Whitewashed White-Collar Crime: Pardoning the Pilfering of Privileged People
While the definition of white-collar crime is contested, this term is generally used to refer to financial, occupational, and corporate crimes like “theft of wages, fraud, bribery, Ponzi schemes, insider trading, labor racketeering, embezzlement, cyber-crimes, copyright infringement, money laundering, identity theft, and forgery”. The FBI clarifies that white-collar crimes, which can be perpetrated by in both the private and public sectors, “are characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust”, can be motivated by a desire “to obtain or avoid losing money, property, or services or to secure a personal or business advantage”, and despite their generally nonviolent nature “a single [white-collar crime] can destroy a company, devastate families by wiping out their life savings, or cost investors billions of dollars”.
Despite its tremendous toll on individual lives, institutions, and the American economy, white-collar crime is generally treated more leniently by the criminal justice system than street crime, a trend with a distinctly racial nature. Citing the case of Paul Manafort as evidence “that white-collar crimes, committed by well-off white men, are not punished as harshly as others”, BBC’s George Pierpoint notes that Manafort’s 47-month prison sentence “is far shorter than the suggested… 19.5 to 24 years put forward in sentencing guidelines”. Scott Hechinger of the Brooklyn Defender Service comments to Pierpoint that "the majority of people in the [criminal justice system], disproportionately poor, black and Latino, are rarely if ever treated with same… mercy, sympathy and individualised justice” afforded to Manafort, lamenting that “while white-collar criminal laws are rarely enforced, people in [marginalized communities] are targeted, over-policed, and often arrested merely for living".
As discussed by Sohoni and Rorie, “little research explores the implications of race generally for white-collar crime, despite the fact that Whites have long been overrepresented in” this offense category. L. Renee Chubb explains that “class-advantaged white males… are uniquely situated to take advantage of an extraordinary range of opportunities to commit” white-collar crime, potentially explaining the leniency extended to this class of offender. This assertion is supported by a report by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners finding that white-collar criminals are typically “men, 41-50 years old, working in an accounting department” and by Benson et al.’s findings that “as Blacks, Latinos, and Asians have gained access to middle-class jobs, their access to certain middle-class crime opportunities has increased, and their involvement in such crimes has correspondingly also increased”, although this increase is limited to low-level offenses and a large proportion of white-collar crime continues to be perpetrated by White offenders.
In addition to the dissonance in the treatment of white-collar offenders and street offenders, it is also important to consider the disparate reactions to white white-collar offenders and white-collar offenders of color. Chubb compares the Manafort case to that of Tessicar Karelle Jumpp, a Black woman convicted of “orchestrating a lottery fraud scam geared towards the elderly” who “robbed her victims of approximately $385,000”. Manafort and Jumpp “were both being charged with the same felonies, they violated the same laws, (different statutes of the law), but basically, they committed the same crime”, yet while Manafort received 47 months, “Jumpp, a 34-year-old Jamaican citizen, was sentenced to 6 years in prison”. Research suggests, however, that this comparison may actually be an aberration: Cassidy and Gibbs found that two out of “three White male subgroups (18–29… and over 50 years old) convicted of white-collar crimes received longer sentences than young Black men”, indicating that White white-collar criminals are punished more severely than Black white-collar criminals. Cassidy and Gibbs postulate that “variation in sentence length may be due in part to stereotypes associating White offenders with white-collar offenses and Black offenders with street crime” and go on to cite focal concerns theory and a lack of judicial discretion as potential explanations for these findings. These findings could also be explained by combining Cassidy and Gibbs’s conclusion that “offender demographics in combination with crime type triggers these perceptions” with Benson et al.’s findings that burgeoning white-collar crime amongst Blacks, Latinos, and Asians has been limited to low-level offenses.
Racial stereotypes associating whites with white-collar crime and people of color with street crime are especially insulting considering the previously discussed disparities in leniency afforded to white-collar criminals compared to street criminals. Ezinne Ukoha asserts that “the theatrics behind the plight of White people, who commit high-brow crimes that never seem as serious based on the cavalier handling of the judicial system, and the media, is a very common occurrence that both infuriates and victimizes”. Referring to Billy McFarland, the fraudster responsible for the infamous Fyre Festival, in addition to Elizabeth Holmes, Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and other White offenders who have supplied the media with sensationalist stories of white-collar crime across the past several years, Ukoha argues that the racial dynamics of white-collar crime “were bound to end with the reassurance of how Whiteness can survive being unchallenged even when the perpetrator is holding the gallon of gasoline as the building burns around him”. This media coverage, according to Ukoha, can “normalize the privileges that White people weaponize when their criminal activities evolve into neutralized reporting”.
This connection between white privilege and the racial dynamics of white-collar crime is consistent with Sohoni and Rorie’s “Theory of Racial Privilege and Offending”, which seeks to explore the criminogenic role of whiteness. The concept of whiteness encompasses but goes beyond racial privileges, involving “the construction and maintenance of justifications that defend these racial privileges in a society that claims that all individuals are judged only on their own merit”. Citing works by Shover and Hochstetler and Messerschmidt, the authors argue that “racial privilege intersects with financial advantage and masculinity to produce structural conditions conducive to white-collar offending”.
Emphasizing the role of cultural and physical segregation, Sohoni and Rorie point to the high levels of social isolation that characterize White communities as conducive to white-collar criminality, operating through three primary vectors that normalize the use of various techniques of neutralization. First, the self-imposed social isolation that characterizes Whites’ relationship with people of color has the effect of undermining the ability of their to empathize with ‘anonymous’ out-group members, a condition that makes the perpetration of “victimless” white-collar crime a simple matter. Second, social isolation reinforces feelings of entitlement, a common characteristic of white-collar offenders, whom, “given the opportunity to commit crime, are less likely to question whether their actions fit a criminal identity”. Finally, social isolation promotes competitive values. Sohoni and Rorie use Shover’s cultural theory of white-collar crime, which describes how parenting that “[compares] siblings to one another and [expects] all children to be successful (defined in terms of material wealth…)” causes middle- and upper-class children to be raised in ‘generative worlds’ that “not only lead to arrogance and entitlement, but also prioritize competition over cooperation”. Competitive values such as these encourage middle- and upper-class children to justify unethical behaviors by promoting a narrative in which they must do whatever it takes to ‘win’.
This theoretical perspective requires further research, however it’s connection between racial privileges/whiteness and white-collar criminality has the potential to explain the disparate treatment of white-collar offenders compared to street offenders and the association of white offenders with white collar crime and offenders of color with street crime. Through this racial lens, Sutherland’s original conceptualization of ‘white-collar crime’ takes on new meaning: “crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation [emphasis added]”.