I have been teaching introduction to sociology for more than 30 years, and each semester I point out a glaring and disturbing fact when covering the chapter on deviance.
I present data indicating that corporate criminals and criminal corporations rob, kill and injure and cause psychological harm far more than all the street criminals combined. I point out the paradox that it is these street criminals, the poor and people of color, who populate our jails and prisons.
Though this issue has been standard sociological fare since 1939 when Edwin Sutherland used the phrase “white-collar crime,” each semester I find students who are totally surprised by these facts.
The epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S., most recently in Sutherland Springs, Texas, adds to a narrative that crime has a specific face and is committed typically by the socially marginal. That narrative pushes the punishment of street criminals as one of our top priorities.
I am as sickened by mass shootings as the next person, but I know that dedicating the mental bandwidth to rant about this problem takes away from a bigger issue – crimes committed by the rich. I submit that though few of us will be the victim of a mass shooting or a street crime, nearly all of us are being robbed by corporate criminals and, yes, face the real possibility of being killed or injured by those in power, those who control the corporate world.
On the same day 26 were killed in Sutherland Springs, thousands of other American lives were cut short, not by an AR-15, but by a pen or computer keystrokes. These deaths remain “unmemorialized” and unknown because of our myopic assumption that crime means street crime. You will not see Vice President Mike Pence at public prayer vigils for those killed when regulatory laws are broken, or more commonly, not enforced.
Despite the view by the Environmental Protection Agency that the Obama-era Clean Power Plan would prevent up to 4,500 deaths per year, the decision has been made to scrap it. That’s 12 deaths per day that could be lost because of a stroke of a pen. Here in North Carolina we learned that the chemical GenX has been released into the Cape Fear River for decades, potentially impacting the well-being of at least 250,000 people. Corporate and governmental crime includes both acts of commission – breaking laws and regulations — and acts of omission, such as not making regulations that could save lives.
Researcher and writer Jeffrey Reiman presents data that more than 55,000 occupation-related deaths occur every year, or more than 150 per day. Those numbers may seem high, but it is hard to find up-to-date and reliable data. Recently the U.S. Department of Labor restructured its Occupational Safety and Health Administration website, making it much harder to find information of workplace fatalities. There is no annual “white-collar crime” index to parallel the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report.
I do not think it is an accident that those in power have been careful to find ways to collect and disseminate statistics on street crime, yet simultaneously seem unwilling or unable to create equally robust data for white-collar crimes. This asymmetry feeds the narrative that criminals are the marginal, the poor and people of color, while the fact remains that some of the most dangerous criminals are mainstream, rich, white Americans who hold all the power.
Leafing through my local newspaper recently, I again saw the faces of our city’s “most wanted” criminal suspects, complete with pictures and phone numbers to call if you spot any of these scoundrels. Now standard fare for small town newspapers, these features inform, but also perpetuate a dangerous, misleading and racist narrative.
This narrative is amplified by popular crime-oriented TV shows and movies that almost exclusively feature street crime. For every “The Big Short,” the popular movie that examined the roots of recent recession, there are dozens of “America’s Most Wanted” shows with loyal viewership.
Public awareness is key to addressing the impact of white-collar crime. When elected representatives say they are going to get “tough on crime,” their constituents need to demand that they take seriously the disproportionate amount of harm done by the rich. The public needs to understand that the face of crime is much more frequently wearing an expensive suit than a black hoodie.
The problem with Sutherland Springs is that we can’t look away, but that means we continually take our eyes away from the more important problem of white-collar crime.
Tom Arcaro (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of sociology at Elon University in Elon, N.C.