Excerpted From: Marina Zaloznaya, Alexandria Yakes and James Wo, Is White-collar Crime White? Racialization in the National Press Coverage of White-Collar Crime from 1950 to 2010, 48 Law and Social Inquiry 1117 (November 2023) (10 Footnotes/References) (Full Document Requested)


ZapznayaYatesWo.jpegSociolegal scholars contend that the relationship between media representations of crime, crime policy, and criminal justice processes is circular. Mass media influence how people think about crime, while criminal laws on the books and their implementation in policing, courts, and prisons impact how crime is portrayed on TV, in newspapers, and in online news outlets. The well-documented racialization of street crime in the United States has been sustained and propelled by this iterative relationship.

Nonwhite Americans suffer from systematic disadvantage at all stages of the criminal justice process--from racial profiling in policing  to explicit discrimination in courts  and disproportionate likelihood of incarceration. Compared to their Caucasian counterparts, nonwhite Americans are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement, to be convicted in court, and to serve heavier punishment for similar crimes. Mass media, however, tend to highlight these racial inequalities without addressing the historical legacy of discrimination and the ongoing structural racism at their root. From disproportionally frequent mentions in the crime news to emphasis on their physical aggression, African and Latinx Americans suffer from a range of prejudiced representations. Such portrayals, then, trigger public alarm, mobilize popular support for punitive policies, and sustain discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system.

While much has already been written on the racialization of street crime, the goal of our article is to consider how media representations of white-collar criminals fit into this story. Crimes classified as white-collar typically require access to material and social resources from which racial and ethnic minorities have been systematically excluded. Is it possible, then, that these crimes are framed as “white by default”--simply through the omission of any racial signifiers? Or do the media “whitewash” racial minorities involved in white-collar crimes to highlight their difference from street criminals? Alternatively, could it be that nonwhite white-collar criminals are racialized in similar ways to their counterparts on the streets?

To address these possibilities, we analyze the framing accorded to white and nonwhite perpetrators of several white-collar crimes in select national newspapers over six decades. Theoretically, we draw on John Hagan's brilliant 2012 book, Who Are the Criminals? The Politics of Crime Policy from the Age of Roosevelt to the Age of Reagan. Hagan describes the post-Civil Rights era political strategy that enabled a slew of conservative politicians to capture the vote of white Americans and convince them to support economic deregulation. One part of this strategy, he argues, was the collective framing of black and brown bodies as criminal, resulting in disproportional and racialized targeting of the perpetrators of petty, nonviolent, and drug-related street crimes. The other, equally important but rarely acknowledged, part of this strategy entailed underplaying the risks of economic deviance by the rich and powerful. According to Who Are the Criminals?, the simultaneous construction of street crime as black and dangerous and white-collar crime as white and acceptable has served to redirect criminal justice efforts away from the boardrooms.

Our analyses confirm that racialization of white-collar criminals in print media can be traced back to Nixon's presidency, when the strategy of collective framing around the interconnected issues of race and risk first gained steam in the post-Civil Rights era America. We also find that white-collar criminals' race is a robust predictor of their individualization--or of the amount of coverage dedicated to their description. In our sample, African American perpetrators are individualized significantly more extensively than their white counterparts, which, we argue, connotes the oddity of black offenders in the context of white-collar criminality. These findings support John Hagan's argument that the racialization of street crime in the United States is mirrored by the collective framing of the elite economic crime as “white” and, by extension, a nonthreatening side effect of capitalism.

[. . .]

Social scientists contend that, at least in the United States, political and business elites usually shape media portrayals of such deviance to their advantage. Thus, such representations underplay the frequency of white-collar crime relative to street crime, redirect the blame for white-collar deviance from individual or organizational perpetrators onto the regulatory or criminal justice institutions, and underplay its social, environmental, and financial costs. Yet, to date, hardly any research has been done on the racialized collective framing of white-collar crime as an unfortunate yet acceptable side effect of free-market capitalism. This is simultaneously very surprising and not surprising at all. In light of the media's well-documented tendency to racialize street criminals, simultaneously overemphasizing the dangers of petty crime and criminalizing black and brown bodies, one might expect that researchers would interrogate the parallel processes in media portrayals of white-collar deviance. At the same time, the notable absence of such research suggests that the very project of the collective framing described by John Hagan in Who Are the Criminals? was a resounding success. White-collar crime is presumed white--by social scientists and other analysts alike.

Inspired by Hagan's focus on white-collar crime as a window into the ways that race, class, and criminality interact in producing social inequality, we examined media portrayals of white-collar criminals across time and across space. This is uncommon in extant research, as most relevant studies focus on specific geographic areas and on short periods of time. Yet, as argued by Bjornstrom and colleagues, such narrow focus makes it harder for scholars to infer the impact of structural conditions on the collective faming of crime, and, in turn, to shed light on the effects of such framing on the patterns of race-based disadvantage in the United States. We, therefore, conclude with an invitation to other researchers interested in the sociopolitical implications of mass media--especially as they relate to crime and criminal justice policy--to follow our lead in embedding their analyses in the appropriate sociohistorical contexts. This, we believe, is an important lesson of John Hagan's legacy.