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What Elizabeth Holmes and Other White-Collar Crime Cases Tell Us About Systemic Racism in the U.S.


Who do you generally think of as the perpetrator when you hear the term “white-collar crime?” Well, if you’re anything like me, you know the answer is in the name. This term apparently originating in 1939, according to the FBI, refers to the fraud committed by business and government professionals “characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust”. However, I like to call it by its real name— theft.  While these are not victimless crimes (even though more of my concern goes towards regular people losing thousands of their life's savings, not billionaire investors who often have that kind of money to throw away anyway), this article is not to discuss the victims of the horrors of the crimes committed but instead, the punishments. 

There is an obvious disparity between the punishment for white-collar crimes and other forms of non-violent theft. Research finds that 75.2% of those who commit property crimes, embezzlement, counterfeiting, bribery, or fraud are White, however, many do not face jail time and the average prison sentence for white-collar crimes in the United States is only 27 months. According to San Diego Attorney Alex Ozols, after practicing law for decades, he saw the disparities between white-collar crime and other forms of nonviolent theft first-hand reporting

“Years ago, I had a white client that stole around $200,000 from the school board. I also had a Black client that stole a bicycle that was valued at over $1,000. Both were charged with felonies, and both offers from the prosecutor were the same. When we went to court, I remember talking to the judge about it. He was a young judge who was a former district attorney and was a judge that was fair and that everyone liked. And I openly chatted with him about the $200,000 theft case. I told him I thought the client should get probation, no jail time, and a misdemeanor at some point in the future — whether I really thought that or not, it was a duty to do the best for my clients.” 

Ozols also concludes that unfortunately, white-collar crimes are not treated as a large crime or a big deal— especially against white defendants. After the election of 40th U.S. president Ronald Reagan, “the Justice Department announced its intention to cut in half the number of specialists assigned to identify and prosecute white-collar criminals and to shift its attention to street crime” which though reportedly committed largely by white men, targets Black men who are more likely to serve time for said crime. So why is white-collar so easily gotten away with by white perpetrators? According to one theoretical criminology journal, “‘whiteness’ encourages cultural adaptations conducive to elite white-collar crime in contemporary US society.” The theory states experiences of white people such as racial privileges and social isolation allow for encouraging competition, lack of empathy, and increased feelings of individual entitlement that promote white-collar offending. Additionally, the unique criminal opportunity characteristics of white-collar crime— victimizing anonymous others and taking place in the context of legit business work— allow these frameworks of this type of crime to go unchallenged. 

This framework allows white people to serve less time or simply be charged fines for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars while Black people and other people of color get maximum sentences for nonviolent theft due to systemic racism in the justice system and lack of financial resources. One example of this is a white-collar crime case in which a white woman in Ohio received probation for stealing nearly $250,000 while a Black woman in the same county was sentenced to 18 months for stealing $42,000. Danielle Sydnor, president of the Cleveland Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) comments, “God only knows what would have happened if the sentencings would not have been in such close proximity to each other. We wouldn't even probably be having this conversation today, because this would have gone under the radar and been just the normal course of business of what happens in our criminal legal system every single day.” Debbie Bosworth, the white woman, received no jail time after being indicted on 22 charges for stealing the money over the course of 20 years, while Karla Hopkins, the Black woman, received 18 months for pocketing $42,000 worth of business dues and fees. Hopkins did not have the means to pay back the money while Bosworth did leading to her being offered probation. According to Syndor, “This is a story of two things. It's a story of race and it's a story of means."

Another great example of this is the case of Elizabeth Holmes versus the case of George Floyd. While their crimes may not seem similar, both were suspected of a type of fraud. Elizabeth Holmes, over the course of a decade, scammed investors out of billions of dollars for her failed blood-testing start-up Theranos. In March of 2022, was found guilty of four of 11 charges of fraud yet currently is out on bail residing in a nine-bedroom $135 California estate. Currently, Hulu has adapted a limited series dedicated to romanticizing Holmes’ crimes and portraying her as an ambitious misunderstood individual. Meanwhile, George Floyd, a Black man who was simply suspected of using a counterfeit $20, lost his life at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s crimes, unlike Holmes, were immediately perceived as violent due to his race. 

Why did alleged fraud by a Black man justify murder but billions of dollars stolen by a white woman in silicon valley hasn’t even justified jail time yet? Systemic racism. It is no secret that Black people, especially Black men, face harsher punishments compared to white people. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, “Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders during the Post-Report period (fiscal years 2012-2016), as they had for the prior four periods studied.” The issues with the “justice” system in the United States stem from slavery and the racial disparities in the treatment of how white-collar crimes are handled versus other types of non-violent theft committed by Black people only further emphasize the systemic racism within the United States criminal justice system. 

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