I was delighted to read Katie Heaney’s piece in The Cut last week, which explained a cultural obsession I fiendishly partake in: scams. Yet, in ‘Why We Can’t Get Enough of Scams’, there seemed little to no mention of the obvious characteristic linking white-collar scam celebrities: their whiteness.
According to Heaney, the key emotional reaction at play in our cultural scam obsession is schadenfreude: pleasure derived from another’s misfortune. She has Tiffany Watt Smith, author of a book on schadenfreude, point to a history of this behavior, tracking our scam obsession back to old tricksters like Br’er Rabbit and Road Runner. Yet Br’er Rabbit is importantly different from Bernie Madoff, a ponzi-scheming white capitalist. Br’er Rabbit lives in a briar patch, and owns nothing. Br’er Rabbit only profits temporarily from the glee of outwitting another well-to-do creature, then he returns to his briar patch and the slate is wiped clean for another misadventure. Br’er Rabbit is also, importantly, a black story, its American origins tracing back to enslaved West African people, who had their own rabbit trickster lore. (There are also theories that the Brer Rabbit stories originated from Native folklore, as a handful of tribes carry the mythology of Nanabozho, a benevolent rabbit trickster.) The stakes of Br’er Rabbit or Road Runner’s success are low: their archetype was imagined outside of capitalism, an economic-political structure invented by white Europeans. No one in these folklore stories owns something they can lose. At the end of the day, Wile E. Coyote is outsmarted, but not out of a home.
These white-collar scammers are not folk heroes we can root for, yet these scam stories don’t focus on delivering their comeuppance, either. The delivery of that justice is long-winded and legally complex, and often doesn’t happen for months or years after the story of the scam breaks. By the time our favorite scammers are in prison, most of the public has already lost interest. Elizabeth Holmes is the subject of a podcast and HBO documentary, and has faced almost no legal consequences (yet) for defrauding investors of roughly $1 billion and delivering thousands of inaccurate blood tests, the result of settling with the SEC in exchange for $500,000, agreeing to step down as CEO of her company, and refraining from leading a company for 10 years. (Insert eyeroll here.) Billy McFarland, architect of Fyre Festival, was recently the subject of two competing documentaries, and is serving a mere six years in jail for defrauding investors of $26 million (compare that to multiple black men who have received life imprisonment within the past couple years for possessing marijuana). When any justice is meted to white-collar scammers in these stories, it is given the narrative treatment of an epilogue, with the sly, implied question, “What will they do next?”
I don’t think we’re attracted to scam stories because they give us justice; I don’t think they give us justice. A lot of scammers end up pretty well off: either settling away their cases or going through the prison system with the cushion of fame and, often, wealth. Somehow a life in prison still seems too cushy for Bernie Madoff, who is in a specialist, low-security center for prisoners with health needs (Madoff, quite poetically, has a bad heart). According to Ralph Griffith, a writer who spent seven years in the same facility as Madoff, Madoff enjoys special privileges due to his celebrity status, including extended time outside of his cell. Anna Delvey has famously said, “This place is not that bad at all actually” of Rikers Island. Prison is the worst possible thing that can happen to these people, when prison is just a reality for many people, especially black and brown people. 1 in 3 black males will end up in prison in the US, according to 2001 data from the Department of Justice Services. (The incarceration rate has since declined for black males, so this statistic may now be 1 in 4 black men.) When Elizabeth Holmes’ childhood friend is asked to imagine Elizabeth in prison for “The Dropout” podcast, her response is, “I can’t imagine anyone I know in prison.”
White-collar scams are stories of white reality: what, how, and how much white people can gain from exploiting their status as culturally competent to gain people’s trust. Scams are unique from other criminal behaviors in the way they exploit trust; for a fraudster to take your money, he must convince you he is worth the price. The feeling of getting scammed is a nasty concoction of monetary loss and crushing stupidity, the sense that you should have known better than to trust your predator – that maybe, even, you deserved it. As Heaney notes at the end of her piece, “these [white-collar scammers] are people who have too much: money, privilege, beauty, and access”. The only scammers who are able to amass “too much” must already possess some degree of privilege that signals others should trust them. As it turns out, the only degree of privilege needed is whiteness. (And beauty, if you’re a woman.)
