V. Perceptions of Crime as a Lower-Class Phenomenon
Perceptually speaking, there appears to be a consensus among a large segment of the U.S. population that crime is largely the product of the behavior of lower-class populations.
If the relationship between social class and crime is not supported by research, why does the perception persist? In his seminal work concerning the social reality of crime, Richard Quinney (1970) noted that certain forms of crimes are embedded in the psyche of the American people; that is, when we think about crime, we tend to think of it in very narrow terms, often omitting the most prevalent crimes and, often, the people who cause the most harm. We tend to envision street crimes, such as murder, robbery, burglary, and assault, while rarely conceiving of white-collar, corporate, and state-sponsored crimes. Because street crime is often more likely to be carried out by people in the lower classes, and crimes of the elite—which generally do not occupy the public consciousness—are committed almost universally by people with economic, political, and social power, the theory of the social reality of crime neatly associates criminality with those on the lower rungs of the economic and social ladder. This remains true even in the face of the well-documented data demonstrating that crimes committed by the powerful cost the U.S. population more, both in terms of monetary and physical costs. Quinney (1977) suggested that this is so because the definition of what constitutes a crime is developed by those with economic, political, and social power and according to their own interests, whereas individuals without such power are more likely to have their activities defined as criminal.
Explanations for why the American public tends to have such a limited conception of crime are plentiful. The way crime is measured sheds light on one way that people obtain a narrow definition. There are three general methods used to measure crime: (1) official statistics, (2) victimization surveys, and (3) self-report studies. The last two methods measure various aspects of victimization and self-reported criminal behavior, and the first usually involves the Uniform Crime Reports, which relies on crimes known to the police to provide us with estimated crime rates. A crime become known to the police either because an officer discovers it or, more likely, because someone reports it to the police. As long as the police make a report of the crime, it is available to be counted and used in calculating crime rates. The caveat to this is that, in creating an overall crime rate, the Uniform Crime Report measures only eight offenses: (1) murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, (2) forcible rape, (3) robbery, (4) aggravated assault, (5) burglary, larceny–theft, (6) motor vehicle theft, (7) simple assault, and (8) arson. The first four are violent offenses, and the second four are property offenses. Because these offenses deal mostly with street crime, which the poor are more likely to commit, and omit a large number of offenses, many of which those in the upper economic strata are likely to commit, crime rates provide a skewed picture of crime.
Of course, news and entertainment media have also worked to present a picture of crime and victimization that is not necessarily rooted in reality. Crime has become a prominent theme in media content. One of the most noticeable aspects of media coverage of crime is that it tends to focus on the rarest of crimes. Images of relatively high-profile rapes, murders, and robberies are displayed on television screens throughout the day, throughout the country. Local newspapers and news shows typically adhere to the adage “If it bleeds, it leads.” News stories about the deviant and illegal practices of political, economic, and social elites receive no comparable attention unless they occur on a very large scale, as was the case with the collapse of companies such as Enron and WorldCom because of financial crimes.
However, media practices are not a complete explanation. As social actors, people play a role in, if not creating, then surely allowing the emergence and sustainability of a distorted image of crime. Stories about violent and gruesome crimes tend to capture public interest. This interest is part of the reason that the newspaper articles we read, and the news, movies, and TV shows we watch are dominated by crime stories. Indeed, some analysts argue that the media are simply responding to the desires of the public. They are a business and, like all businesses, their primary goal is to increase market share, advertising income, and profits. Therefore, if the public did not consume what the media presented, then the media would have to change what they offer or go out of business.
Public perceptions of crime are also a product of ideology. Many of our ideas about crime and criminality are rooted in socialization and personal circumstances. Shaped by social background, religious principles, and political preferences, many people develop strong ideas about the causes and cures of criminal behavior relatively early in life. The extent to which people accept the common view of crime as a lower-class phenomenon is due in part to the fact that these views coincide nicely with the dominant rhetoric of religious, economic, and political leaders about the relationships among sin, poverty, and crime.
Finally, criminologists are complicit in creating an inaccurate depiction of crime. Criminology has historically focused almost exclusively on street crime in theoretical development and empirical research; that is, criminologists have devoted far more attention to describing and explaining crimes such as murder, burglary, robbery, and drug use than to white-collar offenses such as securities fraud, illegal price fixing, or other forms of elite deviance. It is only recently that a significant number of criminologists have started to empirically examine crimes of the elite.