Author discusses invisibility of black female victims of homicide

By: Kayla Dimick | Southfield Sun | Published April 14, 2016

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SOUTHFIELD — A local author held a discussion recently on a new book that examines what she said is a lack of media attention on black women as victims of homicide.

Author Cheryl Neely, of West Bloomfield, held a discussion on her book, “You’re Dead — So What?: Media, Police and the Invisibility of Black Women as Victims of Homicide,” at 6 p.m. April 6 at the Southfield Public Library.

Neely, a professor of sociology at Oakland Community College, grew up in Detroit and Oak Park. She said her daughter helped her come up with the title of the book, which she said reflects how people in the African-American community feel.

“We see that our loved ones come up murdered and missing, and there’s not a lot of coverage from the press, and sometimes law enforcement doesn’t respond with the same vigilance that they do perhaps as a white victim,” Neely said.

The book, Neely said, is a product of a dissertation that she wrote for her Ph.D. The book examines the relationship between media coverage and the response from law enforcement to victims of color, particularly when those victims are reported missing and their loved ones presume them to be in danger.

Although media coverage is effective in helping to increase police response and soliciting public help, there is a disparity in reporting the disappearances and homicides of black women, which reflects racial inequality, Neely said.

Neely said the probability of a black woman being murdered in her lifetime comes out to a 1 in 232 chance. For a white woman, that chance is 1 in 905. Homicide is the leading cause of death of black women ages 20-24. For white women in the same age group, it’s the fourth-leading cause of death.

“Police officers have told me there’s a pecking order. We already know what cases get top priority. If a white female is murdered, that case goes on top. It could be because these cases are so rare, probably, statistically, that they get so much attention. At least that’s been the explanation,” Neely said. “Rare and unusual cases are the ones that are newsworthy.”

For her dissertation, Neely said she researched 355 articles written by the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Neely found that not only were there more articles written about white female victims of homicide, but the articles were longer and more detailed.

“White victims were more likely to have more than one article written about their deaths compared to black females. So, more than a little bit of coverage. There’s follow-up coverage. There’s coverage of them missing, coverage of their bodies being found and play by play, depending on the victim, on the trial of her assailant,” Neely said. “You don’t tend to find that same pattern of coverage on victims of color.”

The topic of her book, Neely said, hits close to home. Her friend, Michelle Jackson, was murdered in 1984.

“I was very upset when Michelle died, for a number of reasons. First of all, she was my friend and I loved her. I was upset that there was not a lot of press about Michelle,” Neely said.

Neely said she hopes her book is just the beginning of more information on the topic.

“I’m hoping my book isn’t the last one. I’m hoping somebody picks up and continues to investigate this and add more empiricism and more scientific evidence — more quantitative evidence to this issue so that it does elevate and amplify the fact that we need more attention.”

Lathrup Village resident Andrea Bailey said she went to the discussion after reading the book.

“I saw the title, and it’s about me. Why black women are invisible — there are times when I feel invisible, so it’s something that spoke to me on many levels,” Bailey said. “I really wanted to know, like the question I asked, what can we do as citizens to address this?”

Neely encouraged attendees to complain to the local media if they feel they are under-represented in news coverage.