The white-collar scammer profile is all too happy to report this. Many a scammer’s origin story delights in humbler beginnings: Bernie Madoff started his penny stock firm from $5000 he’d earned installing sprinklers and guarding lives at the local pool, Anna Delvey reinvented herself when she was working as a lowly magazine intern (admittedly, its own status marker), Elizabeth Holmes was born into a once-rich family that had fallen from their old heights. The white-collar scammer does not need much but whiteness and audacious ambition. This ambition, because it is rooted in whiteness, is often mistaken for genius. The word “genius” is almost always included in the white-collar scammer profile. But after spending enough time in the details of these cases, it becomes clear that none of these scammers are geniuses. At best, they are very good at not getting caught, which seems to indicate, if anything, a lack of appropriate fear for the consequences of their actions. This quality, like their desire for and capacity to gain “too much” without social or legal consequence, is an essentially white characteristic. White people are routinely excused for legal violations that get black and brown people thrown in jail, white people get paid more for performing the same jobs as black and brown people, and white people govern America at a greater ratio than they populate it. Whiteness is audacious by its very nature, an assertion of superiority where there is nothing but skin tone.
Heaney writes that another feeling follows schadenfreude when she reads about white-collar scammers: jealousy. “What we like about stories about scammers, I think, is born of the place where envy meets outrage: It’s incredibly unfair, and definitely evil, but also, why didn’t I think of that?”
I do not think that Heaney is alone in her jealousy for these scammers, but I also think there are quite a few Americans who read these stories and do not think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” They know why they didn’t think to scam thousands of people out of millions of dollars. It did not occur to them because they do not live in a white, consequence-free reality, like Heaney and I do. While white-collar scam stories are fascinating because they expose just how high the ceiling is on what whiteness can acquire. They are also, for this same reason, horrifying.
Consider the recent sentences of Tessicar Jumpp and Paul Manafort. Jumpp, a Jamaican woman, ran a lottery scam that fooled victims out of $385,000. The judge sentenced Jumpp to six years in prison. More strikingly, the public sentenced Jumpp to nonexistence. Jumpp, a black white-collar scammer born into poverty (whose crime is arguably as impressive as, though smaller-scaled than Fyre Festival or Theranos) has only crossed my radar due to her commonality with Paul Manafort, noticed in a recent Daily Beast article. While the two committed similar crimes and received the same judge, Paul Manafort was sentenced to less than four years, an event that has received national coverage. Manafort’s scamming has earned him celebrity status with little penalty; Jumpp’s scamming has earned her penalty without celebrity status, and comparison to Paul Manafort.
Consider also, Jussie Smollett. Smollett’s crime possesses all of the audacious ambition and fame of a white-collar celebrity scammer, yet his crime is uniquely the domain of a non-white (or otherwise marginalized) person. While Smollett intended to steal only the world’s sympathies, rather than real money, he is, in some ways, like Jumpp—a black white-collar scammer. Unlike Jumpp, Smollett’s case has received loads of attention, garnering shame from celebrities and media mouthpieces alike. I would argue that Smollett has received more shame than Billy McFarland or Anna Delvey or Elizabeth Holmes, that something about Smollett’s crime strikes the public as even worse. To many white people, Smollett’s crime feels particularly painful because it is evidence that hate crimes are a way of exploiting white guilt. To others, Smollett’s crime feels particularly painful because he manipulated the public’s nascent trust in marginalized people, reminding us how recent and tenuous this trust really is. Smollett’s radical attempt to gather public sympathy has completely disgraced his celebrity, whereas Billy McFarland’s actual million-dollar fraud has made him into a star. The response to both men has revealed our cultural expectations of who deserves scammer fame: who is a “genius”, and who is a blight on history.
My personal favorite scammer is Joanne the Scammer, the social media personality of Branden Miller. As Joanne, Branden wears a cheap blonde wig, fur coat, and pearls, and cries lavishly about his “Caucasian home”. The humor of Joanne comes from how poorly she is play-acted: Miller’s hairline sticks out from the wig’s strands, his coat is askew, and he tells us his home is “Caucasian” with an openness about race rarely found in white homes. Miller is black and Puerto Rican himself, a fact he did not know until he was seventeen, when his white parents revealed to him that he was adopted. Years after the possibility of an audacious white reality was taken from Miller, he dreamt up Joanne, a brown man who can shapeshift the way white women can – into classrooms, boardrooms, and expensive Caucasian homes. Joanne pretends to live the white reality that Miller cannot. She is funny because she fails. The audience can safely laugh at Joanne because she poses no threat of scamming us. We would never trust her enough to let that happen – she is not a white woman, but a brown man. When we laugh at Joanne we are laughing at our own racism, at the inherent ridiculousness of a non-white white-collar scammer in a culture that places its trust in whiteness. A white-collar scam by a non-white person, on the other hand, is just a hilarious joke.