference in 2004 when, mocking newsroom executives, she quipped: “If it’s a missing White woman, you’re going to cover that, every day.” Media coverage of a missing White woman tends to focus more on her role as a mother, daughter, or student, whereas stories about the disappearance of a woman of color typically focus more on an abusive boyfriend, for example, or her criminal history. 
We’ve seen this outsized coverage of missing White females for decades in cases involving Polly Klaas, Molly Bish, and Amber Hagerman—the murdered 9-year-old Texas girl for whom the Amber Alert system is named. But it accelerated in 2002, during what became known as the summer of missing children due to the extraordinary number of high-profile disappearances. They included Elizabeth Smart, who was snatched from her bedroom in Salt Lake City in June and found nine months later—which never happens—and Samantha Runnion, who was abducted from her front yard in Stanton, California, and murdered in July. The year culminated with the murder of Laci Peterson and her son, Conner. 
But one case that received very little attention in 2002 is that of Alexis Patterson, a 7-year-old African American girl who was abducted near a Milwaukee school. This past July, the media did cover the 20th anniversary of her disappearance—Alexis is still missing—but there were very few stories in between. Each year, 115 to 120 high-risk abductions like Alexis’s put children’s lives in imminent danger. In those cases, you statistically have three hours to find the victim, so early media attention can make or break a case. 
In addition to the physical characteristics of a victim—young, pretty, White—the media also latches onto fantastical narratives, like Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in Aruba in 2005, or more recently, Gabby Petito. The 22-year-old was vibrant, she was living her best life and documenting it on Instagram until she was murdered last September by her boyfriend at Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. In both of those cases, the location of the disappearance contributed to public intrigue, since it made people think abduction versus a simple runaway case. 
But even within White women, there is a hierarchy. A sex worker, for example, has historically been viewed as less of a victim, although the epidemic of sex trafficking that we’re seeing around the world might begin to mitigate that stereotype. 
In 2019, true crime author Ann Rule wrote Green River, Running Red, with a chapter devoted to each of the Green River Killer’s 49 victims, all of whom were sex workers. She explored the entirety of the women’s lives: their families, their children, not just what they did for a living. It’s a beautiful tribute—and one that’s all too rare when you think about sex workers and those who aren’t deemed virtuous enough. (Predators like Gary Ridgway know that, which is why they prey on women who won’t garner media attention.)
We all exist in society together, and we expect that we’re going to be safe, protected, and cared for. Nobody asks to be a victim of a crime. But when that happens, we need to come together for that person and their family and offer all the resources we can. It’s not that White women victims of crime should matter less, it’s that all people should matter just as much. 

Missing white Woman Syndrome at a Glance:

  • 600,000 people are reported missing in the US every year; 90 percent of cases are ultimately resolved 
  • Missing persons cases have declined by nearly half since 1997
  • Black Americans comprise 13% of the population and 31% of missing persons
  • About 34% of the 268,884 women and girls reported missing in the US in 2020 are Black
  • CNN mentioned Gabby Petito’s case 346 times during a single week 
  • 400 Indigenous women and girls went missing in Wyoming—the same state where Gabby Petito disappeared—between 2011 and 2020