Fifty Shades of Black: Carlee Russell, Race and Media Selective Mutism
When 22-year-old White American van life blogger Gabby Petito went missing in 2021 and was later found dead in Wyoming Park, the story hit the news across the world. From beginning to Gabby's sad, grizzly end (and later the demise of the boyfriend who killed her), the story featured highly on social media and the mainstream media. The attention her story received sparked widespread discussion of the lack of news coverage about missing people of colour, as seen in a BBC article on the phenomenon of 'missing white girl syndrome'. This is the theory that White, attractive, middle-class missing women are more likely to be featured in media than people of any other ethnicity. The article poignantly went on to feature previously unreported stories of missing Native, African and Korean Americans.
The 'missing white girl syndrome' theory appeared to be confirmed once again, this time here in the UK when Nicola Bulley, White and middle class, went missing in January 2023. The story gripped the nation until her body was found the following month. In contrast, the death of Blessing Olusegan in September 2020 received minimal media attention. Blessing was Black and only 21 years old. A business student undertaking a work placement in Bexhill, East Sussex, she was reported missing shortly after her placement began only for her body to mysteriously be found on Glyne Gap Beach. A post-mortem ruled that she had drowned and the police did not treat the matter as suspicious despite the odd circumstances of her death. After an outcry from Blessing's family about the media and police response, her death received moderate media attention following the death of Sarah Everard - a 33-year-old White middle class woman who was raped and murdered by a serving Metropolitan (Met) Police officer. Nevertheless, Sarah's story, like Nicola's, ultimately eclipsed Blessing's story.
Most honest people on both sides of the Atlantic will admit that 'missing white girl syndrome' is a thing. If asked to recount the most memorable media-reported cases of missing people, most would readily recall White female victims but struggle to remember any non-Whites. However, beyond these anecdotal observations, U.S. research has long identified the existence of this syndrome as seen in papers presented by Sarah Stillman (2007), Rebecca Wanzo (2008) and Mia Moody-Ramirez and Harriett Blackwell (2009). In the UK, the charity Missing People presented data in March 2023 which showed the following:
Black children are more likely to be missing for over 48 hours and for over a week than White children. Asian children are more likely to be missing for over a week than White children
A lower proportion of missing incidents related to Black and Asian people going missing were resolved by the person being found by the police
Missing people from Black or Asian communities are less likely to be recorded as being at risk by the police due to their mental health or being at risk of exploitation (children) than other people
Yet, non-White ethnicities still receive less media coverage than missing White women. Both here and as recognised by Syracuse University professor Carol Liebler in the U.S., some of the reason for the disparity in media response to reports between White and non-White missing people is down to prejudicial attitudes and behaviours within law enforcement. The media relies heavily on the police to prioritise and verify crime stories. If law enforcement places the most importance on missing White women, the media will usually follow suit.
It was therefore heartening to see how quickly and widely the story of Black American Carlee Russell spread across social and televised media when she was first reported missing. On 13 July 2023, 25-year-old nursing student Russell from Hoover, Alabama rang the police to report her sighting of a toddler wandering alone down a motorway. When police arrived at the scene, Russell's vehicle and some personal belongings were found but the toddler was not - and neither was Russell. A thorough search effort led by police was undertaken and up to $25,000.00 was raised as a reward for her safe return.
Rather unexpectedly, Russell returned home alone on foot just two days later. In a retrospectively cringeworthy, watch-through-fingers interview of her tearful parents (during which Russell's mother spoke emphatically while her father sat mostly quietly with a mild look of panic), Russell's mother asserted in a slightly defensive tone how Russell had fought for her life mentally and physically during her supposed abduction, although more could not be shared because of the ongoing investigation. This investigation, however, was soon obstructed by Russell herself who initially spoke with police upon return but refused further interviews. Nine days after going home, Russell admitted through lawyers that she made the whole thing up. As it turns out, many online crime sleuths and social commentators were unsurprised but it's safe to say that whether surprised or not everyone is horrified at being Jussie Smollett-ed for the second time.
