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Richard M. Benjamin Headshot

Have You Seen Me? America's Fever Over Lost White Children

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Channel surfing on the treadmill at the New York Health and Racquet Club, paying for pastrami at the corner Deli, and checking the weather on-line, I'm bombarded by the visages of 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck and 13-year-old Ben Ownsby, even three weeks after their recovery from abduction in Kirkwood, MO.

797,500 children are reported missing in a typical year, but only 115 are kidnapped by strangers planning to harm them. Incidents of abducted Caucasian children -- though statistically rare -- excite disproportionate coverage to their actual threat. Here, the racial profile of the victim (white) provokes widespread anxiety about the state of the nation.

Between 2000 and 2050, America's black population is projected to grow 71 percent; the Latino population 188 percent; the Asian population 213 percent; and the white population just 7 percent. Already, 40 percent of Americans under the age of 24 are not white.

"Do your duty. Make more babies," Fox News commentator John Gibson advised his viewers in May 2006 during his "My Word" segment. Gibson reported that nearly half of all children in America under five years old are racial minorities. "By far, the greatest number are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic. To put it bluntly, we need more babies."

To this observer, the most curious side effect of this demographic distress? The panic attacks over "lost" white children.

All major media outlets (NY Times, Newsweek, People, CNN, Fox) dished fervent coverage of Shawn and Ben. And the real-time, cable-televised spectacle renders those 1-800-Milk cartons all the more quaint. "Have You Seen Me?" "Do You Know Where I Am?" The media's tortured drama featuring missing white children is now a self-reflexive ritual.

Remember 17-year-old Mykensie Martin- with her petite frame, blue eyes, and curly blonde-brown mane - whose "disappearance" sparked Congressional intervention? Or Natalee Holloway, the blonde, 18-year-old Alabama teen missing in Aruba since May 2005? Or Elizabeth Smart, whose disappearance fed the cottage industry of outrage on the likes of Dateline, Larry King Live, and CNN's Nancy Grace, never mind the subsequent flurry of legislative proposals?

These reports drip with a collective guilt over the plight of middle-class white parents scrambling to raise kids safely -- bereft of time, pinched for money, and squeezed on childcare. To a corporatized media incapable or uninterested in providing insight into the social issues confronting middle-class white families (wage stagnation, absentee parenting, etc), what better diversion than maudlin homages to Shawn and Ben? The media hysteria, moreover, inherently commiserates with white parents whose children appear to be literally and demographically vanishing.

Our global military war, domestic values war, yoyo ("You're on your own!") economy -- and a decades-old percolation of geographic mobility, suburban sprawl, and social isolation -- create a perfect storm of anxiety, a sense of social dislocation among many white Americans. If these conditions aren't the best lubricants for white racial tribalism ("Make more babies!") and a more protective mood over children (the visible incubators of any race), I don't know what are.