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How the Carlee Russell Story Has Been Stirring Controversy about Missing Black Women

How the Carlee Russell Story Has Been Stirring Controversy about Missing Black Women

It’s unlikely that you’ve missed the story of what happened with Carlee Russell, but just in case, here’s a recap: Russell, a 25-year-old nursing student went missing on July 13, after calling 911 to report a toddler walking along the I-459 interstate in Hoover, Alabama. According to a police statement, Russell said that she pulled over to help the child; she proceeded to call her brother’s girlfriend, who then heard Russell scream.

The story, like countless others, stopped us in our tracks. “No, please not again,” was the resounding sentiment of Black women, and it seemed we collectively went into action doing all we could on our social media platforms to spread the word about Carlee.

Two days after Carlee disappeared, she showed up at her family’s door and claimed to have been abducted by a white man in an 18-wheeler truck and forced to take nude photos. She said she made multiple attempts to escape.

However, police were never able to verify Carlee’s story; they said surveillance video didn’t show a man or a toddler on the roadside around the time of the alleged incident and Carlee’s internet search history showed “strange” activity. Search items included how to take money from a register without getting caught, one way bus ticket to Nashville from Birmingham, the movie Taken, and more.

Now, Carlethia “Carlee” Nichole Russell has confessed that it was all a lie, and unfortunately, she has been charged with two misdemeanors in connection with the hoax.

This story has stirred up tremendous chaos, including spreading the notion that Black women are known for causing drama and fabricating stories to rally public attention. More importantly, it has also put a glaring spotlight on an unnerving subject — the issue of missing Black women and girls in the United States and how they are portrayed in the media.

The alarming truth is Black women and girls made up 18 percent of all missing persons cases in 2022, despite accounting for only 7 percent of the population. More than 546,000 people were reported missing in 2022, including more than 271,000 women, the data shows. Nearly 98,000 of those cases were Black women and girls.

Historically, these cases don’t receive much attention, if any at all. National media disproportionately focuses on missing white women and girls, which is a symptom of what’s known as Missing White Woman Syndrome.

Our society has become desensitized to cases of missing Black women and girls. It is believed that they are just poor and uneducated and that crime is the fabric of their lives. Yet, at the most basic level, there lies racism and the ways that white femininity, white womanhood, and white girlhood are seen as innocent and pure. There is a measurable racial empathy gap when we see Black and Brown women and girls who go missing. That fact is something we shouldn’t have to constantly bring to the table.

I was in high school when the story of Tawana Brawley came crashing through in 1987. Brawley, a 15-year-old Black girl, said she had been kidnapped and raped by a group of six white men in Dutchess County, New York. It was a horrifying story of her being attacked, racial slurs written on her body, and her being smeared with feces and left on the side of a road wrapped in a plastic bag. As if the story couldn’t get any worse, two of the men accused were New York City police officers. The story made national news, which was rare even then. However, it had traction because Reverend Al Sharpton took up the case.

But after a seven-month investigation, there was insurmountable evidence that she had lied about the whole thing. She had smeared herself with feces, wrote racial slurs on her own body, and faked being traumatized. It turns out all of this was to avoid a beating by her mother’s boyfriend after running away from home for four days.

Tawana Brawley and I were the same age then, and I remember being heartbroken for her. I had felt sorry for her and prayed for her. It made me fearful of what could happen to me. But then I felt ashamed for believing her and investing in what I thought was her truth.

It’s been 36 years since Tawana Brawley’s story, and she has gone to great lengths to hide herself from the world, changing her name, moving from city to city, and changing jobs when someone figures out who she is. I feel sad that Carlee will experience a similar life. As the stones continue to be thrown her way, she’ll eventually run until she finds a place where she’s not easily recognized. Nothing will ever be the same for her; nothing will ever be normal.

We keep asking ourselves, “Why?” Why did she do this? What could have been so terrible in her life that she had to concoct this elaborate scheme?

We may never know the truth. While many people have used Carlee’s story as a scapegoat not to believe Black women, please remember that there are thousands upon thousands of Black women and girls who are really missing in the United States. There has been little to no coverage of their cases.

Carlee didn’t have us out here looking foolish. She made herself look foolish by doing something so stupid. I believe she needs to be held accountable for this, but not necessarily go to jail. I pray she gets the help she needs.

In the meantime, we can’t allow this isolated situation to deter the work that needs to be done for those who are actually missing. We don’t have to feel ashamed for believing her and jumping into action, because we did exactly what we’re supposed to do. We can be glad that we prayed for her. We can be glad there was no toddler in distress. We can be thankful we don’t have to say her name because her life was lost. We can be thankful that it was a hoax. Most of all, we can continue believing Black women.

If you’d like more information about this issue, please visit Black and Missing Foundation at

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