There are many aspects of Russell's behaviour that are vulgar and offensive but perhaps the worst is how her selfish ploy has undermined the cause of genuine non-White missing people. Unlike the norm, Russell's case unusually and quickly gained a high media profile and unified national concern. The media remains focused on this shocking story as it unfolds but there appears to be no discussion of how Russell, a Black woman, has possibly weakened the prospect of high-profile media attention on future missing people who share her ethnicity. By deciding to fake her own kidnapping, Russell has fed into racist perceptions of Black women as less honourable, less credible and less worthy of attention than White women. The media, which capitalises on any opportunity to whip the American public into a frenzy about White-on-Black racism, is mute about the Black-on-Black impact of Russell's behaviour. However, the implications of Russell's behaviour as a Black person should be heavily scrutinised, especially in this day and age, and here is why.
The discussion of race is a politicised, largely emotion-driven argument which in recent years has become hijacked by agendas over facts. As a general rule, Whiteness is villainised and Blackness is victimised. Seen pervasively in every sector of Western society, including media, education and business, there are exaggerated demonstrations of racial penance where White people get penalised just for being White and Blacks get away with bad behaviour. These are superficial bandages that serve only to cover deep wounds of genuine race issues that never get properly addressed. As such, true injustices of racial inequality, such as 'missing white girl syndrome', become obscured. This is race baiting, the use of a smokescreen to suppress a legitimate discourse on race. It is one of media's most powerful weapons, influencing the race discussion to distract and disempower citizens and keep certain people in charge.
As this approach to the topic of racism consumes most narratives, the principle of personal accountability gets swallowed whole. As a result, Black people are somehow deemed perpetual victims of white supremacy no matter their personal decisions. In its current form, white supremacy is a fundamentally racist ideology because it implies, presumes and reinforces the idea that Black people lack the capacity, resilience or talent to persevere beyond the unique challenges we may face, which is clearly untrue. In May 2023, President Joe Biden said in a speech that white supremacy is 'the most dangerous terrorist threat' to America. Ironically, he said this at a Howard University graduation ceremony. If white supremacy is such a problem, I'm unclear as to how this 156-year-old historically Black university churning out Black graduates could successfully exist.
As long as Blacks buy into the idea that we are severely oppressed by white supremacy, many become demoralised and don't bother to improve their status, or resort to questionable means to improve themselves - all of which suits those in power just fine. In the current race baiting climate, Black people do not have to be held responsible for their lack of progress or for their bad decisions and can instead place all blame for their negative circumstances on white supremacy, which fosters attitudes that can render some of us persistently lazy and entitled. A disturbing example of this was seen in April 2023 when a Black woman demanded that Walmart allow her to leave the store with $1000.00 worth of merchandise without paying because she was entitled to slavery reparations. Yes. That actually happened.
In order to overcome race baiting, one of the most important things we need to do is challenge the lie of white supremacy and reaffirm the principle of personal accountability. On 4 July 2023, America's Independence Day, successful Black American neo-soul singer Jill Scott stood in front of an audience and sang an altered version of the Star Spangled Banner ending with 'This is not the land of the free but the home of the slave.' The first reason why this is complete rubbish is that Scott herself is worth about $14 million. Never heard of a millionaire slave before. The second reason is that she was singing at the Essence Music Festival, a nearly 30-year-old annual festival which is the largest Black music and culture event in America. Never heard of slaves being able to pull that off before. The third reason is that dating back to the American Civil War (which resulted in the abolition of slavery in 1865) we have innumerable examples of Black people achieving great success despite the presence of racism. Here are just a few examples.
George Washington Carver was born in 1864, just one year before the Civil War ended yet became an agricultural scientist, professor and prominent inventor. Two years after the war ended, Madame C.J. Walker was born in 1867 and became America's first female self-made millionaire, as well as a philanthropist and activist. Black inventor Alexander Miles received a patent for the electric elevator in 1887 - just 27 years after the Civil War. Sarah Boone improved the iron board and became the first black woman in America to receive a patent five years later in 1892.
