Alexis Patterson went missing May 3, 2002 after she was dropped off at school. A month after she disappeared, a young white girl named Elizabeth Smart went missing after being abducted from her home. Smart was found nine months after her abduction but Patterson’s mother is still looking for Alexis 20 years later. Unfortunately, race may be the reason why.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Smart’s disappearance gained much more attention than Patterson’s. From the “Larry King Live Show” to “America’s Most Wanted,” her story became a national topic while Patterson’s drowned in the noise. The police also called in the FBI the day after Smart vanished and offered a reward $200,000 more than Patterson’s. The FBI didn’t get to Patterson’s case until three days after she went missing.
In 2020, nearly 100,000 Black women and girls went missing and their names rarely go viral. It’s due to the simple fact that they will never get the same attention a white girl does.
More from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Twenty years ago, as police searched for the two girls, some advocates and experts argued that race was a key factor in how authorities and reporters handled their cases. It marked the first time the national media paid serious attention to such disparities.
Two years later, Black journalist Gwen Ifill gave the phenomenon a name: “missing white woman syndrome.” She coined the term after the disappearance of Laci Peterson, a pregnant California woman whose husband was later convicted of killing her. It played out again in 2005, when Natalee Holloway vanished on a class trip to Aruba.
The disappearance of Gabby Petito also brought the issue of “missing white woman syndrome” to public attention. Researchers found missing Black people get less media attention but many complex factors play a role in it, per Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Racial diversity in newsrooms, socioeconomic status of Black victims, the neighborhoods missing Black children are from and the way police categorize disappearances contribute to the disparity.
Smart, now an advocate for missing kids, commented on this issue in a Red Table Talk last year. “When I think of all of these other victims, I feel like they still deserve, just every bit as much, to be found. I don’t think there’s anyone … who is any less worthy than anybody else, myself included, to come home,” she said.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett had recognized May 3 as “Alexis Patterson Forget Me Not Day.” Patterson’s mother, Ayanna, believes she will come home. “Alexis is alive. And I ain’t giving up,” she said.
If you have any information on Alexis Patterson please contact Milwaukee police at 414-935-7360. To report anonymously, contact Crime Stoppers at 414-224-TIPS or use the P3 Tips app.