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Disparities in justice for missing and murdered women

The spectacle of true crime has become a popular topic in recent years, particularly among women that I know. Even I am obsessed with true crime podcasts, documentaries and am excited about the claim that the Zodiac killer has potentially been found. But behind these stories are real people. There is real suffering within each podcast we listen to and real consequences to be faced for the violence we sensationalize. 

There are stark differences that must be acknowledged within the criminal justice system regarding missing and murdered women of various races and backgrounds. Stories of missing white women are turned into national headlines, their searches televised and widespread. White women are a picture of innocence within the justice system. Yet this innocence is a facade. White women’s claims have forever put innocent Black men behind bars, and have caused lynchings across the American South. It is no coincidence that the efforts put into solving crimes against white women in particular are far stronger than those put into crimes against women who fall into various minority groups. 

Indigenous women are sexually assaulted and murdered at significantly higher rates than white women. The murder rate is 10 times higher for women living on reservations than the national average. In Wyoming between 2000 and 2020, indigenous homicide victims made up 21 percent of all homicides despite making up only three percent of the population. Additionally, indigenous women are two times more likely than white women to be raped, and three times more likely to be murdered. Indigenous women have seen the way their cases are largely ignored by law enforcement and the media and have compared this to the recent widespread coverage of the Gabby Petito case. It is rare that cases of missing and murdered indigenous women are covered by popular media sources, and when they are there is often a negative light shined on the victim, almost blaming them for the violence they face. On top of bias preferring white victims in the media, there is also an alarming issue of poor communication within law enforcement combined with the issue of jurisdiction. This has caused the U.S. Department of Justice to only report 117 cases of missing indigenous women and girls, when there have actually been nearly six thousand cases as of 2016. 

Fortunately, this issue has become well known in recent months. This past April, the Secretary of the Interior created a new unit, entitled the Missing and Murdered Unit, which will pursue justice for missing and murdered indigenous people. President Biden also declared May 5, 2021 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day. But these are shallow actions until true change has come, and the outcry of indigenous women in the past month during the Petito case has shown that not much has changed since these acts. 

These disparities in justice do not stop at indigenous women, but continue into other minority groups. Nearly one hundred thousand Black women and girls have gone missing in the United States, and similarly to those of indigenous women, their cases are rarely news. Similarly to indigenous women, Black women go missing at a disproportionate rate to their percentage of the population. In 2020, one third of all women reported missing were Black. These cases of missing and murdered Black individuals are significantly less likely to be solved than those of white victims. The clearance rate for homicides involving white victims are 78 percent, versus the 67 percent for those involving Black or Hispanic victims, according to data from 1980 to 2008. New York City’s disparity is far worse than average. 86 percent of homicides involving white victims are solved, compared to 45 percent of those involving Black victims. Even in Boston there is a wide gap in arrest rates between the murders of white victims and Black victims. This may be based in racial biases within law enforcement, as well as a lack of cooperation within Black communities due to their very valid fear of police. 

At the intersection of various marginalized identities is where we find an even more significant lack of justice, particularly the intersection of transgender women of color. 78 percent of the victims of fatal violence against transgender and gender non-conforming invidiuals were transgender women of color. Black transgender women make up 66 percent of all known victims since 2013. Most victims of crimes against transgender individuals are trans women, and most victims (85 percent) are people of color, meaning those who are both trans women and people of color are at the highest risk of violence. Similarly to the failure in reporting in regards to missing and murdered indigenous women, the FBI has inconsistent statistics on how many transgender individuals have been the victims of fatal violence as compared to the Human Rights Campaign. While the HRC has reported 165 fatalities from 2013 to 2019, the FBI has only reported two. There is a terrifying epidemic of not only violence against transgender individuals, but underreporting and non-reporting of the violence they face. Additionally, there are legal loopholes which almost allow this type of violence towards transgender individuals. LGBT “panic” defense strategies are only banned in 16 states, not including Massachusetts (although legislation has been introduced against these strategies this year). 

The United States has a long way to go in creating equality within the justice system. The sensationalization of the Gabby Petito case shines a light on the issues that are so often overlooked by American media and law enforcement. Many indigenous women and Black women in the United States are subjected to higher levels of violence that Anglo-American women are not subjected to, and their cases are less likely to be solved, and in some cases reported at all. These disparities in justice cut deep, and anyone passionate about true crime must not ignore the failures of the community in discussing stories of missing and murdered non-white women.

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