As relieved as many are that a kidnapped Philadelphia woman was found alive, the reality is that missing black women are often deemed unworthy of coverage by the media and criminalized by police, their humanity all but ignored.
Carlesha Freeland-Gaither, 22, was violently abducted off West Coulter Street in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. We don’t know what outrages befell the young woman during the days she was held against her will by her alleged captor, 37-year-old Delvin Barnes. Prior to this arrest, Barnes was wanted in a string of violent crimes against women.
Had police not saved her, Freeland-Gaither would likely be dead.
Under the circumstances, the young woman’s rescue is a miracle, really, especially when considering she was among America’s 64,000 missing black women, according to the Black and Missing Foundation. Despite being only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans account for nearly 40 percent of missing citizens, most under suspicious circumstances.
Part of what helped Freeland-Gaither is that her kidnapping, caught on video, occurred in close proximity to the prestigious, predominantly white private school Germantown Friends. West Coulter is one of the better-protected streets in this otherwise overwhelmingly black section of Philadelphia. One wonders whether the crime would have been videotaped—and Freeland-Gaither found at all—had her abduction occurred near Germantown High School, a mostly black, lower-income public school shuttered in 2013. Still, the video provided authorities with vital clues, and Philadelphia police and the FBI deserve tremendous praise for finding this young woman and returning her to her family alive.
Yet prior to the video footage going viral, authorities, in early reports of her abduction, made comments that placed the victim under scrutiny with statements like, “There’s no relationship to drugs or criminal activity at this time.” The comments also suggested the investigation might have been less urgent if drugs had been involved, despite an eyewitness account of her screams and kicking out the abduction car’s rear and passenger windows in a desperate bid for freedom.
Once it became clear that Freeland-Gaither was a certified nursing assistant with the love and support of both of her parents as well as her community, she went from being another faceless black female crime victim in Germantown to a human being worthy of America’s concern and police protection. That’s a rare accomplishment for a black woman in this country.
The need for black women to demonstrate worthiness to obtain justice can also be seen in the evolution of attitudes and opinions surrounding two videos in the Ray Rice domestic violence case. The first video, horrific enough, showed Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back, dragging the lifeless body of his then-fiancee facedown from a hotel elevator after an argument. There was outrage behind the slap on the wrist he initially received. Yet it wasn’t until video surfaced of Rice striking the young woman so hard that she hit her head and lost consciousness—even her shoes came off—that calls for real justice reached a crescendo.
Prior to the knockout-video release: Did people imagine that his now-wife, Janay, had fallen asleep in the elevator? Or perhaps folks thought she had accidentally run into his fist? America had to see her beaten to act on her violation. Even then, the callous way in which the video was replayed demonstrated the more pervasive erasure of black female humanity. Even now, the initial missteps and lack of concern on the part of NFL higher-ups suggest Rice might elude more serious consequences of his actions.
These circumstances do not bode well for the still-missing black women and their families. It looks even grimmer for those missing black women who are eventually found. Dead. Young women such as 19-year-old Angelia Mangum and 18-year-old Tjhisha Ball, whose zip-tied bodies were found bound to each other on a roadside in Jacksonville, Fla., two months ago. The young women were said to have been working as exotic dancers, information suggesting that they invited their own demise despite the fact that exotic dancing is legal employment.
Their families are still looking for answers: Permella Hargrove, Ball’s aunt, pleaded in an interview, “Anyone that knows anything about these murders would you please, please, please help our families to get some justice and some peace.”
Based on the conditions required for black women to obtain justice, the peace they and thousands of black families seek seems tragically far off.
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Kali Gross, a Public Voices fellow, is an associate professor and associate chairwoman of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin.
Kali Nicole Gross, Ph.D., a Public Voices fellow, is an associate professor and associate chair of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow her on Twitter.