How Racial Bias Hurts Searches for Missing Black Kids

NBC News screenshot of "Missing" poster of Avonte Oquendo
NBC News screenshot of "Missing" poster of Avonte Oquendo

Citing the case of autistic 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo of New York City, who disappeared two weeks ago, Stacia L. Brown, writing at Salon, explores how racial bias can hamper investigations of missing minorities. Bias, she says, could also prevent passersby from helping the disabled teen and keep the media from reporting the story.

In the last 12 days, how many times have you asked yourself and others the following question: where is Avonte Oquendo? If you’re a New Yorker, you’ve likely wondered more than once, as posters seeking help in locating the 14-year-old autistic boy — missing since October 4 — have been placed throughout the city. If you’re a black New Yorker, you’ve probably inquired — far more than once — not only about Oquendo’s whereabouts but why more of the national public isn’t aware of who he is. But here’s a query we may all be overlooking: if you saw a black teen boy wandering a city, how closely would you pay attention to him? And if you truly noticed him at all, would it only be because he raised your suspicion? 

Wandering is a common, high-risk occurrence for children with autism. According to Autism Speaks, which is currently offering a $70,000 reward for Avonte’s safe return, nearly half of diagnosed children over age 4 are prone to breaking away from family, school, or friends and disappearing. Fifty three percent of these wandering children were missing long enough to cause their loved ones to worry. What happens after that is often left up to the perceptions of passersby and announcements like the ones the NYPD and others have posted around the city to find Avonte Oquendo. If a commuter were to encounter a wandering adolescent, would she pay enough attention to connect him to the face plastered on lampposts and subway platforms? Would she notice that the boy is disabled, worried or lost? It’s difficult to know in any case, but when the wandering teen is black, racial bias makes these questions doubly fraught. 


Read Stacia L. Brown's entire piece at Salon.

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