White Criminals as Celebrities?

There seem to be a number of white criminals in the news just in these last few days, but no mainstream media analysts or politicians are discussing the “problem of white crime” these days.

There is the “image makeover” of the serial murderer, David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”), who killed six people and injured seven others. Now serving a 25-year-to-life sentence, he has attracted numerous, apparently mostly white, friends:

from outside prison who, though they deplore his murderous past, have become friends, acquaintances and in some instances a kind of ad hoc set of assistants. This circle of admirers, to a great degree, is made up of evangelical Christians, including a Town and Village Courts judge in upstate New York and a financial adviser in Manhattan, who have been moved by Mr. Berkowitz’s story of becoming a born-again Christian 23 years ago, and many of them have sought to publicize his account of redemption.

How many people of color put into prisons, including many who are eventually shown to be innocent or become converted, get this kind of attention and favorable public support?

Perhaps the most unusual of these white criminals is the “barefoot burglar,” Colton Harris-Moore, of Washington state. He has been on the run from the police over two years because of numerous burglaries, car, boat, and airplane thefts:

After fleeing a Washington halfway house in 2008, his run from the law took him across the country, including an alleged 1,000-mile flight from Indiana to Florida in a stolen airplane.

As one of our readers (thanks, Benjamin)–who pointed this story out to us—has noted: white privilege is written all over this story. How did he go so long and do so much criminal activity without being discovered? White privilege.

Now he is a celebrity with no fewer than 58,000 fans on his Facebook page. His story is being treated as a “human interest” story by the media and lots of Americans:

Moore’s story has captured the interest of tens of thousands on, many of them now offering encouragement, praise and advice. He’s also got a fan page on the Internet, which sells T-shirts with his face on them and is taking donations for a Colton Harris-Moore defense fund. . . . it’s easy to see why Harris-Moore, a tall, lanky, regular-looking kid, has garnered so much attention. While it’s yet to be seen how he will fare in court, there’s doubtless a book/movie deal in store somewhere down the line.

Apparently, a relative is lining up such a deal now. “Regular-looking kid” also seems to be code for “white kid” in some mainstream media analyses. Youth of color almost never get this kind of treatment. Black and Latino teenagers routinely get picked up and sent away to prison for many years for doing much less in the way of law violations than this young white man.

How often do youth of color get such beneficial mainstream media coverage and widespread sympathy for their exploits and difficult home conditions? Instead, as the experienced legal scholar and prisons specialist Michelle Alexander shows, they have gotten a new institutionalized Jim Crow prison system designed to imprison many youth of color for law violations that many similar white law violators do not even go to prison for.


  1. Will

    It’s funny; I was about to blog about this same thing lol.

    Eveything written here is true. I too saw white privilege in the “Barefoot Bandit” story. I asked myself if it were a black man, he would not have gotten this celebrity status. He would be painted as the worse man ever born, and would be hunted down. Since this guy is white, he’s a hero, a popular online hero.

    I see no sense in this story or treatment, but white privilege doesn’t have to make sense. It’s always about making whites appear in a positive light even if or when they screw up.

  2. No1KState

    It is disturbing the positive sort of response white criminals receive. And especially when, like you mention, nothing is said about the problem of white crime.

    Not only do people of color face a Jim Crow prison system, but our cause celebres are usually either people on death row still claim innocence such as a case in Georgia, or the Curtis Flowers situation in Mississippi. There’re also some political prisoners of sorts from the 60s and 70s.

    Then there’re the cases like Oscar Grant and Sean Bell, the Jena 6. Oh! and lets not forget the systematic barring of blacks from jury duty.

    If we just look at the situation for African Americans, there can be no deny that we live in some sort of oppression, however soft and implicit. But when you compare the black experience to white privilege, racism in America becomes overwhelming.

  3. ThirtyNine4Ever

    I’m not even one that picks up on racial things very easily and I could tell from the first paragraph I read on that “barefoot” kid that it was some of the most racially biased support for a criminal I have seen. It’s about as annoying as that John Walker Lindh case where I’m sure if he wasn’t a rich white kid he would have been stripped of his citizenship and tortured in some secret jail somewhere never to see the light of day again instead of getting 20 in the US.
    David Berkowitz’s attention comes from the fact that these people see him as an evil jew who, because of his non-christian upbringing did some horrible acts, but now he has been saved and is generally a good person. The fact that he is white makes all the difference of course because most white evengelical christians are color-blind in the fact that they see the world as only white and white.


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