Unsplash / James Eades

The disproportionate disappearances of Black Brits

The disappearance and subsequent death of Richard Okorogheye, a 19-year-old student from London, resulted in people taking to social media to support his family and raise awareness regarding the situation. However, his tragic death is only one example of the long line of disappearances disproportionately affecting the Black community. 

The National Crime Agency’s statistics for 2019/20 reveal that Black people make up 14% of missing persons cases – over four times the English and Welsh Black population at 3.3%. Similarly, Black Londoners account for 36% of missing persons cases in the city, but only make up 13.3% of the London population.

Recent disappearance cases such as Okorogheye, Blessing Olusegun, and Olisa Odukwe have resurfaced concerns surrounding these numbers, but it has been a longstanding issue in the UK. For example, Fatima Olodo disappeared in March 2016 and nursing student Joy Morgan went missing on Boxing Day 2018. 

Despite some of these high-profile cases, it is rare for missing Black Brits to receive as much media attention as missing white Brits. The media’s support for Sarah Everard has been compared to a lack of mainstream media coverage of Okorogheye, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson publicly addressing the former but not the latter. 

The search for Joy Morgan also only received widespread news coverage a month after she went missing, while the similar case of Libby Squire, a white student reported missing only six days earlier, quickly became well-known.

These disparities in media coverage can be explained by two potential factors. Firstly, mainstream media outlets and the journalism industry are disproportionately white. Statistics show that 94% of journalists are white, while only 0.2% are Black. A 2020 survey revealed that the UK’s 100 major media outlets did not have any non-white top editors. This contributes to unconscious bias in reporting – possibly making journalists more likely to write about missing persons who look like them.

It has been argued that [Madeline McCann’s case] case would not have received such widespread coverage, support, and funding if she was not white

Secondly, this ‘look’ of victims is key. Often the ‘ideal victim’ is a white woman or girl, showing the patriarchal biases of victimising women, and perpetuating the idea that white women need to be protected. This protection does not extend to Black women, often due to the racist stereotype of the ‘strong Black woman.’

Take the example of Madeleine McCann. Since her disappearance in 2007, £12 million has been given to Operation Grange to find her. It has been argued that her case would not have received such widespread coverage, support, and funding if she was not white. For example, cases of missing children of colour, such as Aamina Khan (who disappeared from South London in 2011 at age six) or Elizabeth Ogungbayibi (who went missing in 2006 at age five), have not become household names like McCann’s.  

While the media cannot cover every single missing person case, the lack of mainstream media attention on missing Black Brits, particularly when they are disproportionately affected, is telling of the wider problem of institutional racism in the media industry. It is also worrying as it could be a factor in why these Black Brits are often found too late. 

If there is less awareness about a missing person, fewer members of the general public are looking for them – thus, they are less likely to be found. While social media has lessened the reliance on these mainstream media outlets that often overlook missing Black persons, movement to tackle institutional racism in the media industry and diversifying the workforce could help to find missing Black people quicker.

Black people are over-policed as citizens, but under-policed as victims

– Spokesperson for Black Lives Matter

Institutional racism impacting the efficiency of searching for missing Black people is not just confined to the media industry – it has also affected police investigations. When Evidence Joel, mother of Okorogheye, first discussed her missing son with the police, she was told: “If you can’t find your son, how do you expect police officers to find [him] for you?.” 

The case was deemed low risk, meaning there is “no apparent threat or danger to the subject”, even though Joel had expressed her concern that Okorogheye had left without vital medication for his sickle cell disease. The Independent Office for Police Conduct is currently investigating the Met Police’s handling of Okorogheye’s case due to the complaints made by his mother.

The police also delayed investigating the missing persons case of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, with their mother Mina Smallman having to personally coordinate a search operation for them. A Black Lives Matter spokesperson told The Independent that these examples highlight “how Black people are over-policed as citizens, but under-policed as victims”.

To help prevent the deaths and disappearances of more Black Brits, these underlying causes need to be addressed

These tensions between Black communities and the police, and specific examples of negative incidents when Black people approach the police about a missing relative, could also discourage or delay Black people from reporting to the police in the first place, showing how the impact of the police’s institutional racism manifests in different ways.

Institutional racism in healthcare, specifically mental health services, also means that Black people may not receive the help they need. As mental health issues can be a contributing factor in disappearances, a lack of support for Black individuals within the healthcare system could also explain their overrepresentation in missing person cases.

Children in care are also more vulnerable to go missing; 23% of those in foster care are from an ethnic minority background in England. To help prevent the deaths and disappearances of more Black Brits, these underlying causes need to be addressed – particularly by giving more support to those in care and those with mental health issues. 

Tackling institutional racism within police forces and the media industry is also of the utmost importance. Proponents of police abolition argue that dismantling the police is the only way to achieve this, while others argue that police are of key importance in finding those who have gone missing.

Norton has used his software and technology training to help those in danger and support their families

For example, Dominic Norton, founder of MissingBlackPeople.com, said: “In missing persons cases, you need the police. They are part of the process.” Norton emphasises the importance of relations between the Black community and the police through his website, which allows users to view the latest missing Black persons cases opened by police in their local area. The website aims to “amplify the voices of the friends and families of Black people that are disappearing across the nation.”

Alongside starting a petition for a public enquiry into the disproportionate number of missing Black people – which to date has received over 15,000 signatures – Norton has used his software and technology training to help those in danger and support their families.

Missing persons charities have also taken up the issue – with Missing People UK and a North London grassroots charity, Minority Matters, both expressing their concerns over the handling of missing Black persons cases. The UK Missing Persons Unit has also been working with academics since late 2020 to try to uncover “the potential reasons for minority over-representation” in missing persons cases.

Richard Okorogheye and other recent cases of missing Black Brits have renewed conversations about the disproportionality of Black missing persons cases, highlighting yet another manifestation of institutional racism in the UK. Whether through sites such as MissingBlackPeople.com, through increased mental health support for Black communities, by diversifying the media industry, or by reforming the police: more must be done to help advance the search for – and prevent more cases of – missing Black Brits. 

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