There are many more individuals we can refer to in the discussion of Black achievement in America. There is Garrett Morgan (1877-1963) who was a prolific inventor, Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008) who was a NASA mathematician, Thomas Sewell (b. 1930) who is an economist, author, social commentator and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Ben Carson (b. 1951) who is a retired neurosurgeon, politician, author and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Condoleezza Rice (b. 1954) who is a former Secretary of State and is an American diplomat, political scientist and director at Stanford University, Mae Jemison (b. 1956) who was a NASA astronaut and is a physician and engineer, and Mark E. Dean (b.1957) who is a prominent inventor, computer engineer and a co-creator of the IBM personal computer. The list of Black American pioneers is endless and in the UK we have our own plethora of Black British pioneers and prominent contributors.
As we continue to move far away from slavery through the modern day, most people can readily refer to many other powerful and highly successful Black American figures in popular culture, such as Martin Luther King, Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, former U.S. President Barack Obama and more. My extensive listing of Black American success stories, especially those closest to the time of slavery, is intentional in order to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to assert that slavery continues to be the reason why so many Black Americans fail to thrive and succeed today. Without doubt, most if not all the individuals listed here faced some type of race-related obstacle but none were great enough to stop their success. They are proof that personal determination supersedes all else despite a socio-economic infrastructure that may at times favour Whites. The only slavery that still exists for Blacks is the belief that our success is still shackled to approval and intervention from White people.
Another essential way that we must challenge race baiting is by calling out the impact of bad behaviour from Black people when it happens. This is a key way to help us as Black people understand the importance of self-determination, the repercussions of bad decisions, and the difference between personal repercussions and genuine racism. It is virtually impossible to recognise or tackle real racism unless we make these distinctions, and we cannot have true equality if bad behaviour is not treated equally across all ethnicities. Unless Black people acknowledge the ways in which we undermine ourselves, we will forever hinder our own progress. An examination of Russell, and other high profile examples of bad behaviour, sadly demonstrate this.
A few weeks ago, the American media was ablaze in rage at the 29 June 2023 Supreme Court ruling that affirmative action in university admissions is unlawful. Wailings of despair and screams of horror could be heard across the country that Blacks are now doomed to failure. But apparently Russell wasn't that worried. Despite being a nursing student with a promising career ahead, just two weeks after the Supreme Court ruling, Russell decided that throwing her educational opportunity away and facing criminal charges is a better way forward. The media is strangely mute about her frivolous treatment of access to academia as a Black woman in the post-affirmative action era.
In 1994, Susan Smith, a White woman, told police that a Black man carjacked her vehicle and drove off with her kids, who were later found drowned. When it emerged that Smith fabricated the story and was suspected of killing her own kids (which was later proved true), there was an outcry that she blamed a Black man; I suppose she thought it made her appear more of a victim if juxtaposed against a scary negro perpetrator. Interestingly, there is no media outcry about Russell's false allegation that her abductor was a White man, despite this allegation being just as racist as Smith's. Notably, it isn't just Russell that the media has stayed mute about.
In 2016, actress Will Smith, wife Jada, and filmmaker Spike Lee boycotted the Oscars on the basis that it appeared to only be rewarding White artists. It seems Jada Pinkett Smith in particular was salty that her husband had not been nominated that year. The boycott was all over the news. Six years later, The Smiths attended the Oscars with Will Smith nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for the film King Richard. The Oscars that year was produced by Will Packer, an experienced Black film producer, no doubt in an attempt to bring more racial diversity to the Oscars.
