The night nakyla williams disappeared on November 9, 2021, security cameras near her mother’s Indianapolis home caught her getting into a gray pickup truck. She never came home.
Williams would now be 26 years old and her disappearance has been immensely traumatic for her family, who have pushed for more media coverage of her case. Her cousin, Barry Stewart, said he believes Williams has been forgotten because she is a black woman.
«It’s causing anxiety, depression, fear,» Stewart said of her cousin’s disappearance. “A lot of the relationships in the family have broken down and fallen apart during this time, just because of the stress and the loss, the worry.”
blacks like Williams accounted for 39% of missing persons in 2022, according to the Black and Missing Foundation, a Maryland-based nonprofit group that works to raise awareness for missing people of color. More than 30,000 Black people in the US were still missing as of the end of 2022, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Crime Information. Half of those cases were missing black women and girls.
After authorities cast doubt on the claim that Carlee Russell, an Alabama woman who had briefly disappeared last week, online vitriol and critical comments poured in via social media.
Police said they could not verify Russell’s account of being kidnapped, citing that he had recently looked online about paying for Amber Alerts and the movie «Taken.» Russell’s parents did not comment on the police comments, but told NBC’s «TODAY» show Tuesday that their daughter had been kidnapped. Still, advocates and experts say his story should not diminish the reality that tens of thousands of Black people go missing each year in cases that rarely make national headlines or receive significant investigations by law enforcement.
“I would never apologize for believing a black girl given what we know about what happens to missing black girls and women,” said Treva Lindsey, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at The Ohio State University. «Our job is to believe first, and put the energy and resources behind it, and then see what happens.»
Lindsey said that while Russell’s case may not be what people initially thought it was, she was heartened by the collective attention it was given.
«That’s one of the first times I’ve seen that kind of swell around a missing black girl, a woman, in quite some time,» she added. “Every missing person deserves that kind of investment.”
One of those people is Williams. Stewart, her cousin, suspects that her disappearance is related to her opioid use, and that she was potentially manipulated by a friend who she believes gave her fentanyl-laced pills (police said they wanted to speak to that person, but have not been named as a suspect).
“The opioid crisis is real. It’s real all over the country, especially here in IndianaStewart said. He also said that when combination opioids affect people in white communities, it’s labeled a crisis, but when “there’s a black person, we’re written off and written off as having a drug problem. And that’s what we have to change.»
Lt. Shane Foley of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department told NBC News there were no updates on Williams’ case as of Friday afternoon.
Given the disproportionate reporting that missing black women are often ignored, the virality of Russell’s case is rare, Lindsey said. “We have to show people that we are worthy of empathy, worthy of attention, worthy of protection, worthy of being believed,” she said.
She cited misogyny, a concept that refers to the simultaneous misogyny and racism uniquely faced by black women, as a factor explaining why their cases have historically been downplayed.
While “there is a growing investment of people around missing black girls and women,” Lindsey added, “I still think we have a racial empathy gap. Seeing the aftermath of her finding suggests to me that we still have this kind of criminalizing, skeptical, cynical, ambivalent impulse around stories of missing Black women and girls.”
Journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” in 2004 to describe the disparity. Black men accounted for just over 15,500 missing people at the end of 2022, going missing at rates similar to those of Black women. Black children, who accounted for tens of thousands of people missing in 2022, go missing at higher rates than white children, according to the National Center for Crime Information.
Before investigators publicly challenged Russell’s account, some commenters on gossip sites like the shadow room and hollywood unlockedand others speculated that the Alabama woman was «lying» after she was reported home and safe.
Their case became “clickbait on the one hand,” Lindsey said, “but it’s also a familiar narrative of mistrust that embeds heavily into our broader culture.”
Toni Jacobs said police doubted her concern when her daughter keeshae jacobs disappeared in 2016. She was last seen leaving her apartment building in Richmond, Virginia.
“I had to prove that she was missing. She shouldn’t have had to argue with them. They said, ‘Well, maybe she just doesn’t feel like being bothered,’” Jacobs continued. «I told them that she calls me every day, she talks to me all day, so that’s not something she would normally do.»
His daughter, who would now be 27 years old, has still not been found. Richmond police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Keeshae Jacobs is among many people listed in the Black and Missing Foundation’s database, which has reunited hundreds of missing people with their families.
“There are people here looking for their missing loved ones,” said Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the organization. “So, I ask people before they close their hearts, go to our website, read stories about the staggering number of missing people of color. And you don’t know their names because they don’t make national headlines.»
Advocates like Wilson have long pointed out that police resources and media attention are generally focused more on missing white women than on people of color.
“Our focus is to make sure this case doesn’t set a precedent for all missing persons of color cases,” Wilson said. «Because we cannot afford to let one incident derail our progress for the last 15 years, because we have been advocates for families desperately searching for their missing loved ones.»
Wilson highlighted the case of 24-year-old Tamika Huston, who disappeared in May 2004. While Huston’s case was under the public’s radar, one of Wilson’s family members who lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he is from, caught Wilson’s attention. Houston’s aunt contacted the media to cover her niece’s story, but she remained silent, Wilson said.
Soon after, Wilson read headline after headline publicizing the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old white woman who went missing in 2005, and Jennifer Wilbanks, another white woman who went missing just days before her wedding that same year. Houston’s case came to an end in August 2005 when her ex-boyfriend, Christopher Hampton, led authorities to his remains. hampton pleaded guilty to killing Houston in 2006 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Wilson said people can’t let the details surrounding Russell’s case «derail» us from finding missing Black people and reducing the number of disappearances in the first place.
“We can never stop raising awareness and searching for those missing people, because they are our mothers, our fathers, sisters, brothers, valued members of our community,” Wilson said. “And we can no longer turn a blind eye to the problem. We have to address it head on.»