Feather, Amber, Ebony: What’s Behind California’s Racial Alert Systems?

California has recently passed a law that has raised eyebrows and sparked debate. The legislation, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, introduces an “Ebony alert” system, similar to the Amber alert but specifically for missing black individuals aged 25 and under.

Imagine a scenario where a young adult from Compton, California, impulsively takes a trip to Las Vegas, missing work without notice. If this individual’s employer reports them missing, the police response will vary based on race. A statewide alert will be issued if the person is black, notifying millions of Californians to be on the lookout. However, the response will be significantly muted if the individual is white.

This new “Ebony alert” system is distinct from the existing Amber alert in several ways. While the Amber alert requires evidence of abduction or involuntary disappearance, the Ebony alert can be activated if deemed an “effective tool” in investigating a missing black youth. This means the criteria for issuing an Ebony alert are less stringent than those for an Amber alert.

The introduction of the Ebony alert follows the establishment of “Feather alerts” for missing indigenous individuals in California. Critics argue that these racially-specific alert systems are unnecessary and perpetuate stereotypes. For instance, some see the names “Feather” and “Ebony” as stereotypical and potentially offensive.

Supporters of the Ebony alert argue that it addresses a systemic issue where black individuals who go missing are often misclassified as “runaways” rather than “missing persons.” This misclassification, they argue, results from racial bias and can delay crucial response and investigation time. The new law suggests that if a black youth disappears under “unexplained” circumstances, that could be enough to trigger a statewide alert.

However, data from a USA Today analysis indicates that Amber alerts are issued proportionately based on racial demographics. From 2017 to 2021, black children constituted 37% of missing child reports and nearly 37% of Amber Alerts.

The introduction of the Ebony alert system raises several questions. For instance, if a black teenager goes missing, will they receive both an Amber and an Ebony alert? If an elderly indigenous person disappears, will they receive both a Feather and a Silver alert?

Critics argue that the new law is a step backward, introducing racial segregation into a system that should be race-neutral. They believe the law could be counterproductive, allowing those with racial biases to ignore alerts for races they are prejudiced against.

The broader concern is that this law might undermine the race-neutral system of laws the U.S. has upheld for generations. The legislation’s critics argue that it should be swiftly struck down and condemned by political and conservative entities across the country.

In conclusion, while the intent behind the Ebony alert might be to address perceived racial biases in missing person reports, its implementation has sparked controversy and debate about its potential implications and effectiveness.