In what has come to be known as 'The Slap Heard Around the World', Will Smith smacked host and Black American comedian Chris Rock across the face and shouted profanity from his seat during the televised live ceremony following a silly joke Rock made about Jada. Smith went on to win the Oscar but this was understandably overshadowed by his behaviour. While the story was headline news for weeks, the media avoided the elephant in the room, which is that years after his boycott in an attempt to demand validation from White people, Will Smith self-destructed in the moment it was finally granted by resorting to Black-on-Black violence on a world stage. In one fell swoop, Smith successfully fed into the racist perception that Black men are violent, irreputable and less worthy of prominence and recognition than White men. On the subjection of Black violence, it gets worse.
In January 2023, Tyre Nicholls, a 29-year-old Black man from Memphis, Tennessee was brutally murdered by five Black police officers. Their behaviour completely flew in the face of the media-promoted belief that all police brutality is committed by White officers against Black victims. In a country that many repeatedly claim to be systemically racist, these Black men were able to successfully pursue careers as police officers, only to discard this achievement by choosing to unjustly murder another Black man while in the line of duty. Of course, some scrambled in the media to blame the officers' deplorable behaviour on a convoluted, self-hating expression of white supremacy. But this assertion has quickly run out of steam and an honest examination of crime statistics helps us understand why.
As of 2021, approximately 14% of America's population (about 47,000,000) is Black. FBI National Press Office data indicates that in 2020 there were 6,597,394 individual victims of crime, 24% of whom (1,583,375) were Black. Of the 7,173,072 known offenders, 29.6% (2,123,229) were Black. As the data also indicates that approximately 75% of victims knew or were related to their offenders, it is apparent that most crimes against Blacks were committed by other Blacks and it is equally true that most White victims were subjected to crime from White offenders.
When rumours began to spread that Tyre Nicholls had been dating the wife or girlfriend of one of the Black officers, and that this was the motive for the attack (in keeping with the above statistic that most Blacks are killed by Blacks known to them), it becomes evident why the white supremacy argument fell apart in the media. It is far more likely that the Black cops are simply horrible people who chose to abuse their power in order to viciously enact revenge for personal reasons. It seems that this stark reality has made it difficult for the media to racially politicise this murder in the way it has other incidents of police brutality. As such, the media has gone mute and the Tyre Nicholls case has virtually disappeared from the news.
Here in the UK, we have our own police issues. The Casey Report published in March 2023 confirmed that racism and other discriminatory behaviours are deeply entrenched within the Met Police, the police service for Greater London. But this is not news. Despite that Blacks make up only 4% of the population of England and Wales, research in 2020 showed that the Met were 'four times more likely' to use force on Black people than on Whites, which had previously been reported in 2018. Other recent research indicates that only 6 in 1,000 Whites are stopped and searched compared to 36 in 1,000 Blacks. These are incredibly discouraging figures which prevent Black people from trusting the very police whose help we need in the face of disproportionate criminal disadvantages. For example, in the three years from 2020, Black people in London were -
Nearly twice as likely to be a recorded rape victim than White people
66% more likely to be a reported victim of domestic abuse
Over 2.5 times more likely to be a victim of a hate crime
Over 1.5 times (167%) more likely to be a reported missing person in London in the last 12 months than White people
For these reasons, when I see Black social media personality Bacari-Bronze O'Garro (also known as Mizzy) - an unattractive 18-year-old miscreant with inexplicable hair who posts public pranks online that repeatedly result in him being cuffed by police - as a Black person I am viscerally disgusted. While Black people are having unwanted and unwarranted encounters with the police on a daily basis, and suffering inordinately from crime, Mizzy takes it as sport to create opportunities to get arrested as entertainment. His behaviour does nothing more than make White racists feel justified in their prejudice against Black people.
What is the upshot of all of this? Well, there's a lot I'm trying to say. Firstly, I am stating that the issue of race is nuanced and extremely complicated. The mainstream dogmatic, simplistic and non-factual assertions that Whites are all bad and make all Blacks sad is unhelpful. When talking about race, instead of being driven by emotions such as anger, fear, shame and guilt, or jumping on a virtue-signalling bandwagon, it would help us all to step back, look at the facts and to commit to addressing these honestly. With that in mind, I am attempting to say a few other things, too.
