Nobody knows what happened to Hannah Graham, the University of Virginia sophomore who disappeared on Sept. 13—though a lot of people probably have their suspicions, given the arrest of Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr. Naturally, interest in the case has been intense. Search parties have combed Charlottesville and Texas, where Matthew was captured, in hopes of finding Graham. News outlets have covered the story heavily.
By comparison, there has been almost no interest in Tyrell Alexander, a Richmond, Virginia, boy who disappeared the very same day Graham did. Tyrell is 15 years old, 5-foot-2, and weighs 110 pounds. He was last seen riding his bicycle.
Nor has much attention been paid to Amy Acuna Valdivia, a 16-year-old who disappeared from Herndon six days later. Or 13-year-old Traivon Brathwaite of Norfolk, missing since Sept. 2. Or Leniqua Collins of Richmond, gone since Sept. 23.
If you visit the missing-children page on the website of the Virginia State Police, you'll see scores and scores of notices for kids who have vanished. Some have been missing only a few days. Others have been missing for months. Others for years.
Where are they? What happened to them?
Hannah Graham is a straight-A student, an alpine skier, a saxophone player. She is also an attractive young white woman. And when attractive young white women disappear, their disappearances tend to receive far more attention than the disappearances of people from other demographics. This happens so often—Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, etc.—that there's even a name for it: Missing White Woman Syndrome.
Granted, Graham's case contains elements that point to foul play. She can be seen on video walking and running on largely deserted streets late at night after attending two parties in Charlottesville. A man who thought she was in distress began to follow her until he saw another man put his arm around her, whereupon the witness left. Police questioned Matthew briefly—then he skipped town. On Tuesday, the public learned of DNA evidence connecting Matthew to Morgan Harrington, an attractive Virginia Tech student who disappeared after a 2009 concert in Charlottesville. Her body was found in a field three months later. The alarming story reads almost like a TV-movie script.
We don't have similarly dramatic details about Tyrell Alexander or the others. Maybe they ran away. Maybe they're caught in custody fights between divorced parents. Or maybe they were pulled into a panel van, raped, and strangled. Seems a pity more of us aren't interested in finding out.
People often assume young white women are "innocent victims," says Dori Maynard, who advocates for diversity in the media, "whereas with poor children or children of color, there's some nefarious activities involved." Such people overlook the fact that children remain innocent victims even when nefarious activities are involved. Conjure up the worst stereotype you can think of about the urban poor underclass. Then try to explain how a young boy or girl in those circumstances is any more responsible for them than Hannah Graham was for whatever happened to her.
Missing White Woman Syndrome is troubling enough when it is unintended, as it usually is. That wasn't the case with Jessica Lynch, the Iraq War soldier who was captured in 2003. The Pentagon made her out to be a heroine who fought like a tigress against her captors—an account that was useful propaganda but, according to Lynch herself, just plain false.
But have you heard of Shoshana Johnson, a black woman who was captured alongside Lynch in the same firefight? Why didn't the Pentagon portray her as a tigress? And why did it say nearly nothing about the four male soldiers — Edgar Hernandez, Joseph Hudson, Patrick Miller, and James Riley—captured with them? Six Americans were taken captive that day. America learned about only one of them.
You can make an evolutionary-psychology argument that we care less about men because, in terms of human-species propagation, women are a much more valuable resource. That seems pretty crass. Ethical considerations are supposed to transcend, and sometimes even frustrate, base evolutionary instincts. If mere species propagation were morality's guiding star, then men with multiple baby mamas would be eligible for sainthood.
In any event, such distinctions don't explain the racial disparity—and they are irrelevant to the disappearance of children, who constitute both the prospects of humanity and the apotheosis of innocence.
True, incidents involving those who are not pretty young white women do sometimes make national news: Trayvon Martin, for instance. Or Michael Brown. But those are rather different sorts of discussions, aren't they?
None of this is meant to suggest we should care any less about Hannah Graham. Her disappearance is a searing event; her absence, a gaping wound. Of course we should care, very deeply, about what happened to her. We should care just as much about a black teenager from a broken home who vanished one day after skipping school. But how many people do?
It is "self-evident," wrote the founders in the Declaration, "that all men are created equal." Two centuries later, we still have a hard time treating them that way.