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Women of Color, Lost Even Among the Lost (Part 1 of Two)


By Seamus McGraw


Sisterhood of Sorrow

Jennifer Wilbanks
Jennifer Wilbanks

There was the round the clock coverage of the so called Runaway Bride, Jennifer Wilbanks, who was portrayed largely as a victim of some unspeakable horror until it was discovered that she had engineered her own disappearance, running off to Las Vegas to avoid her pending wedding. And who can forget Elizabeth Smart, the teen abducted from her Utah home and held as captive for nine long months by a deranged drifter, Brian David Mitchell, a self-described prophet who called himself Emanuel, and his wife? Mitchell and his wife later were deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial and are undergoing treatment in a secure facility in the hopes that some day they will be able to face a jury.

Laci Peterson
Laci Peterson

There was the case of Laci Peterson, the pretty pregnant wife who vanished only to turn up dead at the hands of her handsome and apparently heartless husband. He was later convicted of her murder and sentenced to death. It was a measure of how intense the media attention generated by that case was that lawmakers, perhaps responding to the public and press fascination with all its gory details, passed a law allowing them to prosecute the killer of a pregnant woman with two counts of murder if the infant died. The law was dubbed "Connor's Law," in honor of Peterson's unborn child. And there was the case of Lori Hacking, the pretty young Utah housewife who vanished in 2004, and like Peterson, was later found dead, a victim of her husband's rage, a jury later decided.

And there have been children as well. Megan Kanka, the seven-year-old New Jersey girl raped and murdered more than a decade ago by a sex offender living in her neighborhood. So great was the media attention focused on that case that it sparked a hastily adopted package of laws in the state legislature later adopted by the Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton that required sex offenders to register and in some cases, for their presence in the community to be announced to the public. The laws have come to be known as "Megan's Law." Amber Hagerman who was abducted and killed in 1996 is another member of the sorority. Her death in Texas prompted the establishment of the nationwide missing child notification system now called Amber Alerts.

In each of these cases, the women or girls in question were the objects of intense media attention. But they also had something else in common. All of them were pretty, and all of them were white.

It is, say media experts, almost unthinkable, that the news media is consciously discriminating against women of color when choosing which stories to devote limited time and resources to. But it is also true that, with few notable exceptions, when a black or Hispanic woman vanishes, scrutiny seldom reaches the kind of fevered pitch that it did with Peterson, or Hacking or even Grinstead.

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