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California creates ‘Ebony alert’ to find missing Black women and girls

California has become the first state to create an alert system specifically geared towards finding missing Black women and girls. Senate Bill 673 was signed by the governor, Gavin Newsom, earlier this week amid a wave of legislation that has come across the governor’s desk.

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Ebony alerts would allow the California highway patrol totrigger emergency notifications on phones and road signs – similar to Amber and Feather alerts – to let people know that a Black person between the ages of 12 and 25 is missing in the area.

“Our Black children and young women are disproportionately represented on the lists of missing persons,” Steven Bradford, a Democratic state senator who represents cities in southern LA county and authored the bill, said in a statement. “This is heartbreaking and painful for so many families and a public crisis for our entire state. The Ebony alert can change this.”

California does not break down data on missing persons by race, but nationally, Black people represent 35% of those reported missing to the federal government’s National Crime Information Center’s (NCIC) missing person’s file, according to a Guardian analysis of NCIC data, despite making up only 13% of the population.

In recent years, organizations like the Black and Missing Foundation have shone a light on these racial disparities, as well as the lack of attention missing people of color receive from law enforcement and news media.

The Black and Missing Foundation described Bradford’s bill as a “step in the right direction” that other US legislators should look to emulate.

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“It is important to continue to raise awareness about this issue and advocate for policies that prioritize finding missing people of color. We must ensure that every missing person is given the same amount of attention and resources, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status,” the Black and Missing Foundation said in a statement.

The California highway patrol only issues an Amber alert if a person younger than 17 is confirmed to have been abducted. This, along with longstanding assumptions about Black criminality, had led law enforcement to over-classify Black youth as runaways, according to SB673’s text.

These factors also obscure issues like sex trafficking, said Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of the Women’s Leadership Project in Los Angeles.

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“It’s outrageous that Black children that go missing are perceived as being runaways or criminal or vagrant in some way,” she said. “It’s a vicious cycle and does not get the exposure.”

But Hutchinson adds that this bill can only act as a Band-Aid if it doesn’t also lead to coordination between law enforcement, government and the local non-profits that work directly with trafficking victims and at-risk young people, especially those who have already had contact with the criminal legal system.

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“The superficial value is that there’s more exposure, more eyes and ears on these cases,” Hutchinson said. “The systemic impetus for this is not being addressed, it’s looking at the front end of prevention.”