One of the things that fascinates me about corruption is how we choose to define it. At first glance, that seems relatively straightforward—politicians doing bad stuff—but a closer look reveals a more complicated picture. Is it only corruption when public officials try to personally benefit from holding office? What about giving kickbacks to family, friends, or colleagues? What about using public office to take benefits away from people you don’t like and give them to people you do?
I tend to think of corruption as more community-oriented. I grew up in Louisiana—a place notorious for networks of corruption—and study white supremacy, a system of belief that supports using extralegal means to maintain white power. Corruption, under these circumstances, is never purely individual, but expresses collective values and norms, even when they don’t directly benefit everyone involved in the network. Let me explain.
One revealing instance of corruption from my research involved the Louisiana State Insane Asylum. Money had been disappearing from the asylum throughout 1873 and the patients were really suffering. They didn’t have socks or shoes and several even starved to death. It was a miserable situation.
When the conservative papers in New Orleans got wind of this, they got really excited and began putting pressure on the leftist state government. They waved their arms about how the board members were all leftists; that they were all corrupt and that “the people” (code for white) should do something about it. They called for violence against Republican officials and African Americans, and ultimately, their campaign led to a local coup to murder or expel all the “corrupt” radicals.
Eventually they realized that the treasurer, who had pretty clearly been embezzling funds and giving kickbacks to friends, was a white conservative, so they changed their tune. They started talking about how a formerly enslaved man, T.M.J. Clark, was president of the asylum’s board and was incompetent because he was Black. They decided that was the real scandal: an African American administrator. Never mind that Clark was one of the whistle-blowers who had tried to help reform the asylum.
Here, you had a whole web of corruption connected to ideas about race and politics. The white treasurer took funds for himself, gave his friends sweetheart deals, and then plotted with colleagues and the press to blame the whole mess on African Americans. Meanwhile, the asylum’s inmates died.
Often, at least in my research, corruption is significantly more complicated than one person doing something wrong. Usually, there are whole networks of power at work. I would even go so far as to say that corruption, broadly defined, is the modus operandi of power. It is how the powerful navigate the systems they put in place to retain their power. They usually use the state to augment their wealth at the expense of the poor and powerless. There is no legitimate reason, for example, that Louisiana should have a user-pay public defender’s system in which the fines and fees paid by indigent defendants make up the bulk of its funding. It is merely the political expression, codified in law, of a corruption rooted in group interests.
I realize, of course, that this isn’t technically corruption, which is almost universally defined as individual. That’s actually, to my mind, what makes it so insidious. Collective corruption sees a society and legal system defined by inequality and, instead of trying to fix these problems, disproportionately asks poor folks and communities of color to fund the system. These same vulnerable groups then bear the burden as defendants. This design is not meant to ensure justice. It was created to take advantage of poor communities as a tax break for wealthier groups. And like many systems of power in our country, it is rooted in the politics of race.
I tend to think of white supremacy itself as a system of corruption that relies on a specific set of stories to justify almost anything. It operates on the “bad apples” theory of white culpability and the “bad tree” presumption of inferiority for people of color. Tales of white victimhood, which precede our country’s founding, function as a common language for a vast network of criminal conspirators. They justify white misbehavior as either incidental or a reasonable response to white victimhood. Before they even learn the details, adherents already know the outcome of real world events. The white guy will be the good guy, no matter what.
White power is built on Black subordination. White people know this. People of color do too. And yet here we are, subject to legal and political systems designed by overt white supremacists to divert resources to wealthy communities and entrap (and even incarcerate) communities of color in unending poverty and misery. How do we explain that?
Maybe white supremacy itself is a system of corruption. Maybe it really is just that simple.
Gjalt De Graaf, “Causes of Corruption: Towards a Contextual Theory of Corruption,” Public Administration Quarterly 31, no. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2007): 39-86.
“Why Corruption Matters: Understanding the Causes, Effects, and How to Address Them,” January 2015, Department for International Development, United Kingdom.
Daniel Treisman, “The Causes of Corruption: A Cross-national Study,” Journal of Public Economics 76 (2000): 399–457.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014).
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, 2012).
Justin Nystrom, New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom (Baltimore, 2010).
Ted Tunnell, Crucible of Reconstruction: War, Radicalism, and Race in Louisiana 1862-1877 (Baton Rouge, 1984).
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