When you are white in America, anything is possible….

Last week, I attended the American Society of Criminology annual meetings. (Mark Kleiman, Johann Koehler, Keith Humphreys, and others were also in attendance.) My friend Peter Reuter and I got bored and decided to take a walk. Not far from the conference, we encountered the Moscone convention center. A door was propped open. So we went inside. We spotted some sort of football-field-size convention hall at the bottom of a long escalator.

We went inside, where we encountered people setting up for a big auto show. There were maybe one hundred Porsches, Ferraris, and other fancy sports cars, classic cars from the 1930s, and more. We strolled around for about thirty minutes, taking pictures among the people polishing the cars. It was a very pleasant self-service private session at an upcoming auto show of some kind.


We wore our ASC conference badges, which of course had nothing to do with whatever everyone else was wearing around us who were actually supposed to be there.

We left the same way we came in. No one gave us a second look. Maybe they would have given us one of the cars, if we had only asked for the keys.

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Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

6 thoughts on “When you are white in America, anything is possible….”

  1. There's a story – maybe an urban legend, as it's so pat – that the highest rates of loss in libraries are from the Theology section. Is the same told of Criminology?

    It sounds as if a well-organized gang could fairly easily have got away with $10m worth of status cars. The thieves' problem, as with art, is fencing them. The only practical way of cashing in would be to ransom them back through the insurance companies. The companies would hold the high ground in the negotiations, as storage costs for cars and risks of discovery are much higher than for paintings. Still. you would think that 10c on the $ for a $400,000 Lamborghini would be tempting. Any expert opinion from commenters on the going rate?

  2. I watched a Nightline episode last night about a white man who has admitted to shoplifting millions of dollars worth of merchandise in all 50 states. He was sentenced to two years in jail in Florida when he was finally caught

    I thought of Michael Brown and his cigarillos.

  3. At slightly lower levels, this kind of thing is done to order, so the vehicles are effectively pre-fenced.

    But what this does for me is make me rethink the social-engineering lessons I got from the various hackers I've interviewed over the years. All of the "wear a badge" and "look like you know where you're going" rules pale compared to "be a white guy". (Although in SF I bet you could be an asian guy, or you could be a darker-skinned guy as long as you were wearing some kind of uniform…)

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