An axiom often attributed to Stalin says that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic. The death of Morgan Harrington, an attractive young Virginia Tech student who disappeared after a 2009 Metallica concert in Charlottesville, is certainly a tragedy. Her body was found three months later; her killer remains at large. Recently, Metallica put together a public-service announcement to help the State Police and the FBI find the man who murdered her.
The death of Yeardley Love, a UVa student killed in 2010 by her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely V, is tragic as well. And even for those who never knew them, the senseless, savage murder of Richmond’s Harvey family in 2006 is still horrific to contemplate. In 2006 Ricky Javon Gray and Ray Dandridge tied up Bryan and Kathryn Harvey and their daughters, nine-year-old Stella and four-year-old Ruby, slashed their throats, and beat them with a hammer before setting their house on fire and running off.
Most people in Central Virginia have at least a passing familiarity with the Harveys’ case. A plaque at Forest Hill Park honors their memory, a bridge there was named after them, and the Carytown Merchants Association created a memorial fund in their honor. The Harrington case still generates interest. People across the country also know about Love – from stories in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, from CNN and Sports Illustrated, from ABC News and USA Today, and many other sources besides.
Not many have heard about Amilkar Figeroa. The 26-year-old was shot and killed in South Richmond in 2009. A year later – the last time it got any coverage – the case remained unsolved. Ditto for Levon Alford andJomond Lightfoot, two other open-case homicide victims in Richmond. And Ashraf Alatiyat, who was killed during a robbery at the Come and Go Food Market he owned on Jeff Davis Highway. During the past five years Richmond alone has racked up 31 unsolved homicides of black men and women. When was the last time you saw one of them on TV?
We hear a lot about the disparate treatment of minorities in the criminal-justice system. Young blacks are arrested for drug crimes 10 times more often than whites, even though five times more whites than blacks use drugs. But there is also widely disparate treatment of minorities in non-judicial realm as well.
Remember Laci Peterson, who disappeared on Christmas Eve, 2002? Her case received saturation coverage in the U.S., and widespread coverage elsewhere. You could follow it in the Taipei Times if you cared to. By contrast, Evelyn Hernandez – like Peterson, very pregnant at the time of her disappearance – went missing seven months before Peterson did. Her torso was later found in the San Francisco Bay. The case got a few mentions here and there, but was largely ignored.
This is not a new or original insight. There is even a name for the phenomenon: Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS). The Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts wrote about it last year, citing such famous cases as Elizabeth Smart, JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy, and Natalee Holloway. So – in a broader sense – did Keith Alexander, a court reporter for The Washington Post.
Last summer a jury acquitted Casey Anthony of murdering her daughter, Caylee, in 2008. You remember. Her trial received seemingly nonstop attention across the nation. But as Alexander points out, just about nobody has ever heard of Aja Fogle, N’Kiah Fogle, Tatianna Jacks, or Brittany Jacks. Like Caylee Anthony, those girls – ages 5, 6, 11, and 16 – were murdered in 2008. Their mother was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 120 years in prison.
According to Pitts, the number of men and boys who disappear each year is in the six figures. None of them, ever, gets the sort of attention pretty young white women do.
You could chalk this up to evolutionary psychology. From a DNA-propagation standpoint, young females are extremely valuable to the perpetuation of the species. (Males are more expendable: If you want to repopulate an island, it makes much more sense to have 10 women of childbearing age and one man than the other way around.) So humans probably have developed a protective instinct that manifests itself as a sort of tribal concern. (Hey, it’s only a theory.) But that does not explain the racial dichotomy. Except, perhaps, that it might – if there is an unconscious assumption that white reproduction is more valuable than black reproduction.
And why do the media cater to this instinct, if it even exists? That seems curious in light of their general genuflection to the cause of political correctness. Most of the time, the media are more than happy to play up stories of minority victimhood. Why deviate from that practice in this instance – where the unfair treatment of minorities seems so patently beyond dispute? You could blame consumer demand, except that the press often delights in “eat-your-broccoli” stories published in order to raise the conscience of the proletariat.
Whatever the reasons are, there is no excuse. Americans like to say we are all equal, we all have the same intrinsic moral worth. But priorities are revealed by actions, not by words. And by our actions, we indicate over and over that the death of one sort of person is a tragedy – while the death of somebody else is a statistic.