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The Invisibility of Whiteness and White-Collar Crime

Charles Ponzi (from Bettmann Archive)

What role does whiteness play in the perpetuation of white-collar crime? This was a question that I kept returning to throughout the semester in my Race and Crime course. As we read Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness, I discovered how early writings of criminality linked the construction of Blackness to social deviancy and developed into modern day criminology. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow described to me the architecture of the racist prison industrial complex buttressed by anti-drug and anti-crime policies that disproportionately targeted and disenfranchised Black and Brown communities in a supposedly colorblind era of US history. James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own illuminated for me the multitude of ideas, actions, and beliefs that comprise of Black Americans’ non-monolithic views on crime and punishment. All of these readings demonstrate an underlying logic that race, specifically Blackness, is socially constructed and has acute effects when viewed through a prism composed of historical inequities, a robust criminal legal system, and white supremacy in this country. In a similar sense then, what effect does whiteness have when viewed through the same prism?

To answer this question, criminologists Tracy Sohoni and Melissa Rorie submit a theory of whiteness and white-collar crime in their article in the academic journal Theoretical Criminology. As whites are overrepresented in corporate crime, investment fraud, and securities fraud, an interrogation of the role race plays in the context of white-collar crime has not fully developed.

According to the authors, previous research has “neglected the psychological impact of receiving racial privileges upon cultures conducive to criminal involvement - particularly elite white-collar offending.” The authors link the context that white Americans inhabit both geographically and socially to the psychological states that may lend itself to criminal offenses. Social isolation creates a context where psychological states arise. These include reduced empathy for out-groups and anonymous others, competitiveness, and entitlement as members of a dominant group in the racial hierarchy. When the psychological states act as frameworks for behavior, they can promote certain techniques of neutralization that promote white-collar offending such that victims of white-collar crimes are anonymous and take place in the context of legitimate business work. In this sense, whiteness and the privileges of white membership can be transformed into crime-specific actions that can align with committing white-collar crimes.

“Without a clean, testable, theoretical framework on the relationship between race and white-collar offending, data collection efforts will continue to neglect race, or treat it only as something to be “controlled for,” further perpetuating the invisibility of whiteness.”

As the course has demonstrated, race and crime are intertwined resulting from centuries of racial domination. In the same way criminology has historically focused on the link between Black Americans and street-level crimes, the discipline needs to assess the invisibility of whiteness to further confront the manifesting forms of racism and inequality.

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