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In a first, California's 'Ebony Alert' will help find missing Black people

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This week, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a new alert system to help find missing Black persons in California.

STEVEN BRADFORD: It's a shame that we need a separate alert, but we have been ignored when we disappear.

RASCOE: Steven Bradford is the state senator behind the new alert system. He says that nationally, Black people disappear at a disproportionately high rate.

BRADFORD: When you only make up 13% of the population but almost 40% of those individuals who come up missing on a regular basis, but you rarely see any kind of media attention on that or any type of law enforcement resources committed to that, it required this measure.

RASCOE: When I spoke to Senator Bradford this week, he explained how the Ebony Alert will work and what makes it different from other types of alerts.

BRADFORD: The Amber Alert only deals with individuals 17 years and younger who come up missing. With the Ebony Alert, it will be from 12 to 25. It will also concentrate on individuals who might have some kind of physical or mental challenges, also individuals who are suspected of being sex trafficked or are disappeared under suspicious reasons. So we see young women over 18 who disappear and are sex trafficked often but, again, no resources to finding them.

RASCOE: So how will it work? Like, who will put out an Ebony Alert that this person is missing?

BRADFORD: Law enforcement - so same way it happens now with the Amber Alert. And then we go through the Highway Patrol. We'll use our electronic billboards on the highways to provide that information and also, again, reach out to our media outlets to make sure that they broadcast that information, as well.

RASCOE: Is there a reason why you cut it off at the age of 25? We hear so many cases, especially of, like, missing Black women. We've heard that - there's that case of Kierra Coles, who disappeared in the Chicago area at the age of 26. That would be a year above the cutoff. She was three months pregnant and still is missing five years later.

BRADFORD: Yes. I wish it wasn't an age restriction on this, but that's part of what you have to do as far as compromise when you're working on legislation like this.

RASCOE: You know, there is a lot of talk about the misclassification of missing Black people as runaways and how that's a big problem. If this is going through the police departments, will the Ebony Alert rectify that? Are you confident that the police will send out these alerts and not just say that this person is just a runaway?

BRADFORD: We're hopeful. I mean, and that's why we're going to work with law enforcement to make sure that they're aware of this. Many times, law enforcement do list African American kids as runaways quicker than you'll ever see Caucasian kids being listed as runaways. They're always listed as abducted or missing, where we're kind of, like, viewed as far more mature. And, oh, they left of their own volition or their own free will, and that's very rarely the case.

RASCOE: Are you concerned that the same forces of racism that have led to less attention on these cases in general could affect these alerts. An Ebony Alert could be seen as less important than an Amber Alert in some people's eyes.

BRADFORD: That is concerning. We know America, and we know their biases when it comes to people of color and how we are always discounted or ignored. So it's a shame that we need legislation like this. I'm hoping they don't look at this and say, oh, it's Amber Alert, and we're going to deprioritize it. I'm just hoping people will come around and understand Black folks missing are just as cared for and loved as anyone else, and making them a priority shouldn't be any different than finding anyone else in this country.

RASCOE: Is there - have there been any concerns or criticism that - well, does every demographic have its - should have its own alert system? Like, OK, this is for Black people. Should there be one for other ethnic groups? Or - and, you know, certainly you have, you know, Native women and children often go missing. That's a big issue. You know, why just for African Americans?

BRADFORD: Well, we do have a Feather Alert for our Indigenous people here in California. That was signed last year into law. If the data had supported that Asians were disappearing and no one would be looking for them, I'm pretty sure it would justify moving in that direction. I mean, we have a Silver Alert, again, for our seniors, and we do have a Feather Alert. Matter of fact, we have a Blue Alert for missing police officers. And no one ever raised a issue about that. So, again, when it comes to trying to level the playing field and provide resources for African Americans, it's always, you know, why is this necessary? It's necessary because of this nation's history.

RASCOE: That's Steven Bradford, a state senator in California. Thank you so much for joining us.

BRADFORD: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMAMOO SONG, "GOGOBEBE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.