I am saying that there really are 'fifty shades of black', in that Black people are not a homogenous blob of people with the exact same circumstances, values, ambitions and levels of integrity. In the discussion of race, there should be a recognition of differences amongst Black people, with an acknowledgement that different circumstances and personal choices create different outcomes. As such, there are times that the disadvantages experienced by Blacks are a direct result of the external forces of racism, such as poor media and police response to missing reports, and police mistreatment. However, there are also many instances where Black people's problems are caused by the internal behaviour of lack of personal accountability and poor decisions - as we see with Russell and the others highlighted here (Will Smith, the Memphis Black police officers, and Mizzy). There can be no real solutions to genuine issues of racial inequality without making the distinction between external causative factors of disadvantage and self-induced disadvantage.
I am also trying to point out the futility of Black people angrily demanding opportunity, restitution and acceptance from White people while sabotaging the opportunities we already have which, by the way, real slaves did not have. Black people should be just as angry about Blacks, like Russell and the others, who squander opportunities to improve themselves as they are about racist Whites who block our opportunities. There are many before us who fought for us to have these opportunities and their efforts should be respected. The fight against anti-Black racism is a waste of time if we Blacks destroy ourselves.
In addition, I am pointing out that Russell and the others (with the exception of Mizzy) were in privileged positions when they did their misdeeds. It should be noted that there may well be many ways that some Whites experience privilege associated with their colour. However, this does not mean that all Whites are automatically more privileged across all aspects of life above Blacks, or that Blacks cannot be privileged socially or economically above Whites. The concept of White privilege makes Blacks preoccupied with the idea of Whites having elevated status, whether real or perceived, while distracting Blacks from the privileges which are already available to us. It's a concept that therefore needs to be discarded.
Moreover, I am saying that whether we like it nor not, the bad things we do as Black people can work against us in ways that they may not work against people of other ethnicities when they do the same things. It may not be fair but that's the way it is. Our public perception is more fragile than others. All Russell and the others have done is feed bad ideas about Black people into the collective conscious, creating more barriers for decent Black people to have to fight through.
I am also highlighting that the media is alternately emphatic or mute in ways which are biased, dishonest and done to serve disingenuous political agendas. The current mainstream media narrative on race, and its selective mutism, is neither helpful to Blacks or Whites and it feeds into a division which serves the purposes of unseen powers greater than most of us can imagine. It's time to think critically, to be honest with ourselves and to be bold enough to challenge popular false race narratives. As I said in my BLM blog, and as demonstrated by Russell and the others, evil comes in every colour. If we turn our attention away from the subject of race and focus on the issue of integrity, we may just begin to get somewhere as human beings.
Perhaps most importantly, I'm stating that Blacks are incredibly creative and resourceful, as seen by the multiple success stories mentioned before. If we weren't, the West would not have spent centuries exploiting Africa and people of African descent. But time spent chasing White people for apologies and reparations we may never get is time lost developing our own remedies for recovery. It's crazy to be begging for a seat at the table when we are perfectly capable of building our own tables. And I am not talking about segregation. I am simply speaking of developing and maintaining our own sense of agency and devising our own solutions for personal progression, which everyone should ultimately do for themselves as much as possible regardless of ethnicity.
I am also hopefully inspiring Black people to use their talents and resources to create strategies to help tackle the real issues of racism, including the statistical racial disparities identified here, rather than perpetually looking for White saviours to fix everything for us. There are many Black individuals and organisations who are already doing this. However, publicly I feel there should be greater focus on these efforts than on what efforts we feel Whites should be making for us. After all, personal determination supersedes all else.
Finally, in case you're wondering, Russell did not fake her own kidnapping because of white supremacy. She did it because just like anyone else of any other ethnicity is capable of being, she's an idiot. Here's to equality.