In the last 2 weeks how many times have you asked yourself and others the following question: where is Avonte Oquendo? If you’re a New Yorker, you’ve likely wondered more than once, as posters seeking help in locating the 14 year old autistic boy, missing since October 4, have been posted throughout the city. If a New Yorker who just happens to be African-American, you’ve probably asked yourself why most of the nation is not aware of who he is. I came across this story because being a native New Yorker, I still follow the New York daily news.
But here’s a query we may all be overlooking. If you saw a black teen boy wandering a city, how closely would you pay attention to him? If you truly noticed him at all, would it only be because he raised your suspicion? We you avoid his gaze for fear of his possibly harmful intentions, or would you show concern for this unaccompanied child. In a city as densely populated as New York there is a distict possibility that thousands of people have seen Avonte Oquendo who either thought he was suspicious and steered clear of him, or just mistook him for just another wandering Black kid.
Wandering is a common, high-risk occurrence for children with autism. According to Autism Speaks, which is currently offering a $70,000 reward for Avonte’s safe return, nearly half of diagnosed children over age 4 are prone to breaking away from family, school, or friends and disappearing. Fifty three percent of these wandering children were missing long enough to cause their loved ones to worry. What happens after that is often left up to the perceptions of passersby and announcements like the ones the NYPD and others have posted around the city to find Avonte Oquendo. If a commuter were to encounter a wandering adolescent, would she pay enough attention to connect him to the face plastered on lampposts and subway platforms? Would she notice that the boy is disabled, worried or lost? It’s difficult to know in any case, but when the wandering teen is black, racial bias makes these questions doubly fraught.
We can’t ignore the ways in which racial suspicion colors our assessment of people and their circumstances. On the heels of the Jonathan Ferrell case, where negative perception of an injured, disoriented, unarmed black male doomed him to death, we are reminded that first impressions are life and death matters when black young men are involved. Whereas Ferrell was never given the opportunity to identify himself and explain his needs, Oquendo would not be able to. His autism renders him unable to verbally communicate, and predjudice has rendered much of the public unable to empathize, sympathize, or see past his skin color.