The crisis of missing Black women and girls in Massachusetts

They deserve light, love, and freedom to be who they are

If Black women were free it, would mean everyone else would have to be free”
Combahee River Collective Statement 

I START WITH this line taken from the Combahee River Collective’s statement, issued by the Black feminist lesbian socialist organization formed in 1974 in Boston. The Combahee River Collective was created due to the exclusion of perspectives from Black women. Their goal was to build coalitions with other activist groups in efforts to dismantle imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy. They believed that if Black women and girls were the most marginalized members of society, and we obtained liberation, it would be possible for everyone else to be liberated. The statement should be a key resource for political organizers and elected officials because we should center Black women and girls in every social issue — such as that of missing persons. 

Massachusetts has a large data problem. As a researcher, I know that data is pertinent because it allows us to make informed decisions based on what is measured and or observed. Simply put, data can improve lives, especially for those who have been historically excluded. I start with this to argue that Massachusetts does not have an accessible database that indicates the number of missing Black women and girls. 

Boston community organizers have highlighted the increasing number of Black women and girls who go missing in Massachusetts, but our media and elected officials have not. In December, I was scrolling on Twitter, and I saw community organizers doing their best to draw attention to multiple cases where Black women and girls were going missing in Massachusetts every week, along with several other women of color.

One case that still has Black women wondering about their protection is the case of Sherelle Pringle. Pringle was a Black woman from Woburn who went missing and was later found dead. Black women and girls are collectively mourning the deaths of Pringle and others of our own every day. Enraged and hurt with the loss of Pringle and other Black women and girls, I was curious to identify the forms of oppression that are leading us to death in Massachusetts. I’m not making assumptions about any cases, but I’m revealing connections that need to be examined more closely by legal personnel and elected officials to reduce the ongoing crisis of missing Black women and girls. 

We know our Black women and girls are going missing and being found dead but there is no documentation. Further, there has been no legislation introduced in the State House that centers Black women and girls going missing and dying. Our Massachusetts elected officials have not treated this issue with the urgency and fierce support that it warrants. Lastly, there is a link between human trafficking and missing Black women and girls; we must not ignore the deleterious effects human trafficking has on the development and health of our Black women and girls. Lastly, the media reports missing white children far more than Black children. As a result, we often don’t hear about the disappearances of Black children unless it comes from Black activists and community members. Black girls tend to be classified as runaways, which removes others from the responsibility to protect them. The aggrandizement of labels placed upon Black women and girls, but the lack of commitment to interrogating the cause, are in conflict. We must find the intersections of missing persons and human trafficking and other forms of exploitation because they ultimately can lead to the death of Black women and girls.  

Black women and girls are targets for human trafficking and other forms of subjugation due to socioeconomic status, and the criminalization and sexualization of Black girls. Traffickers exploit those at the margins, and our elected officials are more than aware of this. The problem in Massachusetts is a byproduct of the absence of data. We need the information and resources to prioritize the well-being of Black women and girls. Furthermore, we need collective action that isn’t dependent solely on the intellectual and physical labor of Black women and girls. 

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that there were approximately 613,000 missing persons reported in 2018. The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database lists 424,066 missing children under 18 in 2018, and about 37 percent of those children are Black, even though Black children make up only about 14 percentof all children in the country. Black women and girls comprise around 7 percent of the entire population, yet there are over 64,000 missing Black girls in the United States. 

Lisa Lvette Hall and Jennifer Kabura Mbugua are two Black women from Massachusetts who have been missing for years, and their cases are unsolved. Recently, more Black girls have gone missing and, fortunately, have been found. We can assume that there are many more Black women and girls missing who are yet to be found.  

To understand this crisis in detail, we must have a thorough understanding of intersecting systems of oppression. Intersectionality, a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, explains the multiple axes of oppression Black women and girls encounter when it comes to criminal justice. Intersectionality also explains the lack of urgency in facing the disappearances of Black women and girls head on. Historically, Black children have been treated and reprimanded more punitively solely based on stereotypes. As Rebecca Epstein, Dr. Jamila J. Blake, and Thalia Gonzalez cogently put it in Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,  the crux of adultification lies within “a social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.” Black women and girls are hypersexualized and turned into caricatures based on the media’s harmful representation of who they are, which has pernicious consequences. 

“We are dispossessed psychologically and on every other level, and yet we feel the necessity to struggle to change the condition of all Black women.”
– Combahee River Collective Statement
 

I’m inspired by the Black women and girls in Boston and adjacent cities who are making noise about this. But we are beyond conversation. We need task forces and legislation. In September 2021, the Green Party of the United States National Women’s Caucus presented a statement calling for a task force for this specific issue. I urge Massachusetts to do the same as we enter 2022. This opinion piece can only serve as a snapshot of the ideas and frameworks that help place the issue of missing Black women and girls in context. Their identities have been gravely misrepresented, and their frequent disappearances require the wheels of government to prevent further harm. 

The Massachusetts Human Trafficking Task Force, Child Justice Unit, and State Police are failing Black women and girls in three critical ways: (1) they are not accounting for missing and trafficked Black children in general; (2) they are not actively engaging with Black communities to identify solutions; and (3) they have no infrastructure in place to examine such issues caused by intersecting systems of oppression, and therefore no available prevention and interventions efforts. Protection is possible if we work together and not in isolation. 

Protection looks like: 

  1.  A separate task force to protect Black women and girls, and other young girls of color. 
  1. Legislative measures and data collection that account for racial-gender disparities of missing persons in Massachusetts. 
  1. Media coverage of missing Black children. 
  1. More widely accessible legal services and protections extended to Black children. 
  1. Police accountability for perpetuating the adultification of Black girls. 

Massachusetts, we cannot wait for other states to find solutions. We need to get moving. As the Combahee River Collective expresses, Black women and girls are valuable to our ecosystem. Black women and girls deserve freedom in the form of protection. 

As children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated differently. For example, we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being “ladylike” and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. As we grew older we became aware of the threat of physical and sexual abuse by men.
– Combahee River Collective Statement 

Meet the Author
No one is free until we are free. 

Alexandria Onuoha is a PhD student in applied developmental psychology at Suffolk University and director of political advocacy at Black Boston. The names of missing Black girls who were found are not stated in this article to protect their privacy.