Bad apples vs. bad genes: The way we talk about corruption is racist

If we’ve learned anything from Bob Menendez’s alleged willingness to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from the Egyptian government, it’s that when gross corruption occurs in the United States, it’s perceived as a case of “bad apples” rather than systemic failure. In the Global South, however, corruption is viewed not just as systemic failures, but as genetic ones. 

This racist narrative argues that those who aren’t from the West aren’t capable of governing ethically and democratically. Take, for example, former president Donald Trump’s continuous verbal attacks on Puerto Rico, which according to him is “one of the most corrupt places on earth.” Amid calls from people in Puerto Rico in 2019 for the governor to resign due to, among many things, corruption and mishandling of hurricane relief funding, Trump blamed Puerto Rican leaders for being “grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA.” 

According to Dr. Jose Atiles, a professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this narrative about corruption on the island has been “instrumentalized by the US federal government to deny access to disaster relief funds and impose additional oversights and legal limitations on the autonomy of PR’s government.” Such racism blames Puerto Ricans for their suffering. Rather than truly serving people in Puerto Rico and supporting their efforts to see reforms and justice, Trump only exacerbated the notion that even a U.S. territory could not function without Washington’s guidance.

Likewise, conversations about corruption across the African continent characterize “corruption” as disease-like, using metaphors like “epidemic” and “virus,” argues Dr. Gabriel O. Apata. He points to an article on corruption in Nigeria in which two academics write, “Corruption is so common in Nigeria that there can hardly be any new perspective and approach to it. In fact, corruption is so pervasive in that country that it would be nearly correct to opine that it is a way of life.” Dr. Aparta asks, “But why does corruption appear to be a particularly African problem in a way that it appears not to be, in other places?” 

These racist narratives about corruption in Puerto Rico and Nigeria imply that corruption is inherently linked to a certain race. They imply that people in these countries need to be disciplined by Western institutions, whether through democracy programs or punitive measures such as halting aid (as was the case when the U.S. recently stopped food assistance to Ethiopia in reaction to corruption, which only punished the country’s most vulnerable).  

The hypocrisy is extraordinarily clear since Western leaders – particularly in the U.S. – are not immune to corruption scandals. Menendez sits alongside numerous American leaders including Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Ken Paxton, whose corrupt tendencies put profits (or rather, alleged bribes) over people impacted by U.S. policy.  “Corruption is about as American as apple pie,” Belén Fernandez wrote in her recent piece on the legacies of bribery in U.S. leadership. 

With its seemingly fictionalized details, Menendez’s most recent scandal exemplifies the depth of failures in the U.S. system to protect policymaking. Investigators found almost half a million dollars of cash stuffed in places like clothing, envelopes, and closets, gold bars accompanied by a web search for “how much is one kilo of gold worth,” and at least one luxury vehicle — all these alleged bribes from a foreign government for Menendez to leverage his position as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The level of corruption was sobering: a U.S. senator was allegedly selling U.S. foreign policy — and the lives impacted by that policy — for personal gain. Yet reaction has been narrowly targeted at Menendez, with more than half of U.S. senators calling for his resignation, without broader reflections on the systematic failures in the U.S. enabling politicians’ abuse of power. 

These are not features of a political and economic system free from corruption. Menendez’s case, and those of his fellow corrupt U.S. politicians and policymakers, demand structural scrutiny. Yet faith in Western systems pervades, while non-Western regions are further hit with racism.

It’s also not random that most regions in the Global South struggling with systemic corruption have a history of colonialism and Western intervention. Many countries inherited weak regulatory infrastructures from colonialism, which to this day multinational corporations exploit to enforce profits. And the corruption of Western-backed leaders during and after colonialism has been long tolerated. For example, former Indonesian dictator Mohamed Suharto, whom the U.S. supported amid his brutal coup attempt and anti-communist purge, institutionalized corruption to a large scale — stealing up to $35 billion dollars from the Indonesian people. But the U.S. stayed quiet.

The true victims of corruption are those who have been betrayed by their leaders, whether through rigged policymaking to benefit another government or through theft of resources. We must address corruption not as a solely individual act absent of systemic failures, nor as a racial limitation, but rather, as the structures and practices systemically deployed to empower private actors at the expense of people worldwide


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